Obama’s Environmental Legacy: How Much Can Trump Undo?

Few groups were as shocked and chagrined by Donald Trump’s victory as the environmental community. Yale Environment 360 asked environmentalists, academics, and pro-business representatives just how far Trump might roll back President Obama’s environmental initiatives.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to scrap U.S. involvement in the Paris climate accords, undo President Obama’s signature piece of domestic environmental legislation — the Clean Power Plan — and eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency. These moves would effectively decimate what Obama considers one of his greatest achievements — his efforts to slow global warming. But are Trump’s threats just campaign rhetoric? How far could the new president actually go in reversing the accomplishments of the Obama years? Seven experts weigh in. 

Campaigning is one thing, and governing is another. Now, Trump must choose whether he will continue to deny the climate crisis and stand completely alone in the world. His campaign position will result in significant international blowback and massive resistance here at home from environmental and public health advocates if he refuses to face reality. But he could also shift course now, take a different path, and support investments in the fastest-growing sector in the U.S. economy — clean energy. In fact, those investments already have bipartisan backing. 

Even as president, there are some things Trump can’t change: He can’t change the fundamental fact that clean energy is now cheaper than dirty fuels like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power all over the country. And he can’t change the fact that grassroots activists like the Sierra Club will keep fighting to retire coal plants and replace them with clean energy. We defeated most of the new coal plants proposed during the George W. Bush administration — 184 to be exact — with grassroots power, and we can and will do similar work under the Trump administration. 

The markets and the American people are moving this nation beyond dirty fuels to clean energy, and Donald Trump can’t reverse that tide. And as we’ve seen this week, his position certainly will not stop the rest of the world from moving forward to safeguard our planet and seize the incredible economic benefits of clean energy. 

I think there’s potential for significant damage, particularly on policies related to public lands, regulation, and, of course, any issue that would rise to the level of the Supreme Court. Here’s the downside: Given a hostile Congress, President Obama had to resort to administrative steps on climate policy, energy efficiency, and the like, which means Trump can move swiftly in some cases to undo or greatly slow certain initiatives — ranging from fuel-mileage standards to fracking rules. But as Paul Voosen has pointed out in Science, it’s easier to do that with pending rules (fracking) than those that have already gone through review (the Clean Power Plan). 

There are limits, though. The Endangered Species Act, for instance, has remained immune to congressional meddling, although budgets can be cut. On the grandest challenge of all, global warming, I wrote this week that the momentum for fossil fuels and the shift in the U.S. away from the worst fuel, coal, limit what any president — for or against action — can do. Much depends on how Trump chooses to move from sound bites to real-world policies. Indeed, some of his campaign pledges — for instance boosting both coal and natural gas production — never made sense. More gas production will further undercut the economics of coal. That means that much rests on the advisors he draws on. In his acceptance speech, the president-elect said he was eager to hear from those who opposed his election. Will he listen? That will be the test. 

President-elect Trump will bring with him a starkly different vision on energy and environmental policy than his predecessor. In the spirit of “draining the swamp,” the Trump-Pence administration will likely abandon the climate mitigation policies of the Obama administration in favor of energy policies that promote job creation and energy affordability and reliability. 

We can expect to see in his first term a significant effort to undo overreaching environmental regulations. First on the chopping block will be the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a rule forcing states to cut carbon emissions. The president-elect was vocal on the campaign trail about repealing this harmful rule, and his running mate blocked its implementation in Indiana as governor. 

The U.S. has several ways to exit the Paris agreement on climate change, and it will be interesting to see which route the President-elect chooses. Perhaps he will use executive action to withdraw or perhaps he will submit it to the Senate to die on the floor. Withdrawing from the Paris accords will be in the best interest of the U.S. because meeting its aggressive emissions targets would require extreme policy changes that would harm overall U.S. economic growth, especially in the manufacturing sector. 

Carbon taxes will be off the table for the foreseeable future, too. 

President-elect Trump’s interest in engaging in comprehensive tax reform would also have implications on energy issues. Cleaning up the tax code would involve eliminating tax provisions benefiting special interests in renewable energy industries such as wind and solar. 

