Climate Change Adaptation: What Will Be The Impact of President Trump’s Rescission of Obama Era Policies?

By Kevin Todd*

In the year since the 2016 Presidential election, many analysts have expressed concern about its long-term effects on American climate policy.[1] Any delays in the advancement of climate policy are likely to have significant negative consequences both for the United States and the rest of the world. However, many of the previous administration’s actions are likely to be somewhat “sticky,” continuing to have a long-term impact even after the headline executive orders (EOs) have been rolled back.

After climate legislation stalled in Congress early in his administration,[2] President Obama began addressing the issue through a series of executive orders.  A 2013 order, Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change, was designed to foster resilience and adaptation to environmental changes throughout federal agencies.[3] Among other things, this order required agencies and departments to “develop or continue to develop, implement, and update comprehensive plans that integrate consideration of climate change into agency operations and overall mission objectives.”[4]

As his term neared its end, the Obama EO had begun to influence planning and policy in a variety of federal agencies. A 2015 Congressional Research Service report on federal agency action to prepare for climate change found that as of December 2014, thirty-eight federal agencies had developed Climate Adaptation Plans, vulnerability assessments, adaptation milestones and/or metrics to evaluate adaptation performance.[5] Most agency assessments were still in a relatively early fact-finding stage preceding any deep dive analysis.[6]

Common steps to that point included conducting general research and planning, implementing initial actions that are obvious and easy, and creating “decision tools” for how to address climate related situations.[7] Some agencies, including the Department of Defense, had begun incorporating climate considerations into their day-to-day operations and decisions.[8] However, the report emphasizes that while adaptation efforts were taken seriously at the agency headquarters level, policy changes had largely not permeated through to the “on the ground” employees.[9]

However, President Trump’s election heralded a shift in priorities. In March, Trump signed the Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.[10] With the stated purpose of promoting “clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production,” this order explicitly repealed the 2013 Obama EO. [11]

President Trump’s spring EO, followed by a series of hurricanes over the summer that devastated communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, focused attention on the need for adaptation to impending climate change.[12] A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that without significant adaptive efforts to build resilience, the annual cost to the federal government as a result of climate change could be between $12 and $35 billion by mid-century.[13] This has led some commentators to point out that proactively investing for the impact of climate change is a long-term fiscally conservative approach to policy.[14]

While the President’s rescission of the 2013 EO will likely hinder federal efforts at adaptation to global climate change, the overall impact is still unclear. President Obama’s adaptation policies, although repealed, may still influence the activities of federal agencies. A recent article posited two routes to resilience for the Obama EO.[15]

First, states and advocacy groups might find the court system amenable to legal challenges against the Trump Administration’s environmental actions. In interpreting changes to federal regulatory policy, the Supreme Court has said that there is “at least a presumption that those policies will be carried out best if the settled rule is adhered to. From this presumption flows the agency’s duty to explain its departure from prior norms.”[16] Traditionally, the courts have deferred to reasons given by the executive branch for changes in policy.[17] Notably, however, in striking down President Trump’s travel ban EO, courts expressed skepticism of the Administration’s official justification for the new policy.[18] It remains to be seen whether this series of cases demonstrates a one-off exception to the rule, or the beginning of a broader shift away from their deferential posture toward executive reasoning.

Second, career civil servants throughout the federal bureaucracy could use a wide variety of tactics to delay action on the President’s priorities. In past administrations, civil servants have employed tactics such as: slowing down their work; building a strong evidentiary base of support for their favored position, making it harder for political appointees to overturn their proposed policy; leaking information to the press; and even suing the agency for which they work.[19] Such actions could have the effect not only of delaying action, but attracting public attention and building outside support for a proactive climate agenda. It is too early to tell the extent to which this will be a tactic in the Trump Administration. The profusion of leaks appearing in national newspapers suggest that career civil servants are in at least some cases unhappy about Administration’s actions.

