Climate Policy in the Age of Trump
American and global efforts to slow the pace of climate change have taken a long time to gel and only recently have begun to show significant results.
The basics of climate science were endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences in the late 1970s and approved by the U.S. Senate when it unanimously ratified the treaty negotiated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Still, it was not until the Obama administration that climate science became an explicit part of U.S. federal policy and that India and China started to make meaningful commitments.
Attempts by the new Trump administration to quash climate science and the programs based on that science could have impacts that are long reaching and, to some extent, irreversible.
Candidate Donald Trump tweeted that climate science linking human combustion of fossil fuels with rising temperatures and sea levels was a hoax and joined the call from other GOP leaders to repeal President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. President-Elect Trump’s transition team seems bent on eviscerating the Environmental Protection Agency, the institution with the great responsibilities in implementing climate plans.
The stakes of a change election were particularly high for climate because of the decades needed to craft complex global agreements and the lags between the adoption of policies and the turnover of the infrastructure that produces and consumes energy (several decades in many cases).
Then, there is a long lag between actual emissions reductions and significant slowing of rising accumulations in the atmosphere, largely because carbon dioxide remains there for a century or more.
As some climate experts have noted, President Trump will find it difficult to unravel President Obama’s climate programs on the proverbial “day one,” given the legal hurdles for adding or deleting regulations.
It is also unlikely that major industries, such as electric utilities, will immediately scrap their future generation plans, whose horizons typically go beyond a single presidential term. They have to be cognizant that natural gas, wind and solar are attractively priced and that future presidents and congresses may agree with Obama that these cleaner alternatives pose less threat to the environment than coal.
Current momentum will delay the impact of Trump attacks on current climate policy but not indefinitely. Moreover, those who follow Trump in office will have to deal with the momentum he has created.
Thus, the view that our 45th president can’t really do much damage to progress on climate is true only within a short time span. Moreover, current efforts are insufficient to meet goals for 2050 and will need to be supplemented by a series of ever-stronger measures.
In truth, Trump faces relatively few institutional obstacles if he takes an aggressive stance to decimate federal climate programs at home and withdraws from cooperative agreements abroad.
Traditional checks and balances may play a lesser role than in the past, since the Republican Congress and base electorate agree with Trump’s anti-environment positions, more than ever before in the party’s history. Leading Republican climate skeptics in Congress once argued that China needed to join any global regime to reduce emissions but are now rushing to scuttle the Paris agreement that includes that very thing.
The most effective environmental organizations can deploy their lawyers to protect some programs but lack enough national clout in the next two years to do much else that would affect policy. If newer environment groups continue to promote pipeline protests that have little impact on climate over fighting for issues that really matter (like the Clean Power Plan), or supporting candidates in Senate and House races, the situation is not likely to improve.
State governments are in the best position to offset anti-climate policies in Washington. Some, most notably California, have adopted aggressive programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These affect enough of the country to make a significant difference and will likely continue regardless of who’s in the Oval Office.
States like California also have leverage over national efficiency standards for appliances and vehicles that Trump might want to weaken. Strong state standards may deter manufacturers from taking too strong a stand against federal rules, since it is the national system that keeps them from having to build for two different markets.
As a senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, a key Trump advisor, supported vehicle efficiency standards in the Energy Independence Act of 2007, suggesting this is not an ideological battle that Trump needs to fight.
States like California can also raise their international profiles to assure the world that a substantial portion of the U.S. population supports global cooperation.
Even states with Republican leadership and widespread skepticism about climate science have policies in place that are helpful in reducing emissions. Many red states have strong renewable portfolio requirements that have boosted wind and solar energy. In other states without such legislation, the Green Tea Party has effectively promoted solar friendly policies.
Given that wind and solar have great appeal beyond those who accepted established science on climate, Trump has an opening to support them vigorously without alienating his base. His infrastructure program, for instance, could include renewable energy and perhaps even the modernization of the electric grid.
So Trump could do some things that would help climate, just not in the name of climate – pretty much the U.S. position before the Obama presidency. Under this scenario, some foundation would remain in place for more aggressive action in the future. It would not put us on a path to achieve the goals set by Barrack Obama and John McCain in 2008 and would make it very difficult for future presidents to get back on that path.
Whoever becomes our 45th president will confront more long-lasting carbon (and other heat-trapping gases) in the atmosphere. Moreover, President Trump, with the bully pulpit of the White House for four or eight year, can further undermine American confidence in climate science and solidify his party as a clear foe of action to protect the atmosphere and oceans, effects that will take a long time to reverse.
To now walk away from the prevailing science on climate will be an international embarrassment and do damage to the planet that cannot be reversed. Why the next U.S. President and the Congress are willing to brush off one of the major international challenges of our time is something we will have a hard time explaining to our grandchildren.