Trump and the Future of Climate Change

By Jason Zhu*

Now that Trump is our president, the next question is what he will do to the environment. President Trump famously coined climate change as a “Chinese hoax”[1] and, with a republican majority in both Houses, he now has the power and the popular mandate to debunk this “myth.”

Like those who work or conduct research on Obamacare and public health sectors, climate change researchers and advocates have much to worry pending a Trump presidency. Trump’s stance on climate change is understandably worrying to them. First, Trump has threatened to pull America out of the Paris climate change accord.[2] He wanted to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency and repeal environmental regulations, which are now implemented by Obama’s executive orders.[3] In short, if Trump sticks to his words – unlikely as it is – he will change the global landscape of environmental governance. His solution is also drastic. Trump calls on America to return to coal, which has been out of fashion for long time for it is not efficient and polluting.[4] Maybe Trump is looking for votes, rather than energy, from the dustbin of history. A more benevolent view may be that Trump shows flexibility in the face of economic uncertainty and the fleeing of capitals from traditional industrial sectors, which Trump aims to revitalize. If Trump manages to both pull out of the Paris Agreement and return to coal and coal-fired power plants, his administration could have long term impact on global environmental governance, ranging from biodiversity, food availability, and intercontinental consensus to fight global warming.[5]

Let’s start with Trump’s domestic environmental policy. On his first day of office Trump will have the power to challenge the Clean Power Plan, a set of regulations issued by the EPA under the Obama administration.[6] The Clean Power Plan is under threat now, and paradoxically, by President Obama’s own actions. Back in 2014, Professor Eric Posner commented on former President Obama’s decision to defer the deportation of undocumented immigrants: “A conservative president can refuse to enforce laws, but a liberal president can’t enforce laws that don’t exist. While a President Rand could gut the regulatory state, the opportunities for a President Hillary Clinton to advance liberalism through non-enforcement are much less fecund.”[7]  The main point is: whereas a liberal president needs at least some legislations to expand the size of the government and the power of the executive, a conservative president needs nothing to shrink the size of the government and the power of the executive. By creating the precedent of non-enforcement through executive orders, Obama made it easier for Trump to not enforce laws that Trump does not like. To apply this logic to our case, President Obama’s deliberate inaction gave President Trump much leeway to do away with environmental regulations. What goes around comes around: this applies to Trump’s executive inaction as well. And unlike Ronald Reagan in 1981, Trump has republican majority in both houses this time, making it a lot easier for him to push for de-regulation through the executive branch, given that Congress has the power over budget (or the lack thereof).

The Clean Power Plan not only faces serious threat from executive inaction but also from a new Supreme Court. In September, the D.C. Circuit heard the case brought by 27 states against the Clean Power Plan on the grounds that EPA did not have authority under the Clean Air Act of 1970 to implement these regulations and it overstepped into Congress’ territory.[8] The ruling would not come out until next year and it might reach the Supreme Court as late as 2018.[9] But by then both the Supreme Court and the EPA will be very different from today. First, it is likely that a Trump appointee will sit on the court and he/she might not favor an expansion of the EPA executive power. Second, the Justice Department and the EPA of Trump administration might not defend this very plan that Trump hopes to repeal. To conclude, the Clean Power Plan is unlikely to survive under Trump. But in any event, it has not been implemented in those 27 states that brought suit since the Supreme Court, in a partisan 5-4 split back in February this year, had already put it on hold.[10]

In the grand scheme of things, the Clean Power Plan is part of the larger effort by the US government to cut United States power plant emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.[11] That policy goal was set out in the Paris accord which became effective in November 4, 2016. If the Plan lies at the heart of the US commitment to the Accord, then when the Plans fails, so fails the Accord. In theory, it could take at least four years for the US to pull out of the Paris accord.[12] In practice, however, Trump, with Congressional approval, could act unilaterally to withdraw from the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the parent treaty of the Paris agreement.[13] This process takes at least one year to achieve. That, however, would come with substantial political costs because the parent treaty was signed by another Republican, G.H.W. Bush and ratified in the Senate.[14] More crucially, such action will severely damage the credibility of the US.


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.

*Jason Zhu is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at jasonzhu@umich.edu.

[1] Louis Jacobson, Yes, Donald Trump did call climate change a Chinese hoax, POLITIFACT, Jun. 3, 2016, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jun/03/hillary-clinton/yes-donald-trump-did-call-climate-change-chinese-h/.

[2] Cassie Werber, With Trump as president, China—China!—will be the world’s biggest champion of fighting climate change, QUARTZ, Nov. 10, 2016, http://qz.com/833859/with-trump-as-president-china-will-be-the-worlds-biggest-champion-of-fighting-climate-change/.

[3] Coral Davenport, Donald Trump Could Put Climate Change on Course for ‘Danger Zone’, NEW YORK TIMES, Nov. 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/us/politics/donald-trump-climate-change.html.

[4] Cyrus Sanati, Why Donald Trump Won’t Bring Coal Jobs Back to West Virginia, THE VERGE, July 20, 2016, http://fortune.com/2016/07/20/why-donald-trump-wont-bring-coal-jobs-back-to-west-virginia/.

[5] Angela Chen, What does a Trump presidency mean for climate change?, THE VERGE, Nov. 10, 2016, http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/10/13579222/trump-presidency-climate-change-energy-environment-coal.

[6] See supra note 4.

[7] Eric A. Posner, Obama’s Immigration Order Is a Gift to Future Republican Presidents, NEW REPUBLIC, Nov. 18, 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/120382/obamas-immigration-executive-order-gift-republican-presidents.

[8] State of West Virginia, et al. v. EPA, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, No. 15-1363.

[9] Emily Holden, EPA’s Clean Power Plan Does Well in Court, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Sept. 28, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/epa-s-clean-power-plan-does-well-in-court/.

[10] West Virginia, et al. v. EPA, No. 15-1363 (D.C. Cir. February 9, 2016).

[11] Coral Davenport, Donald Trump Could Put Climate Change on Course for  

‘Danger Zone’, NEW YORK TIMES, Nov. 10, 2016,  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/us/politics/donald-trump-climate-change.html.

[12] Alister Doyle, Trump could pull out of global climate accord in a year: lawyers, Global Energy News, REUTERS, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-climatechange-idUSKBN1351QT.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

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