Trump: Just what the climate doctor ordered?

March 2, 2017

In a perverse sense, the Trump administration might be just the bitter medicine that’s needed to make global climate change efforts more effective.

Before you turn away in disgust, let me make clear that I consider myself a South Asian green socialist. Over the last three decades I have worked to promote renewables such as hydropower, biogas, and solar. Both my home and my office have long since “gone solar.” I have been pilloried by my foes as an “activist environmentalist”—a politically pejorative term in much of the Global South.

When the former chief executive of a multinational petroleum company becomes the top US diplomat—and a lawyer who has repeatedly sued the US Environmental Protection Agency becomes the head of that same agency—I consider these developments to be about as close to ecological apocalypse as any environmentalist can imagine.

So where do I perceive a silver lining in the gloom that surrounds the US election (and the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote)? In the possibility that Trump’s presidency will invigorate environmental activism in the Global North—which in turn might improve foreign-aid–based endeavors to promote environment-friendly development in the Global South, specifically Nepal.

No country can hope by itself to solve “wicked” problems like climate change. These problems require concerted international cooperation—and in Nepal, solutions will have to involve sagacious foreign aid and international development agencies. Over the last couple of decades, however, these agencies have often lost their way in procedural fetishism and have become increasingly irrelevant to realities on the ground. My colleague Sudhindra Sharma has analyzed six decades of foreign aid in Nepal and has shown that every decade saw a major shift in aid philosophy. Import substitution was emphasized, then an export-led economy, then structural adjustments, then meeting basic needs, then poverty alleviation. The latest fad, in vogue since the start of this century, has been climate change. Almost every development activity today is forced to justify itself in terms of climate change adaptation—even activities such as protecting drinking water in remote villages, where the link to global warming is tenuous or non-existent.

A recent study investigated why springs across the Himalaya were drying up—and fueling outmigration to city slums. The knee-jerk supposition was that climate change was to blame, but the study found otherwise. The areas under study showed no significant downward trend in rainfall. Rather, other powerful drivers were responsible. Livestock numbers had declined, and thus buffalo wallowing ponds were contributing less to groundwater recharge. Farmers were shifting from dryland maize to water-intensive crops such as tomatoes. Most significantly, water was being over-pumped with powerful technologies such as electric motors and PVC pipes instead of the traditional hand-carried water pots and buckets. If these issues are not addressed by the time the effects of climate change do become more severe three or four decades from now, problems with village water supply will become more pronounced, if not catastrophic. Unfortunately, little or no climate money is now available for addressing concrete, present-day tasks such as safeguarding village water supply.

The bulk of climate funding is directed toward seminars, nebulous “policy impacts,” and reports in English that are not read by anyone who matters. Contractors and sub-contractors working for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) or the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development are practically forbidden to spend money on real grassroots mitigation measures; they have to work exclusively on adaptation and policy impacts.

A perverse example was Nepal’s presence at the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009. Nearly 600 Nepalis, according to various accounts, participated in the conference, including some eight government ministers. One could be forgiven for thinking that Nepalis were there in such force to showcase Nobel-deserving work in climate change—but it was nothing of the sort. The truth is that every foreign aid agency was conducting some climate change project or the other in almost every ministry (“gender and climate change,” “justice and climate change,” “education and climate change,” and so on). With lots of money still unspent, what better way for a nongovernmental organization to create the impression of policy impact than to take a government minister and his high officials off on a foreign junket?

It gets worse. Even with all the time, money, and expert resources that development agencies have directed toward climate change adaptation in the last dozen years—resulting in national plans of adaptation, local plans of adaptation, a national climate change action plan, and so forth—Nepal, far from heading toward some heavenly, climate-proofed future, is headed swiftly toward the hell of fossil fuel addiction. Nepal’s fossil fuel consumption has more than doubled over the last half-dozen years. And though the country is rich in hydropower, clean energy is in decline—more than half of the electricity Nepal consumes is supplied by dirty coal-fired plants in India’s state of Bihar.

In previous decades, Nepal was a major success story in bio-gas, having installed over 200,000 such plants across the country. In the last few years, that success has stalled and may even be going in reverse. Electric vehicles present a similarly sad story. A successful environmental campaign of the late 1990s displaced diesel-powered three-wheeled vehicles, which belched black fumes, from the streets of Kathmandu, and replaced them with electric models. But the petroleum-based industries—those involving cars, buses, petrol pumps, and petrol tankers—have used their money and policy clout to ensure that the electric vehicle industry is slowly strangled. The story is similar with ropeways—cable cars powered by hydroelectricity—which are a climate-friendly and mountain-friendly means of ferrying goods. But ropeways have been sidelined in Nepal’s official economic planning even as fragile Himalayan mountainsides are gouged to build unsustainable roads. It is a spree of construction that villagers suffering from subsequent landslides describe as “bulldozer terrorism.” USAID built a goods-carrying ropeway in 1964 west of Kathmandu. The European Union built one south of there in 1995. But neither organization has any institutional memory of those successes and neither has plans to repeat them. Built-in amnesia is after all a precondition for reinventing the bicycle if and when it becomes politically expedient to do so!

If this is the result of almost two decades of climate adaptation funding in a “least developed country” such as Nepal, why would any Southern environmentalist suffer angst because Donald Trump got elected president of the United States? How much worse can things get?

A few weeks ago, senior Nepali climate officials and activists, meeting under the aegis of Climate Action Network, concluded that both the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change and Agenda 2030 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals were “unfunded mandates”—which, given Nepal’s experience with the erstwhile Millennium Development Goals, promised no meaningful funding in the future, Trump or no Trump. The climate journey from Kyoto in 1997 to Paris in 2016 has primarily achieved the undoing of the idea that national responsibilities are “common but differentiated”—so how could developing countries bargain for better, more meaningful climate funding even if Hillary Clinton had been elected president?

Northern nongovernmental organizations—with a few exceptions, such as Oxfam and Greenpeace—are of no help either. Most are more preoccupied with raising funds to operate their own large outfits than with campaigning meaningfully for environmental sanity. Essentially, they have been tamed and domesticated. I remember an activist from the International Rivers Network ruefully telling me in 1999 that he wished Bill Clinton had lost the presidential election in 1992 and George H.W. Bush had won. Surprised, I asked him why. He told me that if Bush had won, it would have been clear who he was fighting against. As things stood, activists were told to soften their campaigns and not cause too much embarrassment because “now we have Al Gore in the White House”—and donors were discouraged from funding activists who were too aggressive.

There is a message here for the Trumpian times in which we live. If millions of women can stage an inspiring march for their rights, and if efforts to repeal Obamacare can be challenged at town hall meetings, perhaps the environmental activists of the North can stop primarily raising funds and instead turn out at town halls themselves or stage a million-environmentalist march of their own. If the environmental activists of the North wake up from their domesticated, activism-free, procedural slumber, Donald Trump will have been just what the doctor ordered for climate change, no matter how bitter the medicine might be. If activists don’t wake up, it makes no difference—to us in the Global South—who occupies the White House.