“This is the start of a new era in American energy production and job creation. We will eliminate federal overreach, restore economic freedom and allow workers and companies to play on a level playing field for the first time in a long time, a long time. We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal.”
—Donald Trump, March 2017
When U.S. government scientists released their latest volume of the National Climate Assessment, it revealed much about the robust, sobering scientific consensus on climate change. It also revealed the striking disconnect between President Donald Trump and essentially every authoritative institution on the threat of global warming. The president rejected the assessment’s central findings—based on thousands of climate studies and involving 13 federal agencies—that emissions of carbon dioxide are caused by human activities, are already causing lasting economic damage, and have to be brought rapidly to zero.
“I don’t believe it. No, no, I don’t believe it,” Trump said. Immediately, his cabinet members launched attacks on the report, portraying it as “alarmist” and clinging to Trump’s agenda of fossil fuel energy expansion that the science says is at the root of the problem.
When Trump delivered his first major energy speech in the fracking fields of North Dakota as a candidate in May 2016, he called for American domination of global energy supplies. To make that happen, he wanted an end to all of President Barack Obama’s executive actions involving greenhouse gas emissions.
“We are going to turn everything around,” Trump declared. “And quickly, very quickly.”
As president, he has rolled back regulations on energy suppliers at a rapid clip slowed only at times by the courts, while auctioning off millions of acres of new drilling leases on public land. Last year, domestic oil production hit a record high. The result of this, among other things, was the reversal of three consecutive years of declining U.S. carbon emissions.
Trump began the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate treaty, the agreement signed by nearly all nations to reduce fossil fuel emissions. He replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan, intended to sharply reduce emissions from U.S. power plants. He took the first step to weaken fuel economy standards for cars, the single most important effort for reining in the largest driver of U.S. emissions.
His administration has undone or delayed—or tried to—most regulatory and executive actions related to climate change, while proposing new ones to accelerate fossil fuel development. Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law counts 131 actions toward federal climate deregulation since Trump took office. In the absence of any comprehensive national climate law, those moves have led to an erosion of the federal government’s main regulatory levers for cutting global warming emissions.
Several of those actions, including rollbacks of significant rules on methane, cross-state air pollution regulations and energy efficiency, have been blocked or delayed by judges who have questioned the administration’s broad view of its legal authority. Some of those setbacks may be temporary, though, and the courts have yet to rule on the most consequential deregulatory actions. According to the administration’s agenda for 2020, the president will try to fast-track as many more as possible before the end of his first term.
- Promoting unfettered oil, natural gas and coal development. Right out of the gate, Trump greased the wheels for fossil fuel development. He issued a sweeping executive order directing all departments to target for elimination any rules that restrict U.S. production of energy. He set guidance to make it more difficult to put future regulations on fossil fuel industries, and he moved to discard the use of a rigorous “social cost of carbon,” a regulatory measurement that puts a price on the future damage society will pay for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted. He swiftly signed memorandums to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, projects blocked by Obama. And later, with the Keystone XL still stalled, he issued executive orders aimed at speeding approval and construction of fossil fuel projects by limiting state environmental reviews.
Fossil fuel infrastructure adds to greenhouse gas emissions, in part by leaking methane into the atmosphere. Trump’s administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to stop gathering data from oil and gas companies needed to rein in leaks of this potent short-lived climate pollutant. It later loosened methane regulations for projects on public and private land, despite the support for them among the industry’s biggest companies. It sought drilling in pristine areas where oil companies have long sought to drill. The administration moved to lift Obama’s offshore Arctic drilling ban and approved a plan to drill wells there. It pushed to drill in the previously off-limits Beaufort Sea, in 1.6 million acres of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in nearly all of the Outer Continental Shelf. It proposed to expedite oil and gas permits on national forest lands, and it has limited how climate change can be used in determining endangered status for species, further opening doors to drilling in sensitive areas.
- Trying to restore King Coal to its throne. Many of Trump’s regulations have been tailored to favor the coal industry, often at the expense of cheaper, cleaner energy. Robert Murray, founder of the now-bankrupt coal company Murray Energy and one of Trump’s closest industry allies, gave the president a “wish list” early on that has become of virtual template for the administration’s rollback of regulations. The administration swiftly lifted an Obama moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands. It rolled back a stream protection rule designed to reduce the environmental and climate impact of mountaintop removal coal mining, and it has proposed allowing coal plants to emit much more CO2 by weakening New Source Review, which requires big emitters to modernize pollution controls when they make major modifications to their facilities. It pushed a coal bailout rule that would have rewarded electric companies for keeping big stockpiles of fuel on hand. (U.S. regulators rejected it.) It also further relaxed coal ash rules, allowing coal utilities to keep unlined coal ash ponds open for years, making it less expensive to burn coal to produce electricity.
