By Laurie Goering
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Donald Trump's administration, heavy with fossil fuel industry backers, could cause major damage to efforts to deal with climate change through measures such as cutting access to satellite data for weather forecasting and climate research, scientists warned Monday.
But the president-elect may prove more pragmatic than some of his Republican counter-parts on the politically charged issue of climate change, particularly if a business and security case can be made for acting on it, they predicted.
It also appears increasingly unlikely he will pull the United States out of major international bodies dealing with climate change, though he may cut funding for them, the scientists said.
That could slow global efforts to deal with the problem, though help the United States avoid widespread condemnation for a pull-out.
For instance, the United States could renege on delivering much of the $3 billion it promised to the Green Climate Fund to help poorer nations develop cleanly and cope with climate impacts, said Joanna Haigh, an atmospheric physicist and co-director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London.
It could also stop paying 40 percent of the cash needed to support the scientist-led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as it has done so far, she said.
But the incoming White House team is showing increasing indications that they will keep the United States as part of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which came into effect in November, and the broader U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Haigh said.
"Trump if anything is a pragmatist, not an idealist," Haigh said.
Myles Allen, a geosystems scientist at the University of Oxford, noted that "the reality is rather more interesting" than the often black-and-white views painted by climate experts of the incoming administration.
"It's clear they actually accept a great deal more of the science on the human impact on climate change than they're prepared to let on," he said.
Even ExxonMobil, the company once run by Trump's expected Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has moved to shore up some of its installations against climate-related sea level rise while providing funds to groups that have raised doubts about the validity of climate change, Haigh said.
As climate change impacts – including sea level rise and worsening storms, floods, and droughts – continue to strengthen, "the question is how long the Republican Party as a whole is going to want to be seen simply as saying the climate is not changing, we think it's a hoax," said Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.
"Increasing numbers of Republicans are clearly uncomfortable with that," she said. "If voters find they are fed a position leaders don't believe in, that will become increasingly untenable," she predicted.
If Trump could be persuaded that adopting more renewable energy represents a solid way of creating U.S. jobs and helping businesses, he might eventually be more helpful on climate action than expected, she said.
"Trump has a pragmatic approach to addressing the issues in front of him. If he can be nudged or pressured to address climate change ... then we could go further than the previous administration" in addressing the problem, she predicted.
"He's not as idealistic as some of the climate change deniers are. He's changed his mind on some topics so far," she said.
One area where the incoming U.S. administration could cause huge damage, the scientists warned, is by cutting funding for agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which provides weather and climate data from its satellite network to many agencies around the world.
Such data is "the backbone" of scientific research which, if it is not saved and archived, could leave gaps that will make understanding and preparing for future climate impacts more difficult, Haigh said.
Already, scientists are receiving reports that "guerrilla" archiving – storing the data on independent servers – is going on in the face of the funding threat to the data, she said.
The impression that the world's second biggest climate polluter is about to back away from global leadership on climate change also threatens to derail the kind of global ambition needed to hold the line on the problem, the scientists said.
"It's hard to imagine the rest of the world will do everything they need to do if the United States does nothing," Le Quere said.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Alex Whiting; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)