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How Much Damage Could Trump Do to U.S. Climate Policy?

Probably not as much as you might think, experts say.

Trump might end the "war on coal," but that doesn't mean the industry can rebound. (Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich)

Brace yourselves: Donald Trump might not necessarily spell doom for domestic climate policy.

Yes, the U.S. president-elect famously compared global warming to an elaborate Chinese hoax, promised to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement, repeal every environmental regulation in the land, and dismantle the EPA. He appointed Myron Ebell, a well-known climate change denier, to head up the transition at that very agency.

But doomy reports of the near-term climate consequences of the President-elect might be overstated, according to a number of policy experts. Here are three main reasons why—plus the stuff that does merit serious concern.

Market forces are strong

Trump has said he wants to “end the war on coal,” the most climate-unfriendly of all fossil fuels, but the energy market probably won’t let him. In the past two years, wind and solar power have become juggernauts on the energy scene. Prices on these sources have fallen dramatically, enough so that they’re competitive with “dirty” fuels like oil and coal. Capacity for wind electricity generation grew more than 100 percent between 2009 and 2015—growth that is projected to continue, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Solar grew more than 900 percent. Of all the new capacity added to the grid in 2015, nearly one third was solar.

The natural gas boom also can’t be understated in its implications for falling coal emissions (even if gas extraction has its own environmental impacts). Thanks to cheap natural gas, as well as policies supporting renewable energies—which have increasing bipartisan support—coal consumption is steadily declining. According to the EIA, in 2015 U.S. power plants burned 740 million tons of coal—dropping 13 percent from 2014, and 26 percent since 2005. Coal prices are going to continue to fall. So even if Trump did succeed in overturning Obama’s Clean Energy Plan—which is aimed at cutting emissions from coal-fired power plants—the industry is unlikely to suddenly rear its dusty head and become competitive again. (For one thing, undoing Obama-era emissions rules would hand the same advantages to Big Coal’s other rival, the natural gas industry.) Even Mitch McConnell is beginning to admit that.

It’s actually pretty hard to undo environmental regulations

On the campaign trail, Trump took great pleasure in talking about “repealing” the “illegal” Clean Power Plan, among other environmental regulations developed by the Obama administration. But regulations are just as (if not more) onerous to undo than they are to create, especially once they’ve been reviewed and finalized. “As a practical matter, if the administration wanted to change or repeal them they’d have to go through the same regulatory process that was performed to develop them,” says Mark Brownstein, vice president of the Climate and Energy Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The agency would need to be able to make a case for why the change was needed, and the standard is that it cannot be arbitrary or capricious. Agencies can’t just make stuff up.”

Changes to existing regulations would also be certain to face litigation from environmental groups, some states, and even industry groups themselves. Indeed, it’s particularly hard to undo rules once they’ve been adopted by the industries they affect—just look at those historic auto standards, which aim to double the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks by 2025. After a lot of opposition and negotiation, automakers might be unlikely to want to abandon those rules, since they’ve invested years of engineering to meet them, writes Jody Freeman, the founding director of Harvard University’s Environmental Law and Policy Program. “Vehicles designed to comply with these rules have for years now been rolling off the assembly lines, and product plans for later years are already underway.”

It’s true that industry groups have been calling on Trump to support his statements towards softening these standards. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sent a letter to his transition team last week lobbying for a “reassessment” of those rules, which have proved a “substantial challenge” to the industry, according to the letter. A Trump administration could ease these standards down the line. But it may be in the industry’s best interest to maintain the federal status quo, in order to avoid any “additional expense from the uncertainty or volatility posed by rescission,” as Freeman writes. Plus, there are many states with big car-buying markets with their own super-tough fuel economy and emissions standards—not just California, but 11 other states that voluntarily follow the California Air Resources Board regulations and may be unlikely to support softened rules. To sell cars in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, automakers have to make California-compliant vehicles.

