The Elephant in the Room: Donald Trump and Prospects for Climate Action

As I write this, it’s difficult not to look at the elephant in the room. That is, of course, Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts and what that means for the country’s—and the world’s—lurch toward November elections. While the MAGA-verse and their Republican supplicants line up behind Trump, the specter of a convicted felon occupying the White House is now a genuine possibility.

Does meaningful climate, energy, and environmental policy stand a chance with another Trump presidency? The quick answer is an unambiguous “NO.” But the more profound answer is more nuanced, and giving up is never a good response.

Climate Action: Countering Trump

However, given the limited progress made in fits and starts over the past 30+ years, a second Trump term could ignite a sustained and powerful catalyst for a significant social movement toward climate action.

Trump has already talked of disbanding the Interior Department, eviscerating the EPA, and hobbling NOAA. He will, once again, withdraw the country from the Paris Accord. It is Florida governor Ron Desantis’ “Don’t Say Climate Change” mentality writ large.

Could such fanaticism be just what the climate action movement needs? Indeed, a second Donald Trump presidency could be a powerful catalyst for a significant social movement toward climate action.

Climate advocacy groups, often galvanized by opposition, would likely intensify their efforts, drawing widespread support. Local governments and international actors could further counterbalance potential regression by accelerating their own climate initiatives.

Even more significantly, Trump could ignite a broader social movement that would challenge the entrenched power structures leading us toward catastrophe.

Saving Ourselves

A few weeks ago, I talked with Dana Fisher, a researcher, social scientist, and author of several books, including American Resistance in 2016 and her just-released book, Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action.

Fisher is the Director of the Center for Environment, Community, & Equity and a Professor in the School of International Service at American University. Her research focuses on democracy, civic engagement, activism, and climate politics.

Fisher argues that increasing climate shocks, which she refers to as “risk pivots,” will drive an “AnthroShift,” or the kind of substantive social, economic, and political change of the sort required.

“That’s where we get the apocalypse,” Fisher told me, “because basically the process through which I think social change is most likely given all of the powers pushing back against any change and wanting to maintain business as usual, which you and I have both observed over, you know, 30 years, given that we’re talking about needing climate shocks that are severe enough that it wakes up enough people to push back.

At that point, we’ll see enough people experiencing what we’re calling this risk pivot: this personal threat that motivates them to take action. It’s that experience that gets enough people pushing back that we might actually get the power to push back against fossil fuel interests.”

In her book American Resistance, Fisher documented the social mobilization in response to Trump’s first administration.

“Many people have asked me, in some ways, if we need to get to an AnthroShift and (if) we need there to be a mass mobilization, just in terms of getting people mobilized in the streets,” said Fisher. “A Donald Trump presidency would do it much more effectively than we have right now. Now, granted, it would be, it would be repressive, it would limit democracy, and it would be terrible for the climate.

“…there’s no question that there have been a lot of incremental successes from the Biden administration. I don’t want to discount them because they matter. It’s just not enough. It’s too little too late, which is not Biden’s fault, but it is what it is. And that’s where we are. And you know, he’s continuing an ‘all of the above energy strategy,’ which is problematic now because the clock is ticking.”

“I don’t really want to live through another Trump presidency, and I certainly don’t want to be here in DC for it, Fisher said. “But I can tell you that during a Republican administration of any sort, we see much more engagement, civic engagement on the left, and much more participation in protests on the left. And if that’s what we need, and there’s a lot of reason to believe that it is, that would initiate it and open up all of these opportunities faster. Yeah. But it would also, you know, burn down the planet faster, too, so…”

Are We Ready for an AnthroShift?

Make no mistake, I loathe the idea of a second Trump term. The damage to the country and the world would be devastating on so many levels. However, as Fisher argues in her book, after 30 years of international negotiations and a US climate policy that only became a reality through concessions for the fossil fuel industry, it seems clear that the approach isn’t working—certainly not within the time frame decades of delay now force upon us.

Fisher writes in Saving Ourselves, “When risk becomes so common that it is felt across society, the interrelations among the main actors—coming from the state, market,
and civil society sectors—shift substantially. The notion that risk can drive social change is consistent with the scholarly work on the risk society and reflexive modernization.”

In other words, when things get bad enough, things can change. We should ask ourselves how bad it needs to get before we take to the streets, literally or metaphorically, and finally take on the difficult task of saving ourselves from ourselves.

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Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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