Last month, Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th president of the United States. In the process, the margins of American political consciousness inched closer to the centre, which, in the days, months and years to come, may further push rational approaches to solving issues affecting society to the periphery.
While it is important to resist the intolerant platitudes of his bigoted campaign, and the dangerous intersection of United States foreign policy with Trump's private business interests, we cannot lag in our resistance of his administration's denial of the connection between human activity and climate change, because the problems we face are not looming in the future, and are not regional, national or continental—they are planetary and taking place now, at scales which we do not yet fully comprehend.
At this point in time, the issue is not whether human activity has an effect on the environment. Across the board, scientists are in agreement that our extraction and consumption of resources is connected to extreme weather events and patterns. This scientific consensus does not mean the matter is settled; instead it demonstrates the necessity of continuing to promote and expand intensive studies about the relationship between human activity and the environment.
Although the heads of states that signed the Paris Treaty retain power for only a few years, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that the implications of this agreement transcend national territory, and move far beyond the brevity of election cycles and campaign politicking.
Considering the threat Trump and his administration pose to enhancing the effects of climate change, much speculation about the shape of his environmental platform has come out. Despite Trump's recent comments that he will keep an "open mind" about climate change, his appointment to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell, a well-known climate change denialist, suggests his mind is already made up.
More importantly, his administration's call to strip NASA's Earth Science Research Program of its funding, because of its supposed "politicized" agenda, will prove to be an enduring mistake. This division is the only group in the United States focusing on the combination of natural and anthropological risks that can lead to planetary catastrophes. Although these types of events are exceedingly rare—think volcanic eruption or the collapse of a major dam—the interconnectedness of natural elements and anthropological infrastructures that make up our globalized world will only intensify the destruction these types of risks can have.
Officially, the mission of the Earth science division at NASA is to support "research activities that address the Earth system to characterize its properties on a broad range of spatial and temporal scales, to understand the naturally occurring and human-induced processes that drive them, and to improve our capability for predicting its future evolution." As we sit before the precipice of a new epoch in Earth's history known as the Anthropocene, this kind of focus is more important than ever.
The Anthropocene is a term that is used to describe a new epoch of geologic history in which human beings are the force driving the transformation of earth systems. This idea stresses that the relationship between anthropological creations, like megacities, and their link to natural resources, has created a new globalised ecosystem. If we thus want to curb the effects of climate change, we need to realise that the planet future generations will inherit, will be one that we make. Scientific bodies like the Earth science division at NASA will play a crucial part in developing just what this development means.
Whether it is useful to think about the significance of entering a new geologic epoch or not, the Anthropocene is a viable frame and concept for grappling with the idea that the natural and the anthropological have become increasingly merged; that policy penetrates the outer limits of the atmosphere and the deepest depths of the ocean; and that the consequences of our activity in the present have an enduring impact on the long-term stability of the planet, and an immediate impact on the lives of billions of people—particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
An additional promise of Trump's environmental platform that will have significant repercussions for the globalised ecosystem, is to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, a landmark piece of international legislation signed in 2015 that seeks to resolve the worsening effects of climate change through carbon emission caps, and by creating a global temperature threshold. Although this document is not perfect and may in fact have come too late to effect change, it represents the beginnings of the nations of this world coming together and arriving at resolutions for the problem of environmental sustainability that underpins the foundations of all societies.
Although the heads of states that signed the Paris Treaty retain power for only a few years, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that the implications of this agreement transcend national territory, and move far beyond the brevity of election cycles and campaign politicking. This consensus signals a growing awareness of the planetary threat posed by climate change. If Trump were able to successfully pull the United States out of this agreement, and expand the use of coal by invoking American exceptionalism at the expense of the long-term stability of the planet, it would be an illustration of the inequalities of climate change and energy consumption: that although human beings share planet earth, we do not equally share its resources or the consequences of climate change.
With the election of Trump, it should be clear to us all that we do indeed live in a world of our own making, in which facts about the complexities of carbon emissions, the acidification of the oceans, melting glaciers, prolonged droughts and extreme weather events are thrown into the dustbin of politicking partisanship. Although we should be careful of aligning the fate of the planet with one individual, we must continue to promote and expand research that seeks to make sense of the planetary effects of climate change on our globalised ecosystem.