What Does the Trump Administration Mean for Climate Change?

 

To the Teacher:

There is a strong scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, and that this will have a major impact on our society in the 21st century. Moreover, scientists believe that the time we have available to act to prevent the worst effects of climate change is limited.

With a new president coming into office, U.S. policy around climate change is likely to change dramatically. During his time in office, President Obama stated that "no challenge poses a greater threat to our future” than climate change. While environmentalists were not always satisfied with the strength of the president’s response to the climate change challenge, the Obama administration did take a number of steps to address it. These included reducing carbon pollution from power plants and entering the U.S. into the international Paris Agreement, which is designed to limit climate change. In contrast, President-elect Trump has demonstrated a very different attitude about climate change, calling it a “hoax” in numerous tweets.

This lesson includes two student readings that explore what a Trump administration will mean for climate policy, and how this might affect our changing climate. The first reading discusses domestic policy that can be expected under Trump. The second reading describes how U.S. participation in the international Paris Agreement might change, and what we can expect from Secretary of State appointee Rex Tillerson, the former oil executive who has been appointed to represent the U.S. in the international climate policy arena. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

 


 

Student Reading 1:
Trump’s Domestic Climate Change Policy

There is a strong scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, and that this will have a major impact on our society in the 21st century. Moreover, scientists believe that the time we have available to act to prevent the worst effects of climate change is limited.

With a new president coming into office, U.S. policy around climate change is likely to change dramatically. During his time in office, President Obama stated that "no challenge poses a greater threat to our future” than climate change. While environmentalists were not always satisfied with the strength of the president’s response to the climate change challenge, the Obama administration did take a number of steps toward addressing it. Domestically, the administration reduced carbon pollution from power plants through the “Clean Power Plan,” introduced stricter standards for emissions from cars and trucks, and protected large areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from offshore oil drilling. The Obama administration also signed onto the international Paris Agreement, which is designed to limit climate change

In contrast, President-elect Trump has demonstrated a very different attitude about climate change, calling it a “hoax” in numerous tweets. Trump’s cabinet appointments suggest that his climate policy will follow his campaign rhetoric. In a December 12, 2016, report for the Guardian, reporter Oliver Milman discussed Trump’s picks for the agencies responsible for climate policy:

Trump has assembled a transition team in which at least nine senior members deny basic scientific understanding that the planet is warming due to the burning of carbon and other human activity. These include the transition heads of all the key agencies responsible for either monitoring or dealing with climate change. None of these transition heads have any background in climate science.

Myron Ebell, head of the EPA transition team, is director of energy and environment at the libertarian thinktank the Competitive Enterprise Institute and chairman of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a group that opposes “global warming alarmism.”

Ebell has said that the scientific consensus on climate change is “phony” and that scientists are part of an effort to spread falsehoods that will result in millions of people being “further impoverished by the higher energy prices resulting from the alarmists’ policy agenda....”

Other members of the EPA transition team have been plucked from rightwing thinktanks with fossil fuel funding…. David Kruetzer, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, has erroneously claimed there has been “global cooling” in recent years while David Schnare, a former EPA lawyer, said last year that “for the last 18 years, the global temperature has been level.” Schnare’s statement is incorrect….

NASA has an internationally venerated climate research operation that may be winnowed away under a Trump administration. Bob Walker, a Trump adviser and climate skeptic, has suggested completely removing NASA’s $1.9 billion earth sciences budget and focusing instead on deep space exploration….

Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil, is reportedly a top contender for secretary of state, a year after it emerged that Exxon spent years covering up and denying climate science despite being well aware of the science of global warming.

Donald Trump – like many of his appointees – disagrees with economists who argue that developing “clean energy” (such as solar and wind power) is the best way to protect the environment and strengthen the economy. Instead, Trump says he will reinvigorate the economy through renewed fossil fuel development. On the campaign trail, Trump specifically promised to revive the withering Appalachian coal industry, calling himself the “last shot for the miners” who have lost jobs in recent decades. In a November 14, 2016 article in Time, Justin Worland described some of the difficulties Trump will have in keeping this pledge:

President-elect Donald Trump promised repeatedly throughout his campaign that he would revive the coal industry… And in traditional mining areas—think parts of West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania—Trump defeated rival Hillary Clinton by large margins. But policymakers on both sides of the aisle say they cannot envision any way for Trump to save the coal industry, whose decline they attribute as much to market forces as Obama-era regulation.

Just a decade ago coal provided half of the energy used for power generation in the U.S., but fracking [a relatively new method of extracting oil and gas] has driven a boom in the country’s supply of natural gas and made it a cheaper alternative in most cases. And, with cost in mind, utility companies have made the switch even in places without regulation pushing them to do so. Last year, natural gas and coal-fired power plants each provided about a third of the country’s power supply, according to an Energy Information Administration (EIA) report. Total coal production in U.S. mines declined to about 900 million tons last year, only three-quarters of production in 2008, according to EIA data.

Coal also struggles to compete with renewable energy sources like wind and solar in locations where those resources are abundant. The cost of solar panels in particular has declined precipitously thanks to technology advances in recent years. Even conservative states like Texas and Oklahoma have become fast adopters of widely available wind energy….

Trump has offered few clues to how he might meet his promise revive coal, but his plan seems to rest largely on gutting environmental regulations, particularly President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. That regulation—issued through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—requires states to come up with plans to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. Scrapping the plan will definitely slow the decline of coal but it will not be enough to stop it entirely and it certainly cannot bring back the jobs that have already disappeared, experts say.
 

If Trump succeeds in expanding the use of coal, it would represent a major setback for global efforts to limit climate change. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira stated in June 2016, “This is no time to be expanding production of coal, which is the dirtiest of conventional fossil fuels. Every new coal project causes additional damage to human health and adds to effectively irreversible global climate damage.”