Even if the Trump Administration’s rollback of climate adaptation initiatives is delayed, climate change is still projected to impact fields as diverse as food security,[20] national defense,[21] disease control,[22] and international supply chain management.[23] During the Obama years, the White House’s focus on this issue drove significant federal agency action to prepare for climate change. Without support from the President, other issues that appear more urgent could quickly supersede adaptation to climate change.[24] In the long term, this will perhaps be the largest impact of President Trump’s deregulatory environmental agenda.

As evidenced by the incremental movement towards adaptation following President Obama’s 2013 EO, lasting change takes a long time to permeate throughout an organization as large and complex as the federal bureaucracy. Due to that slow pace of change, along with some potential legal challenges, President Trump’s deregulatory agenda may not fully embed itself within the federal government during his time in office. Regardless of the success of his efforts though, a four-year pause in adaptation to climate change’s status as an urgent federal priority will likely increase harm to vulnerable communities and increase long-term costs.

*Kevin Todd is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at katodd@umich.edu.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] Andrea Thompson, Climate Experts Weigh in on Trump’s Election Win, Climate Central (Nov. 9, 2016), http://www.climatecentral.org/news/what-climate-experts-think-of-trumps-win-20860.

[2] Bryan Walsh, Why the Climate Bill Died, Time (July 26, 2010), http://science.time.com/2010/07/26/why-the-climate-bill-died/.

[3] Exec. Order. No. 13,653, 78 Fed. Reg. 66,819, 66,821 (Nov. 6, 2013).

[4] Id.

[5] Jane A. Leggett, Congressional Research Service, Climate Change Adaptation by Federal Agencies: An Analysis of Plans and Issues for Congress 17 (2015).

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 18.

[8] Id. at 19.

[9] Id. at 20-21.

[10] Exec. Order No. 13,783, 82 Fed. Reg. 16,093 (March 28, 2017).

[11] Id.

[12] e.g., Robert Jay Lifton, Our Changing Climate Mindset, N.Y. Times (Oct. 7, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/07/opinion/sunday/hurricanes-climate-public-opinion.html.

[13] Gov’t Accountability Office, Climate Change: Information on Potential Economic Effects Could Help Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Fiscal Exposure 1 (Sept. 2017).

[14] Brad Plumer, Trump Ignores Climate Change. That’s Very Bad for Disaster Planners, N.Y. Times (Nov. 9, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/09/climate/fema-flooding-trump.html.

[15] Yumehiko Hoshejima, Note, Presidential Administration and the Durability of Climate-Consciousness, 127 Yale L.J. 170, 235-43 (2017).

[16] Atchison v. Wichita Bd. of Trade, 412 U.S. 800, 808 (1973).

[17] William N. Eskridge, Jr. & Lauren E. Baer, The Continuum of Deference: Supreme Court Treatment of Agency Statutory Interpretations from Chevron to Hamdan, 96 Geo. L.J. 1083, 1088 (2008).

[18] E.g. Wash. v. Trump, 853 F.3d 933 (9th Cir. 2017), amended and superseded by 858 F.3d 1168 (9th Cir. 2017).

[19] Jennifer Nou, Bureaucratic Resistance from Below, Notice & Comment (Nov. 16, 2016), http://yalejreg.com/nc/bureaucratic-resistance-from-below-by-jennifer-nou/.

[20] U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Climate Change Adaptation Plan 8 (2014), https://www.usda.gov/oce/climate_change/adaptation/USDA_Climate_Change_Adaptation_Plan_FULL.pdf.

[21] Dept. of Defense, 2014 Climate Adaptation Roadmap 1 (2014), http://ppec.asme.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CCARprint.pdf.

[22] Dept. of Health and Human Services, HHS Climate Adaptation Plan 4 (2014), https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/about/sustainability/2014-climate-change.pdf.

[23] Dept. of Commerce, Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 4 (2014), http://www.osec.doc.gov/ofeq/Documents/OSEEP/Annual%20Rpts%20&%20Scrcards/Final%20DOC%20Adaptation%20Plan_Final_2014-6-10.pdf.

[24] Plumer, supra note 14.

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