Trump Begins Tearing up Obama’s Years of Progress on Tackling Climate Change
Fossil fuels to the fore as president signs orders to review clean power plan, lift ban on coal leases and discard expert thinking on true cost of carbon emissions
By David Smith
Update, 12:45 p.m. March 28: Trump signed the executive order that will trigger a review of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama's signature policy to address climate change, late this afternoon. This article has been updated to reflect this development.
Donald Trump launched a major assault on Barack Obama’s climate change legacy on Tuesday with a series of orders that undermine America’s commitment to the Paris agreement.
Asked by The Guardian if Trump accepted the science of manmade climate change, a senior White House official replied: “Sure, yes, I guess, I think the president understands the disagreement over the policy response and you’ll see that in the order … We’re taking a different path.”
Alisdare Hickson / Flickr
Trump will sign executive orders and presidential memoranda that suspend, rescind or review several measures that were central to Obama’s effort to combat global warming. They include a review of the clean power plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants.
Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax,” has criticized the power-plant rule and others as placing an unnecessary burden on American workers and the struggling US coal industry.
The official acknowledged the orders’ effects would not be immediate, especially in view of legal challenges. “I would bet a good deal I’m sure there’ll be litigation … Whether that’s three years, two years or one year, I don’t know. It’s going to take some time.”
The US agreed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels under the Paris agreement. Obama’s clean power plan is the chief policy designed to lower US emissions. In 2015 it was billed as the strongest action ever on climate change by a US president but criticized for targeting coal-fired power plants.
Richard Lazarus, an environmental law expert at Harvard University, said: “It was launched before Paris for a reason. Everyone knew if the United States didn’t make a serious commitment, Paris wouldn’t happen. It’s now an open question how the rest of the world is going to respond if the United States eliminates a linchpin of its commitment.”
Trump will also aim to wipe out Obama’s climate action plan, the 2013 directive outlining the government’s response to climate change. His orders will lift a 14-month-old moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, while a major hydraulic fracturing (fracking) regulation will be reviewed.
Guidelines published by the White House Council on Environmental Quality last August will be rescinded. Estimates of the social costs of carbon and other greenhouses gases will be overturned because they were not put out in “a transparent fashion,” the White House official said.
Aides insisted the official speak without being named, despite Trump’s past criticism of the use of unnamed sources. The official said the measures were aimed at achieving the goal of energy independence. “We want to take our own course and do it in our own fashion.”
Climate change is “an issue that deserves attention but again I think the president’s been very clear he’s not going to pursue a climate or environmental policies that put the US economy at risk,” he said. “It’s very simple.”
Trump and his allies, including Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency, have previously criticized the 2016 Paris climate accord involving nearly 200 countries. The official said on Monday: “In terms of the Paris agreement, whether we stay in or not is still under discussion.”
Asked what message he wanted to send to major carbon producers such as China and India, the official said: “I think the United States is going to pursue its interests as it sees fit. I think the president’s been very clear about having an America-first energy policy. We have a lot of energy in this country and the president wants to continue to remove any obstacles so we can produce.”
The official was pressed by reporters on how climate change should be tackled. He said: “One, you’ve got to make sure you have a strong economy. You’ve got to make sure you have people who are actually working. To the extent that the economy is strong and growing and in prosperity, that’s the best way to protect the environment.”
He said natural gas, clean coal, nuclear and renewables were part of the mix but added: “Look globally. The more prosperous the economies … if you compare the United States to other economies, we have a cleaner, healthier environment than other countries that don’t. I mean, look at China.”
The official insisted: “The previous administration devalued workers by their policies. We’re saying we can do both: we can protect the environment and provide people with work and keep the economy going and that’s the policy agenda we’re going to focus on.”
The 2015 clean power plan has been on hold since 2016 while a federal appeals court considers a challenge by coal-friendly states and more than 100 companies. The attempt to roll it back completely will meet with fierce opposition.
Tomás Carbonell, director of regulatory policy and senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the White House must adhere to the same process of public notice and comment that was followed in adopting the plan, which took almost two years.
“Large majorities of Americans in red and blue states alike support strong action to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants, and the clean power plan is supported by a broad and diverse coalition of states, municipalities, power companies, leading businesses, consumer advocates, faith organizations and many others,” he said.
“These supporters will turn out in force to oppose the administration’s outrageous attack on the United States’ only nationwide limits on carbon pollution from power plants — safeguards that are essential to protecting our public health, securing a clean energy economy and yielding a safer climate for our children.”
Travis Nichols, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said: “This proposed executive order gives us further proof that Trump isn’t a leader, he’s just a fossil fuel industry stooge with a presidential pen. Thankfully, for all his bluster, the best Trump can do is delay America’s inevitable transition to clean energy, but he can’t stop it."
“The problem, of course, is how much devastation his administration will inflict on the climate, vulnerable communities and the environment in the meantime. With this proposed executive order the Trump administration is simply putting America further behind in the global race towards a renewable future.”
The American Sustainable Business Council said: “Businesses want action that addresses climate change. They know that rolling back the clean power plan without a meaningful alternative in its place, like a carbon fee, will make climate change worse. That will further hurt economic growth.
“The business community is looking for real leadership on climate change, and so far all we’ve seen are decisions from the polluters’ playbook.”
Trump has promised to revitalize the coal industry. At a rally last week in Kentucky, he said he had already stripped away some burdensome regulations and insisted the executive order would go further. “We are going to put our coalminers back to work,” he told the crowd.
But the White House faces a complex process of rewriting rules and fending off legal challenges from states such as California and New York, environmental groups and sections of industry. “Whatever process was used create it, that process will have to be used to undo it,” said Lazarus, the Harvard expert. “The more they rush in, the more likely they make a mistake.”
Asked about Trump’s willingness to accept climate change science, Lazarus replied: “I’m not confident the president of the United States has any fundamental belief in the issue at all. He’s just fulfilling a campaign promise.”
But the president’s sweeping actions were praised by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank. Nick Loris, a fellow in energy and environmental policy, said the clean power plan is “high cost and very minimal climate benefit.” He added: “Obama went too far in rationalizing energy policy: regulations with high costs and diminishing returns.”
Loris agreed with the White House perspective that economic growth should take priority. “Wealth equals health,” he said. “It’s not about being a fossil fuel stooge; it’s about allowing them to be competitive.”
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