Donald Trump and Climate Change: Top 10 Ways He Could Reverse Progress

A Trump presidency is expected to try to overturn Barack Obama's global warming agenda, cancel the Paris climate agreement, approve Keystone XL pipeline, and more.

With the ultimate goal of unleashing production of oil, gas and coal, Donald Trump and Mike Pence are expected to undo years of progress on climate change and the environment. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Judging by the brief discussion of energy policy on Donald Trump’s White House transition website, what he’d like to change about the Obama approach is everything. Presented below are our expectations for Trump’s Top Ten list—along with some evidence about how complicated it might be to achieve these objectives, even with a Congress led by Republicans.

#10: The Social Cost of Carbon

“It’s all upside,” Trump’s transition website declares, as his team promises to unleash production of coal, oil and natural gas. But that is pants-on-fire false: There are definite costs to the unfettered use of fossil fuels (just ask someone with black lung disease). The calculation of carbon’s social costs puts a dollar sign on the future damages expected from greenhouse gas pollution. Although Trump may never have heard of it, it has been an increasingly important tool for tallying the risks of business-as-usual.
Because the estimates of how much damage every ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cost are intricate and uncertain, Republicans in Congress have called them useless, and industry has sought to overturn them. That should now be easy, as the calculations are issued by the White House under the president’s executive powers. You can bet that Trump will agree.
But there’s a hitch. Most major federal regulations—even those that loosen rules rather than tightening them—are required by law to be based to some extent on cost-benefit calculations. Rules that completely ignore the costs of pollution, or the benefits of controlling it, could be challenged as arbitrary and capricious. That includes setting the social cost of carbon arbitrarily at zero.

#9: The Keystone XL Pipeline

The pipeline’s advocates have always called TransCanada’s project to deliver tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the United States a “no-brainer.” It’s certain to be high on the list of Trump’s reversals. TransCanada has already signaled that it will submit a new application, which requires presidential approval of the border-crossing permit as being in the national interest. Trump has been clear that he, like the majority in Congress, would approve it.
That’s not to say that environmentalists will roll over. Defeating Keystone XL was a long, hard fight and one of their biggest victories. They will continue to oppose it at the grassroots level and during whatever cursory review the administration performs, as well as to challenge it in court.

The application might need yet another environmental review, although the new administration might argue that this step is superfluous after many years of study. Expect environmentalists to argue that a lot has changed since the last review, notably a lowering of oil prices. This changes the calculation of how environmental impacts of tar sands production would be affected by the big pipeline.

If the Keystone XL is quickly approved and built, it will be a vivid, first example of the new administration’s willingness to build long-lasting infrastructure projects that lock in emissions of greenhouse gases for decades to come.

#8: Speaking of  Infrastructure

There’s been a lot of talk that a new public works bill might be one of the first ways that Trump leaves his mark. Both he and Hillary Clinton called for stepping up infrastructure spending, and there’s nothing Congress likes more than a good old-fashioned pork-barrel bill.

But infrastructure always carries environmental consequences, for better or worse. And getting big public works bills through Congress always requires horse trading. Could there be a green side to this kind of project?
One obvious possibility is that the bill would include lots of spending on mass transit. But there are others. And none is more consequential for the climate than modernizing the electric grid. It is a complex undertaking, and one that few in Congress have thought much about.
The inexorable decline in the costs of wind and large-scale solar power will keep renewables highly competitive almost regardless of anything the government does. Their growth is spurring demand for a modern power grid that can handle the variable and decentralized supplies of electricity. A new grid also would be more resilient, reliable and efficient.
If policymakers are serious about upgrading this key economic asset, they can’t afford to do it wrong.

#7: Efficiency

To see whether a new anti-regulatory, laissez-faire ideology will be taken to extremes, watch how Trump’s budget proposals treat the Energy Department’s many programs geared toward energy efficiency.
Some of these, like the path-breaking research conducted in national labs and by universities and other contractors, are aimed at bringing novel technologies into commercial production. They are spurs to innovation, and can help keep U.S. industries at the cutting edge. Others, like the energy efficiency standards that govern consumer and industrial appliances and machines, have long been considered among the most cost-effective of federal regulations. They save billions of dollars for consumers and help keep demand for electricity—and the resulting pollution—down. But free-market ideologues oppose them anyway.
Some have interpreted a Trump campaign promise to strip $100 billion out of climate-related spending from the budget over eight years as a signal that the entire efficiency and renewable-energy research program might be thrown overboard.
That’s unlikely to happen. But it is a sure bet that Congressional committees controlled by Republicans will seek to shift some of that money into research into fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

#6: Don’t Mess with Taxes

What about the newly extended tax advantages for wind and solar electricity—are they imperiled?
Probably not. They were given a new lease on life just a year ago, as part of a deal that also allowed exports of crude oil. The deal already phases them out over the next few years, on the theory that these industries would then be strong enough to survive without subsidies. To kill the assistance would pointlessly  inflame interest groups across the board—green advocates, consumers, workers in the fast-expanding industries, and of course the companies themselves. Many red states—Kansas, Texas, Iowa—are benefitting from the boom.
Here’s what’s more likely to happen: a reinvigorated effort to put low-carbon alternatives like nuclear power, high-efficiency fossil fuel plants or carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies on a so-called “even playing field,” by subsidizing them, too.
This phenomenon is likely to crop up from time to time: Congress agreeing to pay for low-carbon incentives even when the leadership of both chambers and the president say they don’t see a climate problem.
But don’t expect that attitude to run rampant—the idea of a carbon tax, for now, will be answered with one word: fuggedaboutit.

