As the transition to a Trump presidency takes shape, one of the most uncertain issues is climate change. In October, I wrote a piece exploring Trump’s position on climate change and the prominence the issue warranted in the election. Well, the issue was hardly mentioned in any of the three debates, and we still do not know for certain what our next president plans to do regarding climate change. In the face of this uncertainty, we must explore what he could have the power to do as president and how far he could set us back in terms of climate change.
Trump’s previous statements on climate change don’t leave much promise; the most glaring example is when he tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” This was in 2012, when he wasn’t even a candidate for president. He has since called climate change a “hoax” and “bullshit,” but more threatening are the actions he has suggested throughout the campaign. The long list is highlighted by a desire to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement and to essentially eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, leaving behind just “tidbits.”
It’s easy to speak, but let’s look at the actions Trump has taken so far. The EPA is where he could realistically have the easiest time causing the most trouble, and he’s already started making his moves. To lead his EPA transition team, he chose Myron Ebell, a man who denies climate change and thinks that even if it were real, it would be beneficial. He wants to destroy the Clean Power Plan, one of President Barack Obama’s most influential climate policies and has previously been credited with helping destroy “cap-and-trade.” In 2007, he was called an “oil industry mouthpiece,” and when we couple his leadership with Trump’s desire to defund the EPA, it does not look good. This is all to say: It seems like Trump wants to destroy the EPA, and he may very well be able to do so.
Coupled with the EPA are the many regulations Obama has set in motion to implement. The Clean Power Plan, central to Obama’s goal to decrease emissions, is in the crosshairs. The already-controversial regulation will most likely be taken up by the Supreme Court next year, and with Trump in office, its fate looks bleak. Trump can’t destroy the plan single-handedly, but he can weaken its chances of passing. In terms of other guidelines, Trump can use the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a group of lawyers who are the final stop before any regulation gets enacted, in order to significantly slow, weaken or eliminate some of the other regulations Obama has set in motion. Finally, by cutting funding for regulations, Trump can reach around having to repeal regulations while still making them essentially useless.
The big fish would be the Paris climate agreement, an agreement of 193 countries to come together as a global community and limit carbon emissions. A U.S. withdrawal would have two major effects. First, the United States’ plan for limiting emissions to 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2030 is supposed to account for roughly 20 percent of the entire agreement, according to Climate Interactive. This in and of itself is an incredibly harmful effect, but if the rest of the world looks to the United States and sees that we are ignoring the issue, many other countries can be expected to back out, causing a domino effect that will significantly weaken the agreement. Second, if China, the only country that emits more carbon dioxide than us, holds steady on the plan, the United States would effectively hand over its moral and worldwide leadership on the issue to the Chinese. In no uncertain terms, Donald Trump withdrawing the United States from the agreement could be one of the greatest setbacks in climate policy we have ever faced.
There are many obstacles Trump would have to surpass to withdraw the United States from the agreement — most importantly, his own desire to do so. Public opinion shows that a large amount of Americans care about climate change and would not want to see Trump follow through on his promise. Moreover, Trump would have to deal with the other 192 countries that signed the deal. It is a big risk for him to anger the rest of the world by withdrawing this late, thus hurting foreign relations.
On a similar note, Trump would be opening the door for China to take over our global leadership role and would diminish our influence abroad. Finally, we don’t even know if Trump was every really committed to withdrawing in the first place or whether it was simply campaign rhetoric. A Reuters report indicating that Trump’s transition team is looking for ways to bypass the four-year procedure for withdrawing is not a positive sign, but there is reason to believe Trump does not want to and will not follow through.
Simply put, Trump cannot just snap his fingers and destroy Obama’s climate legacy. However, if he wants to, he could significantly undermine some of Obama’s accomplishments and even threaten global progress. All is not yet lost, but for those who care about climate change, the next few months will be some of the most critical in our lifetime. Trump, if he cares enough and devotes enough resources, could squash some of Obama’s most important regulations and agreements, or he could not. If he chooses to, he could face a fight of his lifetime from environmental groups, Democrats and even some Republicans.
Unrelenting pressure on Donald Trump is how we fight for climate progress. If we lose that, we must keep fighting on the local level. Michael Bloomberg plans to push movements to make cities more green, regardless of Trump. This, as well as electing and pushing local officials to support climate-friendly positions, is how we deal if the top of the government pushes against. A bottom-to-top movement energized by the people can help minimize Trump’s long-term effect on climate change and our world.
CJ Mayer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.