Solar: so hot right now. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Now, this doesn’t mean environmental regulations are safe from undoing. These rules could be challenged legally all the way up to the Supreme Court (which could soon include a Trump appointee). A Trump administration could still weaken regulations on things like efficiency standards further down the line. And Congress could revisit any rules passed within the past 60 days (for example, the BLM’s new rule limiting methane emissions on public lands) and overturn them legislatively. Still, “It’s not something that the president or EPA administrator could accomplish with the stroke of a pen,” says Brownstein.

Bottom-up initiatives were already pushing climate progress

Even if some climate regulations are rolled back on, say, cutting down on drilling or auto emissions, that would just kick back arguments on those points back to state legislatures. And progress is already happening at that level: California's greenhouse gas laws, or the Northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, will continue to advance climate policies pressing industries and consumers towards fewer emissions. Meanwhile, renewable energy saw support on state ballots from California to Florida last week.

Cities will play an increasingly key role here, too, as major greenhouse gas generators and as ground zero for the increasingly visible—and costly—effects of climate change. Bans on fracking are spreading on a local level. More U.S. cities, particularly in the West, have been making pledges to commit to clean energy. Transit agencies are transitioning to electric fleets. Cities are tightening up building codes for more energy-efficient and flood-proof construction. Big, eye-opening disasters like Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast and devastating floods in the South have pushed local governments to create climate adaptation and mitigation plans—even in very red states.

Funding cuts to the EPA—which are entirely possible given the Republican Party’s control of Congress—will prove a stumbling block to some state and local initiatives. But neither Trump nor Congress can stop the work that’s already underway.

Still, be warned

Leaders inside the Obama administration—including Secretary of State John Kerry—have stated that the U.S. is on its way to meeting the commitments it made at COP 21, the global climate summit in Paris last year, which include reducing its emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. Carl Pope, the former executive director of the Sierra Club and current climate advisor to  Michael R. Bloomberg and the Compact of Mayors, believes that regardless of Trump’s influence, the country will exceed its Paris pledges, largely because of coal’s downward spiral. “A huge number of the things we are doing to meet the Paris Accord are going to move forward,” he says. No one can hold back momentum on clean energy: “It’s like standing on the shore and telling the tide to stop.”

But not all climate experts are so sure that the U.S. is positioned to meet its Paris promises—in fact, it’s an area of heated debate right now whether any industrialized country will be able to keep their word without dramatic additional intervention. While clean energy and auto efficiency regulations are likely to keep pushing emissions falling overall, the U.S. will probably need additional federal policies to keep it on track. That is where the Trump presents one of his biggest climate threats: It seem highly unlikely that the U.S. will see any new rule-making to maintain progress on cutting greenhouse gases during his tenure. “I think we will see a pause and freeze in domestic policies,” says David Victor, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego.

And there is perhaps even greater cause for concern about what Trump’s anticipated lack of climate leadership will mean at the international level. Although the president-elect does not have the power to “cancel” the Paris agreement, as he has said he would like to, he could attempt to withdraw the U.S. from the treaty via executive action. Or Congress could decide to flake out on the annual $800 million pledge it made to help developing nations finance their climate adaptations. If the U.S. reneges in either or both of these ways, and drops out of all climate diplomacy, other nations could follow—namely China, the world’s biggest emitter. Would there be the same incentive for them to follow through on their commitments? It’s not clear.

On the other hand, writes Victor on Environment360, “The Trump administration will soon find that it is very difficult and diplomatically costly to abandon existing treaty commitments.” So maybe they won’t. As my Atlantic colleague Robinson Meyer explains here, withdrawal from the Paris accord could mean the U.S. “would face a massive global diplomatic backlash and permanently cede worldwide leadership on climate and renewable-energy issues to China.”

On so many fronts, the consequences of the 2016 election are not yet fully understood. It is quite safe to assume that Trump is not going help the environment. Still, it is important to realize that, especially on the domestic front, there is a lot of damage that he is fairly unlikely to do, in spite of proclamations in the headlines. And, particularly on the local level, those who care about the future of the planet can and will continue to work to protect it. Climate change is already hard enough to talk about—no less act on!—without paralyzing people with the prospect of an all-but-certain apocalypse. Trump’s presidency doesn’t need to make that problem worse.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.