The Duck of Minerva

What Does Trump’s Victory Mean for the Environment?

15 November 2016

Much has already been written about the significance of Donald Trump’s victory for the environment, with particular emphasis on climate change. There is some speculation that Trump, based on campaign promises, will try to undo some of President Obama’s signature achievements, namely some scuttle that he’s looking for a fast exit from the 2015 Paris climate agreement that recently entered into force.

The noted climate denier Myron Ebell was named to lead Trump’s transition at the EPA. President Obama in his press conference today made a vigorous case for why his efforts to green the economy could and should live on under a Trump administration. Most analysts fear the worst, though a few see some of the changes, like the fading role of coal, as more long-lived and less subject to presidential influence. I’m going to focus on climate change here. 


We don’t really know much about Trump’s intentions. He has said climate change is a hoax, he’s lambasted the war on coal, and he’s said he wants to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement. Beyond that, he didn’t really offer too many specifics (Brad Plumer surveyed Trump’s energy “policies” here). Several more concrete items were prominent in the one hundred day plan Trump offered near the end of the campaign:

★ FIFTH, I will lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal.

★ SIXTH, lift the Obama-Clinton roadblocks and allow vital energy infrastructure projects, like the Keystone Pipeline, to move forward.

★ SEVENTH, cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fi x America’s water and environmental infrastructure.

While things like Keystone were big flashpoints for grassroots organizing, they are somewhat incidental to the larger trends in terms of U.S. climate diplomacy and national level policy, so I’m going to focus on those.


David Roberts at Vox thinks it was always a long shot that we could restrain greenhouse emissions enough to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  There was an outside change that a President Hillary Clinton could have led the charge for even stronger commitments in a few years as countries ratcheted up their ambitions. Roberts sees that as over now:

That story is gone now. Dead. The US will not provide leadership — it will be an active, and very powerful, impediment. Under unified Republican leadership, progress on lowering emissions in the US will halt and reverse and US participation in international efforts to combat climate change will cease.

He sees this as a sea change like the 1960s and 1970s when environmental rules were first adopted but in the opposite direction as Congressional Republicans have plans to scale back the EPA and climate policy writ large:

If Donald Trump and the GOP actually follow through on what they’ve promised, this time around will be a lurch in the opposite direction. Federal climate policy will all but disappear; participation in international environmental or climate treaties will end; pollution regulations will be reversed, frozen in place, or not enforced; clean energy research, development, and deployment assistance will decline; protections for sensitive areas and ecosystems will be lifted; federal leasing of fossil fuels will expand and accelerate; new Supreme Court appointees will crack down on EPA discretion.

Can Trump Pull out of the Paris Agreement?

No. Not right away.  As I detailed in a post in April, the rules of the Paris Agreement require three years before Trump formally withdraws from the agreement, so that’s 2019 or 2020 (and even once he signals intent to withdraw, that wouldn’t take effect for another year according to Article 28 of the Paris Agreement).

Let’s say the Paris Agreement goes into effect before Obama leaves office, then even if a Republican is elected, under Article 28 of the Paris Agreement, they can’t formally withdraw for three years after the agreement has gone into force.

More seriously, Trump could pull out of the 1992 Framework Convention on climate change which would be a far bigger deal since this is the overarching treaty agreement. This would make the U.S. an international scofflaw and a source of global scorn and derision and likely result in much heavier diplomatic costs than U.S. rejection of Kyoto. We wouldn’t have a seat at the table to defend our interests (some speculation here how the world may react). Even George W. Bush sustained U.S. involvement in the framework convention after repudiating the Kyoto Protocol (which the U.S. had signed but not ratified).

David Victor was quoted on this possibility in Science:

Trump could have the United States immediately submit a written notice to the Secretary General of the United Nations that it is leaving the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which includes nearly all the world’s nations among its membership and coordinates international deals on climate. After a year, the departure would take effect. Victor suspects this as the most likely step. “It would be the most symbolic antiestablishment move,” he says.

What Else Can He Do?

Trump has threatened to withdraw funding for climate-related mitigation and adaptation activities. It has not been an easy slog for President Obama to extract money from Congress for climate purposes so if President Trump doesn’t want to fund them, they probably won’t be, barring a shift in Congress in the mid-term elections. As Paul Voosen noted:

The United States had promised $800 million a year to help finance climate adaptation for the least developed nations, and that money is unlikely to come through in a Trump presidency—although Congress has the final say on how money is spent. Without that incentive, nations could see little reason to meet their pledges.