- Suppressing climate and related science. In almost every agency overseeing energy, the environment and health, Trump selected top officials who dispute the mainstream consensus on the urgency of climate action. People with little scientific background, or strong ties to industries they would be regulating, were appointed to scientific leadership positions. One of the administration’s first actions was to order scientists and other employees at EPA and other agencies to halt public communications. Several federal scientists working on climate change have said they were silenced, sidelined or demoted. At least three—a senior employee at the Department of Interior, one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and another at the National Park Service—invoked whistleblower protections. Independent science advisors, such as members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, have also been sidelined. Scientific content on government websites has been altered and the public’s access to data reduced. Climate data from the government’s open portal website was removed. So was the EPA’s climate change website. The words “climate change” have been purged from government reports, and other reports have been buried, including by officials at the Department of Agriculture. The administration even edited a major Defense Department report to downplay its climate findings. Through speeches and tweets, the president has repeatedly spread misinformation to the public through his climate denial and denigration of renewable energy.
EPA, meanwhile, is working to finalize its proposal to suppress the types of scientific evidence the agency can use in writing its rules. This includes prohibiting the use of well-established, long-term scientific studies underpinning the nation’s air pollution rules, a change the fossil fuel industry had sought for years. Known as the “secret science” rule, it has been lambasted by scientists and health experts worldwide. Related, the White House issued a memo offering new ways for fossil fuel and other industries to challenge science-based policies.
- Undermining clean energy development and energy efficiency. In its budget proposals, the Trump administration has made clear its resolve to retreat from a federal role in advancing a clean energy economy and maintaining global leadership in the technology. It has proposed repeatedly to radically slash funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), a move that would cripple support for novel and promising technologies for advanced wind turbines, high-tech materials, energy-efficient buildings and more. He has tried to eliminate tax credits for electric vehicles and made several attempts to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, an incubator for cutting-edge energy research and development. Congress has largely rebuffed this scale of funding cut.
The administration issued in 2019 its final rule to dramatically weaken energy-efficient light bulb standards that Congress voted to phase in a decade ago. The standards would have eliminated inefficient light bulbs nationwide, saving some 1.5 trillion kilowatt-hours by 2030 and hundreds of millions tons of CO2. And it delayed for three years standards to substantially cut the energy that household and commercial appliances consume, moving to enact them only after a federal appeals court ruled the hold was illegal.
- Trying to undercut California’s world-leading climate progress. After freezing Obama’s national fuel-economy improvements, the administration stripped California of its legal authority to enact the nation’s toughest fuel-efficiency standards, a move that could squelch the nascent U.S. market for zero-emission vehicles at a critical time. It sued the state over its cap-and-trade agreement with Quebec to lower fossil fuel emissions, arguing that California exceeded its authority when it launched. It has threatened action against California on air and water pollution. Those moves run counter to the administration’s hands-off approach and deregulatory agenda. Because of that—and because California has among the best compliance records in the nation on water pollution and has invested billions to improve air quality—former federal officials have said the efforts reek of political score-settling.
In the Trump administration’s early days, climate policy optimists gamely sifted through the president’s statements, his administration’s actions, and other nations’ reactions for grains of hope. Perhaps Trump would be persuaded to maintain the United States’ seat at the table in international climate negotiations. Perhaps the efforts of his early, scandal-plagued cabinet members to erase climate regulation would fail. Or perhaps other nations would step up to fill the climate leadership void created by Trump, and the world would forge ahead with the action needed to address the climate crisis, leaving the United States behind.
All such hopes have been in vain. Although Trump occasionally feigns concern about climate—”I think about it all the time,” he once said—his policy has been an unmitigated and relentless drive toward fossil energy development. The missteps of his former EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, and others in the first round of appointees, have been erased by seasoned Washington bureaucrats and lobbyists who now are at the helm of the environmental agencies. And instead of racing to grasp the leadership baton dropped by Trump, China, the European Union and other large carbon polluters are falling behind both in their own ambition and in support for the nations most vulnerable to climate change.
Trump’s intentions, and his administration’s deleterious impact on global climate progress, will be evident to voters in 2020 in a way that many failed to grasp four years earlier. The only question is whether those who care about the planet’s future can unite as a political force in a way that eluded them in 2016.
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