#5: Drill, Baby, Drill

Trump’s energy plan, at its heart, envisions an “America first” policy in which drilling for oil and natural gas are favored at every turn. This means a more aggressive leasing program on federal lands, onshore and offshore.
Congress may even take a run at opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a long-running battle. It can only happen if legislation is rammed through with a maneuver that thwarts a Senate filibuster. The last time that happened, President Bill Clinton saved the wilderness area with a veto. Trump would not.
Trump’s ascendency offers a chance for the natural gas industry to escape the Obama administration’s plans to crack down on emissions of methane in the drilling fields. Industry would be happy to see a voluntary approach instead, or one based in the states. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and environmentalists say that leaks from the production of natural gas wipe out any gains from its use to replace dirtier coal.
There’s no rush, though, for the new administration to try to stimulate production of oil and natural gas. Low prices and a supply glut are likely to persist for at least a year, and possibly longer, market analysts say.
And as long as natural gas prices stay low, it means trouble for what Trump may see as the most beautiful fuel of all, coal.

#4: Old King Coal

Trump’s path to victory pivoted around the coal belt, and he and Mike Pence both spoke boldly about bringing about a renaissance in the nation’s most beleaguered industry.
But the markets are against that, and so are the regulatory realities. Natural gas is cheap and plentiful, and Trump wants to make it even more so. Wind and solar costs will only go down in the decades ahead, probably by a third or more, no matter what the government does. Most of the laws and rules that have dragged coal production to its lowest levels in many years are firmly in place and not easily reversed. The rest of the world is increasingly committed to moving away from coal, even if that happens slowly. A powerful grassroots movement against coal will only be invigorated by Trump’s ascendancy.
Still, there are many actions within Trump’s powers that would work in coal’s favor, and he has promised a “top-down review” of all the Obama administration’s regulations affecting coal.
One likely victim is the review already under way of leasing practices on federal lands. The Obama administration has suspended new leases during the review. And it has promised to change the rules in ways that get a fair price for the taxpayers who own the coal, and that better reflect the environmental damages. That probably won’t happen under Trump, unless the courts force it. For now, the industry has to bear in mind that it already owns enough leases to supply demand for 20 years.

#3: The Clean Power Plan 

Trump has promised to overturn essentially everything in Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a  far-reaching agenda. There is no bigger target than the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the regulations cracking down on carbon dioxide emissions from existing electric power plants. Opposed by many states, despised by the Congressional majority, and under challenge in federal court, this has been the centerpiece of Obama’s climate policies.
If not stillborn, the CPP is at severe risk of being strangled in the crib.
Only if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirms the plan enthusiastically before Trump is inaugurated, and it is then quickly upheld by the Supreme Court, is there much chance that the CPP will survive in its present form. As president, Trump could ask the appeals court to remand the rule to the Environmental Protection Agency for reconsideration. He could decline to defend it at the Supreme Court. He could instruct his administration to delay its enforcement, acquiescing when recalcitrant states fail to carry it out. He could ask Congress to invalidate it. Under any such course, the rule’s potent market signal would be muted, and an opportunity to lock in emission reductions for decades would be lost.
On the other hand, it has become clear in the past few years that many of the rule’s goals may be easily achieved, with market forces propelling utilities down a cleaner path anyway, and with many states, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast, moving toward deep reductions in greenhouse gas pollution and ambitious gains in the use of renewable energy.
There is even a slim chance that the United States, propelled by market and popular choices, could achieve Obama’s international pledge to cut emissions up to 28 percent by the year 2025.

#2: We’ll Always Have Paris

The gravest danger from all of this is that Trump will make good on his promise to walk away from the Paris Agreement on climate change, unilaterally undermining the only currently viable approach to addressing the increasingly urgent global climate crisis.
Seeing the risk of a Trump victory, nations rushed this fall to approve the treaty, which entered into force just days before his election. To the extent that any treaty is binding, this one cannot be canceled willy-nilly. For the U.S. to withdraw formally would take four years. (Trump could withdraw from the underlying United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in just one year.)
As a symbolic gesture, he could submit the Paris accord to the Senate for advice and consent, where it would not win a two-thirds vote. Obama argued that Senate review was not necessary for this treaty.
More to the point, Trump could flout the treaty, ignore the “nationally determined contribution” that the U.S. has pledged, refuse to contribute to United Nations climate finances, and even interfere with the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the authoritative voice of international climate science.
That would make the United States a pariah when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis. It’s hard to know how the world would react. But it’s implausible that the rest of the world — China, in particular — would jump like proverbial lemmings off the same cliff.

#1: It’s the Science, Stupid

There are countless ways in which a president can influence events and policy. But there is no president who has ever dictated the tenets of science.
This presents Trump, who has declared that “I am not a great believer in man-made climate change,” with an unusual dilemma: how to deal with the overwhelming consensus among scientists that global warming is real and caused by human activities, that its risks are profound, and that time is running out to deal with them.
Many of those scientists work at federal agencies that are deeply rooted in science. They deal with energy, the environment, the oceans and atmosphere, public health, geophysics, agriculture, planetary research, national security, education, and pure and applied research. By and large, they are firm believers in the scientific method. Most of the time, they try their best to make science work in the public interest.
Their authoritative alter ego, the National Academy of Sciences, consistently presents the government a well-reasoned, independent, peer-reviewed climate agenda. It is chartered by Congress to do so, free of ideological or partisan influence.
As non-believers, the Trump administration may be tempted to distort or ignore the scientific work of these institutions, just as some in Congress have done. That would be selling the crown jewels, and experience shows that it will be found out. It would inflame one of the deepest wounds that can ever be suffered by a president—what came to be known in the days of LBJ as the credibility gap.