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How Trump could dismantle current environmental policy

November 17, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
Donald Trump made it clear during his campaign that as president he would make substantial changes in climate policy. The president-elect has threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and has tapped climate-change skeptic Myron Ebell to head the EPA transition. William Brangham speaks with David Roberts of Vox about possible changes to energy policy under a Trump administration.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 200 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris climate accord today during a U.N. summit in Morocco. The show of support comes amidst worries that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump will pull out of the deal.

It also comes as dozens of wildfires continue to burn across the Southeast region of this country, more than 30 that are still uncontained in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky. And climate change could be one factor that may contribute to the drought conditions feeding them.

William Brangham has a closer look at how a Trump administration might change America’s course on climate change.

DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement.

Department of Environmental Protection, we’re going to get rid of it in almost every form.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Throughout the long campaign, Donald Trump made clear he wants a sharp turnabout in U.S. environmental policy.

DONALD TRUMP: Oh, coal country, what they have done.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He repeatedly pledged to undo the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, an aggressive effort to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

DONALD TRUMP: Energy is under siege by the Obama administration, under absolute siege. The EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, is killing these energy companies.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Since winning the election, the president-elect has tapped climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to head the EPA transition.

Trump has repeatedly expressed his own skepticism about climate change, like in this 2012 tweet, when he said: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.”

Two years later, he wrote: “Global warming is an expensive hoax.”

Meanwhile, the Paris climate accords officially took effect on November 4. They’re an agreement among dozens of nations all aimed at limiting worldwide warming to just an additional 2 degrees Celsius. That’s a little over 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

But doubts about what president-elect Trump will do are hanging over this week’s U.N. climate conference in Morocco.

MAN: We will not be silenced. The United States will shred the document.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It would take four years to withdraw from the Paris accords, but there are no enforcement mechanisms, so the new Trump administration could simply ignore the U.S.’ commitments.

In Morocco yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry warned against taking that step. He said climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: No one has a right to make decisions that affect billions of people based on solely ideology.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At the same time, 365 American companies have written to the president-elect imploring him to uphold the Paris accords and warning — quote — “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk.”

So, what would environmental policy actually look like under a Trump administration?

David Roberts covers this for Vox. He is a writer and journalist who has long reported on the need for tackling climate change. He joins me now from Portland.

David Roberts, let’s start off talking about the man who’s going to help the Trump administration shape energy policy. Who is Myron Ebell and what does he believe?

DAVID ROBERTS, Vox: Myron Ebell is the director of the Climate Change Program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is a think tank in Washington, D.C.

His belief is that climate change is a hoax or possibly no big deal, happening and no big deal, or possibly happening and good for us, depending on which day you ask him, so certain we don’t need any public policy to help counter it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, in some ways, he seems like an ideological fit as far as what we understand Donald Trump’s policies to believe and positions?

DAVID ROBERTS: That’s right.

I think it’s a very clear signal from the Trump camp that he wasn’t kidding in what he said about climate change on the trail.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the things the Trump administration might do.

With regards to the Paris accords — this is, for those who are following along, a whole group of nations have binded together to say, we’re going to pledge to cut emissions going forward.

If the Trump administration wanted to, can they just walk back from those commitments? Can they just walk away from the accords themselves?

DAVID ROBERTS: Absolutely.

The whole premise of the Paris agreement is that all the commitments from all the countries involved are voluntary. That was one of the reasons that it was a breakthrough is that making those commitments voluntary sort of opened people, opened countries up and made them a little bit more ambitious.

But the consequence of them being voluntary is that Trump can absolutely walk away. It will take him several years to formally get the U.S. out of the accord, but nothing is stopping him from just stating that he’s not going to pursue the targets and not going to do anything to attempt to meet our commitments there. And there is no legal mechanism that can stop him.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Same question with regards to domestic policy. What is a Trump administration energy policy, what is that going to look like?

DAVID ROBERTS: Well, I think the first priority is going to be to dismantle the Obama environmental legacy. That will be the priority.

So, for instance, the Clean Power Plan, which is aimed at power plants, will be either rolled back or delayed or slow-walked or reversed entirely, depending on what road they take. But I think the initial efforts are all going to be designed to dismantle everything that Obama has done in this area over the last eight years.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s hard to know if voters picked Trump because of his energy policy, but I think it’s undeniable that there are a lot of people in the country, especially in states like West Virginia, who think that,when you talk about cutting carbon emissions, you mean that you’re cutting their jobs, that energy costs are going to go up.

And to a lot of voters, that just doesn’t seem like an exchange they want to make. I mean, that — in some ways, Trump has something of mandate, doesn’t he?

DAVID ROBERTS: I don’t think so, William.

A couple of things. One is, not a lot of people know this yet, but renewable energy now employs far more people in the United States than coal does, certainly. There’s more jobs in the solar industry alone than there is in coal anymore. So, in terms of job growth, renewables are a much more fertile source of that than fossil fuels.

Secondly, if you actually go beneath the general level and poll the public on individual questions like should we do something to restrain carbon emissions, should we tighten regulations on pollution, should we support renewable energy, support for those policies is incredibly high across the board, across demographics, across regions of the country.

If you’re looking at individual environmental policies, public support is enormous. The problem is that there just aren’t that many members of the public who make those issues their priority.

So I don’t think that Trump’s win necessarily tells us anything about what the public thinks about energy policy, so much as it tells us that the public just doesn’t think about energy policy very much.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With regards to those coal jobs, Trump made a repeated pledge that he’s going to bring the coal industry back. Is that in the president’s power to do?

DAVID ROBERTS: Absolutely not.

I mean, the main thing that is killing coal right now in the U.S. is cheap natural gas, and that’s market competition. That’s market competition that’s killing coal, and that’s going to be true no matter what Trump does.

And there’s automation in the coal industry, so coal mining jobs have been declining for 40 years now from their historic highs and will continue to decline as automation increases.

So, most of the forces that are adverse to coal in the U.S., particularly adverse to coal mining jobs, are outside the president’s control and are definitely going to continue no matter what Trump does.

The interesting thing is whether those people that he made those promises to remember those promises and hold him accountable.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s say Trump does everything that he promised to do, he treats climate change like a hoax, he walks away from the Paris accords, he dismantles the EPA’s regulations.

What does the U.S.’ position mean for the global effort to cut carbon emissions? How much of this will impact what the rest of the planet is doing already?

DAVID ROBERTS: That is indeed the $6 million question, and no one quite knows the answer yet.

The news is not good. A lot of the Paris agreement and a lot of international cooperation on climate change has been built on U.S. leadership recently. Obama’s leadership helped bring China into the fold, to the table to do this. And then the prospect of the U.S. and China acting in concert helped bring the rest of the world to the table.

So, in a large sense, this edifice is built on top of U.S. leadership. So, if you yank U.S. leadership out from underneath it, at the very least, I think it’s going to be much more shaky and vulnerable. Whether it continues on as it has been depends on a lot of economic forces and technological innovation and a lot of things that we can’t really predict.

But I think, at the very least, action is much more fragile and contingent than it was before this news.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, David Roberts of Vox, thank you very much.

DAVID ROBERTS: Thank you, William.

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