 



For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
     
  2. According to the reading, what are the differences between Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s attitudes climate change?
     
  3. What are some of the domestic policies that are likely to change under Trump that might have an impact on our climate?
     
  4. Why are Donald Trump’s pledges to renew the coal industry alarming for people concerned with climate change?
     
  5. What policy proposals might address high unemployment and poverty in coal-producing regions without resuscitating the coal industry (and thus worsening climate disruption)?
     

 

Student Reading 2:
Will the U.S. Withdraw from International Climate Treaties Under Trump?
 

President-elect Trump’s stances on climate change promise not only to effect domestic policy, but international efforts as well. Most significantly, the president-elect has called the 2015 Paris Agreement, which commits over 190 countries to reducing carbon emissions, “bad for U.S. business.” He has vowed to cancel U.S. participation. The Paris Agreement, which is part of the ongoing UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, aims to “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” and also to help countries deal with the effects of climate change.

“If Trump steps back from [the Paris Agreement], it makes it much less likely that the world will ever meet that target, and essentially ensures we will head into the danger zone,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produces global reports on the state of climate science. Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, added that the Paris agreement target “is already extremely difficult to achieve, but it could be done with very hard, very diligent work by every single country.”

In a November 10, 2016 article, New York Times reporter Carol Davenport writes:

Mr. Trump cannot legally block other countries from fulfilling their Paris agreement commitments, nor can he quickly or unilaterally erase Mr. Obama’s climate rules.

But he can, as president, choose not to carry out the Paris plan in the United States. And he could so substantially slow or weaken the enforcement of Mr. Obama’s rules that they would have little impact on reducing emissions in the United States, at least during Mr. Trump’s term.

That could doom the Paris agreement’s goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions enough to stave off an atmospheric warming of at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which, many scientists say, the planet will be locked into an irreversible future of extreme and dangerous warming.

Without the full participation of the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter, after China, that goal is probably unattainable, even if every other country follows through on its pledges.

And, the experts say, without the participation of the United States, other governments are less likely to carry out their pledged emissions cuts….

“Pessimists will find abundant support for despair this morning,” John Sterman, a professor of system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a Climate Interactive analysis on Wednesday morning.

“With Mr. Trump in the Oval Office and Republican majorities in both houses,” Mr. Sterman wrote, “there is little hope that the Clean Power Plan will survive in the Supreme Court or for federal action to meet the U.S. commitment under the Paris accord. Worse, other key emitter nations — especially India — now have little reason to follow through on their Paris pledges: If the U.S. won’t, why should developing nations cut their emissions?”
 

If Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State is confirmed, the United States will be represented at international climate talks by Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil. Unlike Trump, Tillerson acknowledges that climate change is real and caused by human activity. But the appointment of an oil executive to the position responsible for overseeing climate treaty negotiations has nonetheless raised eyebrows. Tillerson’s confirmation hearing was dogged by protesters from organizations ranging from CodePink to Greenpeace to 350.org.

Writing in December 14, 2016, Slate senior writer Josh Voorhees expressed pessimism that Tillerson would take action to combat climate change:

It’s tempting to see the selection of Tillerson—a man who says publicly that manmade global warming is indeed a real concern for the world—as a bright spot in that darkness….

The climate case for Tillerson is built on the perception that the engineer-turned-executive has softened the oil giant’s once-open hostility toward the accepted science that shows humans’ role in global warming. Notably, Tillerson has also voiced support for a federal carbon tax in the United States and for the Paris climate agreement that was negotiated last year. “At Exxon Mobil,” he said in a speech earlier this year, “we share the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.”...

But it’s a mistake to judge Tillerson only by his words…. In the decade-plus that Tillerson has been chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, the company has funneled roughly $7.25 million to federal candidates via its political action committee, according to a database kept by the Center for Responsive Politics. The vast majority of that cash—more than $6.5 million—went to Republicans, and not just any old Republicans. Recipients of Exxon checks include such anti-science all-stars as: Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the powerful Environment and Public Works Committee who authored a climate change–denying book titled The Greatest Hoax and once brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to try to make his case that the world had not warmed….

Tillerson may be striking a more climate-friendly tone in public than his predecessor did, but the company’s PAC expenditures suggest it’s little more than the political posturing of a man eager to present his company as a good corporate citizen to investors….

And what of the carbon tax that Tillerson claims to want so badly? As the Union of Concerned Scientists has documented, time and time again, Exxon-funded lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have actively worked to derail any progress on such a greenhouse gas-reducing mechanism….

Under Tillerson, for instance, Exxon Mobil continues to donate to several groups with a documented history of sowing unfounded doubt about climate science by spreading misinformation and publishing misleading policy analyses, including the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the American Enterprise Institute. The company suggested to shareholders back in 2007 that such practices would stop. Clearly, they have not followed suit.


It remains to be seen whether Trump and Tillerson will actually remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, or fail to live up to the U.S.’s commitments. If either happens, the impact will be felt worldwide.

 



For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
     
  2. According to the reading, what are the possible consequences for climate change if Donald Trump fails to meet the U.S.’s commitments under the Paris Agreement?
     
  3. A variety of commentators argue that if the U.S. fails to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement, it could have a ripple effect on the behavior of other countries. What is the reasoning behind this argument? How do you think other countries might respond to the Trump administration’s positions on climate change?
     
  4. How might Rex Tillerson’s past role as CEO of a large oil company influence his actions as Secretary of State relevant to climate change?
     
  5. The world’s scientists are calling for dramatic cuts in fossil fuel consumption to address the growing danger of climate change. What actions can concerned Americans take to fight climate change in the current political environment?

 

Research assistance provided by Will Lawrence.