On Tuesday the Trump Administration dropped a long-feared executive order on climate change. There’s no sugarcoating it—this order is an attempted assault by the administration on the climate we all depend on, the world’s poorest people most of all. Nevertheless, just how bad things get depends not just on vigorous opposition to these moves within the US, but more and more on other countries.
To recap, the order would:
Abandon the Clean Power Plan. After Congress stymied cap-and-trade legislation in 2009-2010, President Obama turned to executive actions, the cornerstone of which is the Clean Power Plan regulating emissions from power plants. The Trump order instructs the Department of Justice to stop defending the Clean Power Plan in court.
Walk back methane regulations. Declining carbon dioxide emissions in the US and elsewhere are in large part thanks to a switch from coal to natural gas. But gas is prone to leaks of methane—an even more potent greenhouse gas. The Obama Administration set up rules to address leaking methane; the Trump executive order walks these rules back.
Allow coal mining on federal lands. A “planetary carbon budget” suggests that in order to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, a large portion of known fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground unburned. Obama placed a moratorium on coal mining on federal lands; Trump reversed this decision.
Ignore the Social Cost of Carbon. In 2009, President Obama set up a working group to quantify the costs of carbon pollution. The group came up with a figure of around $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, rising over time. There are a variety of reasons this estimate could be too low, including if climate change dampens future economic growth. The Trump executive order instructs agencies to consider carbon pollution to be costless, but ignoring the costs of carbon pollution won’t make them go away.
Stop the federal government from planning ahead for climate change, including national security risks. President Obama had instructed branches of the federal government to plan ahead for the effects of climate change known to be coming down the pike, including national security risks. This executive order stops that. But again, ignoring the future won’t make it go away.
Apart from this rollback of climate rules, recent actions by the Trump Administration would weaken fuel efficiency standards and allow construction to proceed on the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines. Trump’s budget request to Congress would zero out funding for international climate programs, not only including the Green Climate Fund and UNFCCC, but even the IPCC. It would slash funding for environmental protection and science, including four satellites that measure the pace and effects of climate change.
All of this adds up to a coordinated assault on the world’s climate by the United States government. Surveying the wreckage for survivors, the US government does not appear to be pulling out of Paris or challenging the endangerment finding, at least for now, or grounding the Landsat satellite.
Others have written about how pieces of this executive order face resistance in Congress, the courts, and the states, how it discards American values, how it will do nothing for coal miners, and how in spite of the executive order the energy market is racing toward renewables anyway.
I’d like to put the Trump Administration’s retrogressive climate policy in the context of global development, revisiting three charts that explain the relationship between climate and development.
Climate change hits developing countries hardest. People living in developing countries bear more than three quarters of the costs of climate change, by one estimate—a portion that exceeds these countries’ share of GDP and population. Fires and floods that damage property in the US destroy lives in the developing. A single large hurricane can knock a developing country off its growth trajectory for decades. Trump’s executive order consigns developing countries to a future fraught with more large storms, floods, and fires.
The US is abdicating a big responsibility. Developed countries have released more than three-quarters of the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. As the largest single-country contributor, the US has a special responsibility to fix the problem it created. For the past decade or so it has been doing so in good faith. The world’s largest economy has been demonstrating how economic growth can be decoupled from emissions—from 2000-2014 the US grew its economy by 28 percent while cutting its emissions by 6 percent). Those gains are now danger of reversal.
The US has also stepped up with climate funding to help other countries grapple with the effects of climate change. Obama pledged $3B to the Green Climate Fund, of which it delivered $1 billion before leaving office. US commitment of funds was key to diplomatic success in Paris; the Trump Administration is now bent on abdicating that leadership.
The severity of climate change depends increasingly on others. Two-thirds of annual emissions are now from developing countries. Many of these emissions are a product of deforestation, as Frances Seymour and I write in our new book, Why Forests? Why Now?, enough so that if tropical deforestation was its own country, then it would be the third-largest emitter after China and the US. Indeed, Brazil’s drop in emissions from curbing Amazon deforestation in the last decade exceeded emission reductions by all other countries, including the US, and cost just one-third of the Rio Olympics.
The big fear is that if the US abandons its climate efforts, big emitters like China, India, and Brazil might decide to do so as well. There are troubling signs that the US is already undermining international climate diplomacy; the G20 reportedly dropped a statement on financing the fight against climate change at the United States’ behest.
Fortunately, the other main players on climate change don’t appear headed for the exits. Quite the opposite in China, where the world’s largest emitter has been racing ahead with climate-friendly energy policies. It’s doing so largely for domestic air quality reasons, but it stands to scoop up international leadership and goodwill in the process in the vacuum left by a retrogressive US.
Now with atmospheric carbon dioxide increasing at the fastest pace ever recorded, the United States ought to be shifting into high gear on climate by switching to renewable energy, promoting cleaner fuel, and helping the world protect and restore its forests. The history books will not look kindly on this executive order for doing exactly the opposite.