A guiding principle of modern democracy holds that a system of checks and balances helps prevent any single person or faction from making radical changes to the existing order. That the wheels of legislation move slowly, and recourse is available through courts or other branches of government, may be a hair-pulling reality for those trying to bring about change. But it is also the best protection to preserve that change once it has been achieved. Needless to say, supporters of President Barack Obama are counting on such institutional brakes as they look ahead to a Donald Trump presidency.

And yet, forces more powerful than democratic institutions exist — like the laws of physics! Trump’s opponents may (or may not) remember the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that it is ultimately easier to destroy than to create. Translate that scientific proposition to any number of Trump campaign promises, with the backing a Republican Congress, and we can see how quickly the Obama legacy, and more, could vanish.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than on the issue of climate change. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived today at the ongoing COP 22 conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, where participants had hoped to put the finishing touches on last year’s momentous Paris agreement to limit global warming with unprecedented limits on greenhouse emissions. But after the crucial Obama administration leadership on last year’s accord, the world is now faced with Trump’s repeated vows to tear it in two.

Le Monde’s environmental reporter Stéphane Foucart laid out the scenario in stark terms yesterday: “At a time where the majority of scientists believe that the Earth has entered a new age — the Anthropocene — characterized by the dominant influence of a single species (ours) on major biogeochemical cycles, we may actually have to think of a different terminology. Welcome, then, to the ‘Trumpocene’, where the course of things no longer depends on the choices of a single species, but on a single member of this species: Donald Trump.” We’ll have to see what the laws of physics and rules of democracy have to say about that.


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