The consequences of this move, as David Victor notes, are likely to damage the confidence of other countries in the process:

Nobody really knows what counts as new money, but as a sign of good faith, the developed nations put up $10 billion to get started — one-third from the U.S., and one-third from China. America has not yet paid all of its commitment, and it seems clear that Trump will not. For the developing countries, this will be a sign that America is unreliable and that the benefits of staying engaged in climate negotiations are fleeting. While these countries are generally not large greenhouse gas emitters, having their support is essential to making formal decisions — including adoption of the Paris agreement.

What about the Clean Power Plan?

The Clean Power Plan is the signature domestic climate policy that emerged during the Obama Administration. The Obama Administration used existing regulatory authority to regulate carbon as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and then established the Clean Power Plan to give states guidelines how they could meet their regulatory burdens.

The EPA’s ability to regulate carbon has been hotly contested in the courts. The Supreme Court blocked implementation in February in a 5-4 decision just before Justice Antonin Scalia died. That decision sent the case back to the DC Circuit Court for further review. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide, but the question is whether the agency exceeded its mandate in how the rules were applied.

Whatever happens at the District Court, the case will likely make its way to the Supreme Court which current is down a member and stalemated at 4-4. Barring some miraculous appointment of Merrick Garland before President Obama’s tenure ends, President Trump will probably get a chance to appoint a conservative justice and perhaps break the tie. Whether the case will make its way to the Supreme Court before it is at full strength is unknown, as the case appears that it could drag on for a while.

Trump might decline to defend the EPA rule when it comes before the Court. There could be some other attempts to rewrite the rule, but observers see this as time-consuming since the rule has been finalized:

“EPA has finalized this rule, this rule is now law — it’s not as if EPA can say ‘nevermind,’” Lienke said. “It would have to go through a new notice and comment rule-making process as it did when it first issued the rule, and it would need to have rational reasons for undoing it. And that itself would inevitably be litigated.”

Since the EPA has regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon, Gary Yohe is more optimistic that this is a measure that is harder to undo:

It should be noted that carbon emissions were identified as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act (that was passed by Congress under the Nixon Administration and amended under Clinton). This finding was confirmed by the Supreme Court. All three branches of the federal government therefore agree that the Administration, through the E.P.A. must, by law, do as much as it can to reduce emissions to reduce damages and minimize human health risks. This is what the Obama Administration has been doing. Were the Trump Administration to ignore this legal imperative, it would be sued by the E.D.F., the Nature Conservancy, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and/or…. for being derelict in meeting their statutory obligations.

Another reason to be optimistic is that many states are already moving forward on implementing the rules so those efforts will likely continue even as the case goes on. Roberts, however, is more pessimistic:

The simplest way for the GOP to destroy the CPP would be to take away the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases at all. It’s a simple bill: “The Clean Air Act shall not apply to greenhouse gases.”

How about other rules on automobile fuel efficiency and methane?

Several advancements were achieved with executive action and could be undone the same way.

In 2010, Obama was able to get the automakers to voluntarily agree to fuel efficiency standards in the wake of the Detroit bailout, but they’ve been itching to loosen those regulations. They are up review in 2018. David Roberts and Brad Plumer worry that Trump will be their accomplice:

But those numbers aren’t set in stone. The CAFE rules come up for a scheduled review in 2018. Automakers are now lobbying for Trump to relax the standards, purportedly because sales of fuel-efficient vehicles have been sluggish due to low gasoline prices. While Trump hasn’t commented on this, he has plenty of leeway to weaken these rules.

California still can set its own rules due to a wrinkle in the Clean Air Act, which serves as a disincentive for industry to have to make different cars for different regulatory markets, but we shall see.

As for methane, the Obama administration last year announced a goal and identified a variety of policy measures to reduce methane from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.  One rule – to reduce leaks from new and modified oil and gas equipment — has already been finalized. Other policies about methane from public lands are in process but have to be finalized, and might be easier to kill. Chris Mooney writes that undoing the methane leak provisions would be possible but require some heavy lifting:

“It would be no easy thing for the incoming administration to revisit the new source rule, as it is now an adopted regulation,” he said. “So it would require rule-making, and the same standards of administrative procedure that led to the adoption of the rule would apply to any effort to modify it our repeal it. In other words, you can’t simply propose changes in an arbitrary and capricious way.” So this regulation might be the hardest to reverse.

This doesn’t cover the full suite of things a determined Trump administration could do. Roberts and Plumer survey other things including opening up of public lands to fossil fuel exploration, removal of subsidies for renewables, cuts in basic research, and wider efforts to scale back EPA’s regulatory authority and cut its funding.

Beyond these, there are reasons to think that the nascent effort to incorporate climate change broadly and climate change and security specifically in to the fabric of Executive Branch agencies as President Obama ordered might get shelved or only receive lip service.


