The Big Picture

Many of us working to fight climate change had been feeling optimistic last week as world leaders gathered in Marrakech, Morocco for the United Nations Climate Conference (COP22). Then Donald Trump, an avowed climate skeptic, was elected president. Among his many ominous campaign promises was his stated intention to “cancel” the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement, which came into force just days before his election.

Rainforest Alliance President Nigel Sizer with a coffee farmer in Indonesia

Rainforest Alliance President Nigel Sizer with a coffee farmer in Indonesia

As a young man growing up in England, I was an avid fan of Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which featured a cover with advice given to the protagonist Arthur Dent; Don’t Panic! Today we can heed that same sage advice if we also incorporate a call to action. Let’s not panic, but let’s also resolve to keep moving forward in the fight against climate change.

Reasons to not panic: Many of the promises Donald Trump made on the campaign trail were lacking in facts and simply won’t be possible to implement. Some of his more extreme measures may not even be possible within the confines of a constitutional republic. And, just as the courts slowed down Obama’s efforts on climate change, the same courts can be used as a counterbalance to Trump’s initiatives.

I believe most Americans want to keep our seat at the climate table—at least 70% of Americans recognize the threats posed by climate change. The science is too compelling, and the majority of us understand the need for immediate action. As Secretary of State John Kerry recently said, “Climate change is real...and the longer we wait, the harder the problem will be to solve.”

Nongovernmental organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance have been effectively and consistently addressing some of the most critical environmental challenges around the world for decades.  And even though we are justifiably cynical of a president-elect who does not believe in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, we have not lost hope. We have survived other environmentally reckless administrations and we know from experience that we can weather the storm-and that the pendulum will swing back with a vengeance.

Farmer Juan Jiménez with coffee seedlings

Farmer Juan Jiménez with coffee seedlings

Finally, although the commitments in the Paris Agreement are voluntary, there is enormous international diplomatic and economic pressure to follow through on them. And even if Trump finds a way to make good on his threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, it could take years to do so. And a new president could reinstate our participation in his wake.

Yet staying calm does not mean we should ignore the reality that a lot of damage can be done in four years. Trump’s appointment of climate skeptic Myron Ebell to lead his EPA transition team during the hottest year on record for Planet Earth is dismaying, to say the least. It is safe to bet Ebell will encourage policy and legislation that slashes funding for climate change efforts and renewable energy. While Trump may not be able to undermine US climate policy overnight, he can certainly undermine achievements the US has made under President Obama. So our refusal to panic must be accompanied by intensified efforts to fight climate change.

The battleground may have shifted, but our mission and the big picture remain the same. We must sharpen our strategies and strengthen our tactics to leverage the growing resolve to address climate change, reverse tropical forest loss, and transition to sustainable energy and farming. The world will struggle without the US government as a partner in these efforts, but civil society will carry forward the work nonetheless.

A Rainforest Alliance climate educator in Ghana demonstrates how to measure carbon stored in trees

A Rainforest Alliance climate educator in Ghana demonstrates how to measure carbon stored in trees

Our imperative is to act on behalf of the planet and actively oppose political measures that will further endanger natural resources and human lives. We must not be afraid to make our voices heard to our elected representatives and on the streets in peaceful, passionate protests.

Now is not the time for despair or complacency. Now is the time for the sustainability community to band together and mobilize everyone, from the companies that have made commitments to source sustainably, reduce emissions, and get deforestation out of their supply chains to consumers demanding transformation in how goods are produced.

We cannot yet know how a Trump presidency will affect climate policy. But we have always known that fighting climate change requires a sea change in business and consumer action. Our election mandate is clear: commit to intensified collective actions, big and small. Despite this turn in the road, we must fortify ourselves with renewed vigor to the urgent task at hand.



2016 was the hottest year on record. Will 2017 be even warmer?