What to expect from U.S. climate policy under the Trump Administration

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States of America. After a controversial presidential campaign, a sharp turnabout is expected in comparison to the measures taken by predecessor Barack Obama. This is also true for climate policy. Trump has repeatedly called global warming a “hoax”. After his election, however, he said in an interview with the New York Times that he thinks that “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. Therefore, it is worth to take a look at Trump’s statements and his administrative choices in order to pass judgement on future U.S. climate policy.

On his website, Trump has inter alia described his vision on the energy sector. Accordingly, he wants to open onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands for fracking and oil exploration, and eliminate the moratorium on coal leasing. In addition, executive actions of Obama which are blamed to have an adverse impact on employment shall be removed. First and foremost, this refers to Obama’s Clean Power Plan which enabled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector, likely leading to the shutdown several coal power plans. During his campaign, Trump has promised to end the “war on coal”, to “dismantle” the EPA and “to get rid of it in almost every form”, as the New York Times has reported.

As new Administrator of the EPA, Trump has appointed Scott Pruitt, former Attorney General of Oklahoma. Pruitt is the key architect of the lawsuit from 28 states against the Clean Power Plan, which has already caused the temporary suspension of the legislation pending judicial review by the Supreme Court. Pruitt is a well-known climate denier claiming that “scientists continue to disagree about degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind”. According to the New York Times, Pruitt has close ties to the fossil industry and even forwarded letters drafted by the industry with his sign, for example to the EPA and to then president Obama. In his election campaigns for Attorney General he received substantial financial support from the fossil industry.

With respect to international climate policy, Trump has vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In the future, the negotiations will be under the responsibility of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Tillerson was CEO of ExxonMobil. According to the Washington Post, he does not deny climate change but has framed climate change as a “manageable” and “engineering problem” by understating the magnitude of climate change impacts and the forecasting capabilities of modelling. At the Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson noted with respect to the Paris Agreement that “it’s important that the U.S. maintains its seat at the table”. In responding to a question about the leadership role of the U.S. within the accord, Tillerson said that any international agreement would above all need to benefit the U.S.

As Secretary of Energy, Trump has nominated Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas. As such, he will be responsible for the Department of Energy which is tasked, inter alia, with dealing with nuclear waste, shaping energy research and setting appliance standards. In a presidential debate he once forgot the name of the Department of Energy when listing different agencies he would abolish. Perry has repeatedly questioned anthropogenic climate and is expected to shift the focus of the department away from renewable energies toward fossil fuels, according to the Washington Post.

Next to Pruitt, Tillerson and Perry, many other personalities who deny climate change or take a sceptical view on it have gained important positions in Trump’s administration (see Box below), as reported by the Guardian and Climate Central.

It seems that libertarian conservative movements and representatives of fossil fuel interests have arrived in the control centre of the U.S. Therefore, it should be expected that the sympathy to fossil fuels might drive climate policy in the coming years of Trump’s presidency. However, there will be many sticking points in such an attempt. For example, the downward trend of coal has been caused to a substantial extent by the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, making it difficult to end the “war on coal”. Moreover, resistance from civil society and local administrations is expected. Subnational actors are expected to take the lead in tackling climate change although there are concerns of potential pre-emption due to imposed restrictions by the federal government. Also reactions of non-state actors might proliferate, such as the recent call of more than 600 companies and investors urging Trump to fight climate change or the call of 2,300 scientists, including 22 Nobel Prize winners, for scientific integrity. In addition, environmental movements will try to fight back any attempts to deregulate environmental and climate protection. Therefore, it is far from clear which direction future climate policy in the U.S. will take.



(Image: Donald Trump. Source: Gage Skidmore, flickr)