China and India have incentives to deal with pollution.

While there is the worry that other countries will lower their climate ambitions if the world’s second largest emitter backtracks on its commitments, some of the leading countries may have strong incentives to stay the course, independent of what the U.S. does. China, whose emissions are now about double those of the United States, has been vocal saying the U.S. should stay in the Paris Agreement. Zou Ji, deputy director of China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy, told reporters:

“If Trump were to insist on doing things his own way, then he would pay a heavy price both politically and diplomatically,” Zou said.

India, whose emissions are set to rise rapidly with economic development, is facing such grave air pollution problems in its capital city Delhi that schools recently were closed. The concentration of particulate matter was 16 times safe levels. China faces similar problems.

Both governments face pressure to deal with air pollution including coal plant closures, more efficient automobiles, and restrictions on burning of agriculture waste. While intended to reduce air pollution such as particulate matter, these measures could also produce co-benefits for climate change in the form of lower emissions of greenhouse gases.

Coal in this country may be dying of natural causes.

Even Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell was uncertain that coal jobs are coming back under President Trump.  As Andrew Revkin noted in one of his final DotEarth blogs (he’s moving to ProPublica), fracking, renewables, and efficiency are making coal uncompetitive and that is unlikely to change:

The decline in the United States has mainly been due to market forces shifting electricity generation from coal to abundant and cheaper natural gas, along with environmental regulations built around the traditional basket of pollutants that even conservatives agreed were worth restricting.

David Spence makes a similar point:

Utility-scale wind, solar and natural gas-fired power are each cheaper today than coal-fired power and that gap is growing wider. Irrespective of federal regulation, these competitors will continue to crowd out coal.

The changes are baked into the economic cake.

David Victor makes the argument Donald Trump will have difficulty shifting patterns in the US economy as major structural changes have largely been set in motion and don’t change quickly. That doesn’t mean further advance, nor does it mean dramatic backsliding either:

Despite claims of trashing regulations, rolling back the Clean Power Plan, and a big shift toward fossil fuels, four years of Trump will actually have very little impact on national energy investment patterns and policy that are already largely grounded. That’s because the energy sector is slow to change, most policies are enshrined in law and difficult to unseat, and the very thought of a Trump administration overseeing national energy policy will inevitably shift more of the action to the states.

Progressive states like California will stay the course.

While Brad Plumer is pretty pessimistic overall, he does note that states like California and New York are committed to climate action. These are large states whose economies would be among the world’s largest if independent countries. Plumer writes:

  • States like California and New York are still pursuing their own ambitious climate policies, and it’s possible those efforts could be so successful that other states decide to follow suit.

The grassroots climate movement is stronger now.

As I tweeted the other day, unlike the days of Kyoto, we actually have a grassroots movement of activists who are eager to defend the climate. True, most of their activism has been dedicated to stopping things like the Keystone pipeline, the DAPL pipeline, and investments in fossil fuels. Still, their willingness to engage in civil disobedience and street actions may be an important lever that advocates can credibly threaten to mobilize. Unfortunately, they may have to.

Chris Mooney made a similar argument, reporting on Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Antarctica, where ice melt is proceeding rapidly:

It’s not clear if the secretary of state was nodding to the Bill McKibbens of the world, environmentalists who are likely to turn to more grassroots activism against fossil fuel projects, like the Dakota Access Pipeline, as the mechanisms of policy become unavailable to them. Their “keep it in the ground” movement is likely to grow in force if President-elect Trump carries out his campaign pledges to unleash the oil, gas, and coal industries and withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Revkin worries that pushing too hard in this way might alienate voters before the 2018 mid-term elections. The strategy is likely going to be a big debate going forward.

Concluding Thoughts

At the end of the day, we have entered into a profound period of uncertainty and Kremlinology, where the leader’s intent is not yet clear. We read the tea leaves based on appointments and initial public utterances, but President Trump will have many priorities and whether scaling back climate action and other environmental policies are among them are not yet known.

Republicans have an anti-regulatory agenda which Trump has glommed onto so we might expect freezes, roll-backs, but then again, who really knows? It’s early days yet, but the news isn’t good. In 2008, I contributed to a volume on Cooperating without America. My chapter was on climate change in which I reflected on the possibilities for climate leadership without the United States.


On some level, the situation is more favorable because the U.S. is no longer the leader of global emissions. But, in other respects, things have gotten worse. Despite flat emissions of greenhouse gases for three years running, 2016 was still the hottest year on record. We actually need to move towards decarbonization not just flat emissions so we don’t really have time for the U.S. to go wobbly for four or eight years under Donald Trump. But that’s where we are.