The Cable

Obama Just Quietly Authored a Wonky Study on Climate Change in Case Donald Trump Reads Those Things

Hoping to cement his climate legacy, Obama appeals to Trump the businessman.


On Monday, Science published a new policy study titled, “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy.” The study’s author says curbing greenhouse gas emissions no longer has to come at the cost of economic growth, and suggests being green is good for business.

The study’s author is U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama published the new, footnote-laden study in a wonky journal for scientists. But his intended audience could be his successor, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, and his coterie of cabinet picks from the world of fossil fuels.

On the campaign trail, Trump, an avid climate change skeptic, said Obama and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s climate policies were job killers. He pledged to breathe life back into the ailing coal and oil industries to boost the country’s economic growth. Republicans in Congress have for years fought action on climate change on the grounds that it would stunt economic growth. They use the same arguments against Obama administration policies meant to clean up the power sector.

Trump also said he would “cancel” the landmark Paris climate change pact, an international agreement to dramatically curb global emissions that Obama touted as a hallmark legacy of his presidency.

Apparently Obama’s State of the Union warning that climate change was the “greatest threat to future generations” didn’t resonate with the president-elect, who called climate change “an expensive hoax” and “bullshit” in the past.

So Obama is trying a different tack; if raising the alarm bells on its danger didn’t work, maybe an economic argument will work. In Science, Obama says economic growth can continue hand-in-hand with falling emissions. Energy sector carbon emissions fell by 9.5 percent from 2008 to 2015, writes Obama, while the U.S. economy grew by 10 percent in the same timeframe.

Part of that was due to the fracking revolution, which unleashed lots of cleaner-burning natural gas that pushed coal out of power plants. Part was due to the fact that the United States was emerging from the fiscal crisis and recession, which hammered demand for electricity and thus meant lower emissions.

“This ‘decoupling’ of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living,” Obama writes. He also warns that ignoring the damaging impacts of global climate change will be hazardous to U.S. economic health. “Estimates of the economic damages from warming of 4°C over preindustrial levels range from 1% to 5% of global GDP each year by 2100,” he writes, “which could lead to lost U.S. federal revenue of roughly $340 billion to $690 billion annually.”

Trump will chart his own policy course, as Obama notes in the conclusion of the study, vaguely referring to the president-elect’s completely opposing viewpoint on climate change. But he reiterated his common warning on climate change, concluding, “We have long known, on the basis of a massive scientific record, that the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change is real and cannot be ignored.”

It’s entirely possible that Trump may not be reading every (or indeed any) issue of Science in his Trump Tower suite. But perhaps Obama is hoping that someone — anyone — close to the president-elect does, and that the new reality that tackling climate change is not at odds with economic growth might just get through.

Photo credit: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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