Donald Trump will be the next president. What will this mean for the environment?
Normally, we rely on a politician’s past behavior to frame the future. However, we do not have any record of environmental policy or practice on which to base an analysis of what to expect. Our best information relies on the appointments to his transition team and interpretation of statements he made in the latter part of his campaign.
Judging by these appointments and statements, I see a strong chance that President Obama’s climate policy will be rapidly disassembled. How do we face this head-on?
The answer is a simple statement. To develop an effective U.S. response to climate change, we must break the politicization of science-based knowledge.
To accomplish this, however, we must embrace the complexities of science and politics and think beyond any matrix or formulaic solution. We know that effective and sustaining climate policy must be bipartisan. Taking a long view, Trump’s disruption of traditional party positions potentially provides entryways to break decades of stalled efforts to address climate change in the United States.
Focusing on this potential long-term opportunity may be the key to preserving the environment beyond the age of Trump. First, we need to recognize that forces in the new administration will seek to undo not only recent gains in climate policy but also decades of environmental regulations. But with climate change so directly tied to economic and national security, our future societal success will compel us to tackle climate change as part of our political and cultural behavior.
Rollback of the Clean Power Plan
One of President-elect Trump’s first actions was to announce Myron Ebell as part of the presidential transition team. Ebell is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).
Ebell has a long history of denying the consensus analyses of climate scientists and the economic risks of climate change. CEI holds the position that U.S. environmental regulations are onerous and damaging to the economy. Ebell has the particular charge of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and as a matter of record, Ebell and CEI oppose regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by the EPA.
President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is focused on electricity generation, is a fundamental part of his administration’s efforts aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions. The Clean Power Plan rests on the Clean Air Act along with the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision that requires the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant if found that carbon dioxide emissions harm human health. Ebell’s appointment signals, therefore, an administrative priority to revoke the Clean Power Plan.
Goodbye Paris Agreement
President-elect Trump promises to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which was established within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement was achieved by executive signature, in contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, which required ratification by the Senate.
The Paris Agreement, therefore, carries the same perceived baggage of executive overreach as the Clean Power Plan. This makes the Paris Agreement a clear target.
Although actual withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would be difficult to achieve in the near term, the Trump administration could easily fail to implement any of the commitments the Obama administration made under the agreement. What’s more, some of Trump’s advisers are already calling to cut down “politically correct environmental monitoring,” including NASA programs that support climate change research.
These steps would, minimally, establish the United States as an unreliable partner and insert doubt into global climate change policy for many years.
The Bigger Storm to Come: Dissolution of Environmental Laws?
Undoing the Clean Power Plan could be just the beginning. Following Trump’s rhetoric, we must be prepared to face efforts aimed at weakening the Clean Air Act itself. Also in the crosshairs are many other environmental statutes passed in the 1970s, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In terms of enduring impacts, weakening of these underlying statutes will be more consequential than scuttling the Clean Power Plan. Alterations or repeals of these laws will meet with fierce political resistance and litigations. However, the executive vigor and legislative wherewithal are in position to do considerable damage as well as to appoint and confirm judges sympathetic to environmental regulation as damaging to business and economic growth.
Preservation of these statutes must not get lost in the potential clamor over the Clean Power Plan. They are the foundation of environmental policy and were the response to dangerous environmental degradation. With hostility toward these regulations at the federal level, vigilant focus on these laws is required at the state and local level as well as by the broader public.
A World Stage
A weakened U.S. involvement in the Paris Agreement has many consequences. Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, former lead Japanese climate change diplomat, points to worldwide backlash, including protests. Ceding to China the moral high ground on climate change could also have fallout.
The battle to preserve our end of the Paris Agreement is important and necessary. But we must not lose sight of the need to preserve our commitment to the UNFCCC, which provides the substance that made the Paris Agreement possible.
The UNFCCC is an international treaty on climate change that was adopted by the United Nations in May of 1992. It was signed and ratified by the United States in 1992 and went into effect in 1994. The treaty specified that countries that sign hold a commitment to reporting greenhouse gas emissions, expressing intent to reduce emissions, avoiding dangerous climate change, and maintaining economic development.
The linking of greenhouse gases, environmental regulation, and economic development plays directly into the policies that have been described as onerous by Ebell. The UNFCCC is the foundation of international policy, and candidate Trump expressed animosity to “U.N. global warming programs.”
More so than the Paris Agreement, it would be difficult for the United States to withdraw from the UNFCCC. We need, however, to move beyond polls that show that the U.S. supports international response to climate change. Instead, we must strategically plan ways in which we can ensure that public officials keep their promises to U.S. participation on this foundational treaty.
