Opinion

Climate Politics in the Trumpocene – Where to Now?

A unique opportunity to convene an in-depth discussion among experts and campaigners on the way forward for climate science, policy, law, and advocacy in the Trump era.

In February the Sydney Environment Institute and the Balanced Enterprise Research Network at the University of Sydney convened a workshop featuring the distinguished climate scientist Professor Michael Mann from Penn State University. Mann is well known both for his world-leading climate research and also for his highly effective advocacy on the frontline of climate politics in the US. He has been the lightning rod for attacks from those who oppose any policies to address the climate crisis but has stood his ground and become one of the most important global voices on this vital issue.

The workshop was one of a number of events and media engagements for Professor Mann during his visit to Australia, and brought together researchers and environmental campaigners to consider the future of climate politics in the ‘Trumpocene.’ With President Trump declaring that climate change is a hoax created by China, and with plans to abolish or eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency, to abolish President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and UN Framework Convention on climate change, this is a brave new world for climate politics. It is a crucial and disruptive moment in the Anthropocene in which decisions made by the new US administration on climate policy will reverberate for decades and centuries to come.

Professor Mann’s visit was made possible by Professor Christopher Wright of the Sydney Business School, and the co-author with Professor Daniel Nyberg of recent ground breaking work on the inherent tensions between capitalism and environmental sustainability. Mann’s trip to Australia (his first) presented a unique opportunity to convene an in-depth discussion among experts and campaigners on the way forward for climate science, policy, law, and advocacy in the Trump era. The conversation among the presenters, discussants (Blair Palese from 350.org and myself) and the audience were ably facilitated by Tina Perinotto, publisher of The Fifth Estate, Australia’s leading business newspaper for the sustainable built environment (and not to be confused with the eponymous Assange biopic).

‘This is not a fight that we can lose’

In his remarks, Professor Mann highlighted the role that climate science can play in driving effective climate policies. Reflecting on his personal experience in standing up for climate science in the face of campaigns by the denial industry to silence him (including through vexatious litigation) Professor Mann detailed the ways he has defended public interest science and exposed the tactics used by his opponents. ‘This is not a fight that we can lose,’ explained Professor Mann, and the fight needs to be waged less on the ground of environmental protection and more on territory closer to home – the catastrophic impacts of climate change on societies and economies. Mann’s presentation, and the substantial body of work from which it drew revealed the tactics of the ‘all purpose deniers’ who have stood in the way of good policy-making on climate and other environmental and public health issues.

 ‘To continue to burn fossil fuels is insane’

Ian Dunlop, a Cambridge-educated engineer and former chair of the Australian Coal Association, explained the yawning chasm between the dire warnings from climate science and the denial and obfuscation in mainstream climate politics. Without rapid emissions cuts, the world is on track for +4°C of warming, an outcome which is incompatible with an organised global community. The carbon budget for restraining warming to no more than 1.5°C or 2.0°C (the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement) has been exceeded. There is, therefore, an urgent need for governments to be placed on a war footing to take emergency measures to avoid unmanageable temperature rises and to avert the risk of tipping points that could rapidly shift the planet to a new and dangerous climate state. At such an unprecedented time in history, in which carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have exceeded 405 parts per million, ‘to continue to burn fossil fuels is insane.’

‘We need to decouple hope from optimism’

Professor Lesley Head, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor and Head of the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne delved into the cultural and emotional dimensions of climate change. Major losses as a result of climate change are now inevitable (the Great Barrier Reef is all but certain to disappear in our lifetime) and this raises profound questions for human engagement with, and understanding of, the natural world and the human place in it. Optimism may no longer be a rational response in the Trumpocene, but that does not or should not mean that hope is impossible. Despair must not lead to paralysis, as torpor will only result in greater destruction, dislocation, and distress. Grief is now humanity’s companion, and day-to-day denial (in distinction from organised political denial) is a natural consequence of the climate crisis. It is understandable that bleak futures are too confronting for us to imagine. There are also opportunities in this rupture for generating new ideas, perspectives, and above all greater solidarity in order to imagine and create futures in which hope is a deliberative practice and not wishful thinking. In doing this, ‘we need to decouple hope from optimism.’

‘There is still so much left to fight for’

David Ritter, the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific and former lawyer and academic, brought the perspective of a seasoned environmental campaigner to his reflections on climate politics in the Trumpocene. In his rallying presentation, he offered thoughts on focussed tactics for driving positive change in climate politics such as taking the fight to individuals and organisations who are handmaidens to the fossil fuel industry and organised defence of core scientific and other institutions that are working for the common good. Ritter also reflected more broadly on the class dimensions of climate politics, the importance of politics as the central public space in which to deliberate upon and achieve collective solutions, the need for solidarity and support among all those engaged in the fight to maintain a habitable climate, and above all the vital need for hope to prevail, even in the darkest and most dangerous of times. ‘There is still so much left to fight for,’ and so long as just one unblemished coral remains intact on a devastated Great Barrier Reef, it is still worth our every effort to safeguard it.


Professor Tim Stephens is Professor of International Law and ARC Future Fellow, University of Sydney Law School. His ARC research is examining the implications of the Anthropocene for international environmental law.

Twitter: @ProfTimStephens

Image: Christopher Wright