Look no further than Syria’s agony to gauge the likely effect on the planet if Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump were able to put his energy and environmental plan into effect. Trump’s proposals are for the United States but they would affect everyone everywhere, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
There are two reasons for this: The United States is the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases but Trump’s America would carry on polluting, heedless of climate change obligations.
And the MENA region, one of the most water-scarce in the world, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia issued a report predicting that climate change could make sections of the region uninhabitable by the middle of the century.
But here is the biggest reason that Trump’s environmentally reckless plan matters: We share this planet and must jointly care for it, if for no other reason than self-preservation.
The United States’ role is key. For all the talk of China’s rising might, the United States is the world’s only superpower. Unquestioned military, economic and cultural dominance mean that America must serve as consensus-builder, persuader and partial arbiter of international policy. Crucially, it must lead by example.
Trump’s May 26th speech showed no understanding of this unique role. Speaking at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, capital of oil-rich North Dakota, Trump announced his regressive agenda:
If he becomes president, he would promote the production and consumption of fossil fuels and brook no limits for the right of US companies to pollute. He would pull the United States out of the UN global climate accord, axe US funding for UN programmes related to climate change and approve the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, a potentially environmentally unsound project that would run from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, across the United States to the Texas Gulf Coast.
What might any of this mean in real terms?
Let’s go back to Syria, which has been tearing itself apart for five years.
It is a dismal truth that the uprising that sparked the civil war and was so tragically mishandled in 2011 by Syrian President Bashar Assad was at least partly caused by drought. For years, dry spells grew longer, laying waste to the fields and livelihoods of people in the so-called Fertile Crescent. That is the arc of agriculturally productive land that curves from the Arabian Gulf through southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt.
The drought began in the winter of 2006 and eventually caused 1.5 million people to migrate to cities, creating social conflict and then civil war.
The other, still more dismal reality is that the Syrian drought was not strictly an act of God. It was probably man-made or, at least, expertly assisted by one man, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father.
As president, Hafez Assad initiated policies to increase agricultural production despite growing water scarcity and frequent droughts. This led to the unsustainable depletion of groundwater and the drying of a key river in the north-east. By 2005, five years into Bashar Assad’s reign, there were ham-fisted attempts to stem the rate at which groundwater was being depleted. It was too late and the drought recurred, causing massive crop failure in Syria’s north-eastern breadbasket.
Trump’s easy dismissal of environmental protection measures raises the prospect, if he were elected president, of many other Syrias. Many parts of the world will be hotter, drier, poorer, hungrier, thirstier and susceptible to conflict and mass migration. Especially in the MENA region, home to 500 million people and with a fast-growing population to feed.
By 2030, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 58% of the renewable water resources in the MENA region will be used for food production, which means that efficiency and conservation of water and other resources really will be a matter of life and death. This will be a challenge but one that can be faced with impeccable planning, iron discipline and international cooperation.
This is where Trump’s wild and dangerous talk about the United States’ selfish right to consume the planet’s resources comes in. It may be an overstatement that the occupant of the Oval Office can affect the planet’s good health and well-being, but if the United States reneged on its climate change obligations, the fragile international consensus on action could shatter.
The Paris agreement, the first major international effort to address climate change and move towards cleaner energy sources, will itself be endangered because other countries will see little reason to sign something rejected by Trump on behalf of the United States. The agreement opened for country signatures on Earth Day in April. China, the biggest polluter, has signed but could easily recant if Trump’s America withdrew. Watch for others to follow.
So yes, Trump would assuredly make his campaign slogan true. He would make America great. A great threat to the planet.