What Way Forward?
Progress in the face of federal barriers relies on appealing to common causes and individual people rather than to political parties. In this way, we have an advantage compared to where we were at the beginning of the Obama administration. During the past 8 years, we’ve seen significant changes in how people perceive climate change in the United States.
Notably, concerns and responses to climate change have expanded at state and local levels. Historic droughts and floods, the occurrence of persistent record high temperatures, and changes along the coastlines due to sea level rise have revealed unprecedented vulnerabilities.
An important policy goal is to advance the many voices of those on the ground responding to climate-related vulnerabilities. Likewise, organizations that seek to affect climate change policy should focus more on action-oriented efforts on local to regional scales, rather than mire their primary resources in the political gamesmanship that will dominate the federal level.
We need to move away from the situation where the farmer, the Republican, the Evangelical, or even entire cities already coping with climate change are treated as novel examples. We are all part of a constituency responding to weather that is changing from generation to generation.
Nowhere is this mainstream emergence more critical than at the climate and energy intersection.
Countries, including the United States, are growing their use of renewable energy while growing their economies. What’s more, the economics of fossil fuel extraction are changing rapidly. ExxonMobil is moving to write down its dirtiest reserves and has stated support for the Paris Agreement. Companies are actively seeking policy stability in the face of compelling political and scientific evidence. Market-based energy and climate policy, such as that advocated by Conservative politician Bob Inglis, is as viable and as robust as any other potential strategy.
But challenges lie at every turn. The sound defeat of the state of Washington’s carbon tax initiative shows that even in a solidly Democratic state, the public does not easily advance climate change policy or regulation.
Appealing to Security
As countries, including ours, develop increased predictive skill on the effects of climate change, those with access to those forecasts learn to use those predictions. This knowledge provides competitive advantage not only in business but also in anticipation of national security interests.
Drought in the Middle East amplifies political strife. Several nations scramble in the Arctic for territory and resources as the sea ice melts. In business, multinational corporations face supply chain challenges, water availability, and customers demanding that sustainability and the cost to the environment be taken into account.
It is reasonable to expect that at some point, future trade deals will penalize those who most damage the climate. So we must place these issues of environmental security and concrete information for real-world applications front and center in climate research.
We must also break the notion that environmental research and prediction are inseparably wed to environmental regulation. Both absence and excess of regulation have negative societal and economic consequences. Optimal environmental regulation benefits society, including the viability, sustainability, and security of businesses and their customers.
Focusing on the Long Term
Any effective, sustaining climate and energy policy will have to be bipartisan. To gain this bipartisan support, we must break the link between science-based policy decisions and political and cultural self-identification.
We must take direct measures to reclaim science-based knowledge from partisan interests. Science has been made partisan with political intent; we require similar intent to reclaim it.
To the climate change community, the initial actions of President-elect Trump on climate and climate policy are decentering, disconcerting, and bleak. Undoubtedly, however, Hillary Clinton’s election would have maintained the status quo of climate change as a partisan issue.
President-elect Trump, on the other hand, has proved to be difficult to characterize, resistant to traditional partisan classification, and prone to swift changes of position. Trump will challenge his party and disrupt party norms. With this disruption, political walls become porous.
At that point, it becomes possible that sources of informed influence, anchored in the substantive challenges of those who govern and those who create and sustain jobs, can enter into the administration. New coalitions of organizations become likely, which can align on solving problems rather than political warfare.
Trump’s administration can disperse President Obama’s climate change policies. However, climate change is too compelling an issue to go away. In the event that an opportunity to address climate change does not emerge during Trump’s administration, I don’t see this lack as placing us at any more of a tipping point than where we already are.
Stewards of the Future
Policy in the United States often emerges from long, difficult negotiations leading to outcomes that balance priorities, share benefits and risks, and provide flexibility for individuals and commerce. Acrimonious politics, particularly during this election cycle, have left us with little trust of individuals and institutions. The scientific method, objective analysis, and the fundamentals of logic and reason are tainted with political culture and identity.
These practices of investigation, reason, and knowledge generation, however, sit at the growth of civilization, economies, and wealth. Our ability to compete and thrive as a nation requires us to extract science-based knowledge from the realm of the political partisanship and to support knowledge-based decision-making.
We must have confidence in this future and do all we can to steward the transition from now to then.
I thank Paul Higgins of the American Meteorological Society and Paul Edwards and Matt Irish of the University of Michigan for helpful conversations and comments.