Before the election, the world was on the precipice of not being able to fulfill the Paris climate goal of keeping global average temperature increases to between 1.5 and 2 degrees C. The Nationally Determined Contributions that almost all countries had pledged did not add up to nearly enough. The U.S. pledge centered on the Clean Power Plan; even with that, we still had a long way to go to meet the promise for 2025. Far more, still unspecified actions would be needed for the decades after that. 

Trump has pledged to kill the Clean Power Plan, and he has several paths for doing so, ranging from asking the Supreme Court (which by then may include a Trump appointee) to declare it invalid, to formally rescinding it after required public notice, to simply telling the EPA not to enforce it. 

Without the Clean Power Plan and the other aggressive actions that Hillary Clinton might have taken, the U.S. will surely miss its targets. Without the vigorous participation of the world’s largest economy and historically largest emitter, other countries may also slack off. The chances of meeting the Paris goal seem even more remote. We need to devote increased attention to adaptation — to coping with the increasingly severe climate changes that are going to hit us. 

We can all imagine what a climate denier heading up the EPA will do to the Clean Power Plan and anything having to do with clean air, water, and our public lands. It could be devastating, and gratefully many of our allies are already at work planning how to respond. Yet there is a deeper problem at work. We know that a society-wide mobilization is required to build the infrastructure for the renewable energy revolution. And we know that this same massive investment in the public sector can be a path out of the economic devastation that so many voters experience — many of whom saw Trump as the solution. There was an opportunity to tie the pathway out of climate catastrophe and inequality — and towards greater democracy — together. In so doing, we’d build the kind of movement we actually need to address many of our challenges at one time. 

Regardless of what is included in Trump’s infrastructure agenda, we can be sure that averting climate chaos and further inequality will not be the stated goals. Instead, we will encounter more corporate giveaways, more reliance on fossil fuels, and a deeply steeper path to any kind of compliance with our Paris commitments, and with the commitment to stay below 1.5 degrees C. 

It’s too soon to tell exactly what steps the next administration will take. The rhetoric of campaigning doesn’t always match the realities of governing. We urge president-elect Trump’s transition team to take the time to hear from a broad range of perspectives on environmental and energy issues. They’ll find that a majority of Americans across the political spectrum support stronger climate action. 

They’ll find that cities and states are in action because they’re already experiencing the impacts of climate change and see strong economic benefits in clean energy and transportation. They’ll find that business leaders recognize climate costs and see that the modern infrastructure and advanced technologies we need to cut emissions and strengthen climate resilience will create jobs at home and position U.S. firms to better compete in the emerging clean-energy economy. 

Cities, states, and businesses are already improving energy efficiency and investing in clean energy and clean transportation. We could do far more with federal leadership, but the momentum we’ve seen will continue, because it’s driven in part by market forces. Around the world, support for climate action is stronger than ever. Virtually every country has committed to taking climate action and I expect will keep moving forward because they feel the impacts of climate change, they see the health benefits to their own citizens of reducing pollution, and they see the economic opportunities in a clean-energy transition.

In November 2012, Donald Trump tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Twitter messages cannot be taken as reliable signals of likely future policies, but Mr. Trump followed up during the campaign with repeated pledges to reverse all of President Obama’s actions on climate change. That includes canceling United States participation in the Paris climate agreement and abandoning the Clean Power Plan, a mainstay of the Obama administration’s approach to achieving its CO2 emissions reduction target under the Paris agreement. 

So, if we take Mr. Trump at his word (a risky proposition, I admit), he will seek to pull the country out of the Paris pact. Or the administration can simply disregard America’s pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 26 to 28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025. What will other key countries, including the world’s largest emitter, China, as well as India and Brazil, do if the United States reneges on its pledge? The result could be that the Paris agreement unravels, taking it from the 97 percent of global emissions currently covered by the pact to little more than the European Union’s 10 percent share. 

If he lives up to his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Trump may be able to reverse course on climate change policy, increasing the threat to the planet, and in the process destroying much of the Obama legacy in this realm.