The president’s record and statements, along with statements by administration officials, indicate that the past four years were a vivid prologue to another term: More of the same on climate and energy.
By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News
Before running for president in 2016, Donald Trump already had a track record of climate-science denial, falsely alleging that it was “a hoax.”
Trump has persisted in casting doubt on the vast and growing body of scientific research behind concerns about pollution-caused climate disruption.
In 2018, the president indicated to Lesley Stahl on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” that he doesn’t accept the scientific consensus that humans are the main cause of climate change: “Something’s changing, and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade.”
And in September, he insisted to a California environmental official in a public exchange that “I don’t think science knows” whether climate change aggravated that state’s disastrous wildfires. Scientists say it has had “an undeniable role.”
With such an attitude toward climate science, it’s no wonder that Trump has governed as a man who gives every sign of being supremely unconcerned about scientists’ findings and warnings.
In 2017, his first year in office, he withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, in which then-President Barack Obama and the leaders of 194 other nations agreed to make voluntary reductions in global warming emissions. The pact launched an unprecedented project to wean the world economy rapidly from fossil fuels. Its announced aim: Avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
In sync with Trump’s Paris decision, his administration launched a continuing series of actions to weaken or kill climate-protecting regulations and to suppress scientific findings that support them. The clear aim has been to bolster and boost fossil fuels.
Trump’s campaign has released no formal climate and energy agenda, and the Republican Party adopted no platform this year. Appraisals of what to expect if he’s re-elected must rely on his record and on statements by him and administration officials. Both strongly suggest that if he is wins a second term, the past four years will have been a vivid prologue to the next four, with more of the same on climate and energy.
Rolling back regulations
To a large extent, Trump’s performance on climate and energy – and on other environmental matters – has been focused on countering actions by the previous administration.
Some of his regulatory rollbacks have also targeted efforts by prior Republican administrations, but the most significant were Obama initiatives.
“Everything that seemed to have President Obama’s stamp on it – automobile standards, pollution standards, coal ash, rivers, dealing with water quality and American rivers – were the first targets that they attempted to push back. … (T)hese were attempts to somehow erase Obama’s legacy,” said Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Houston’s Texas Southern University in an interview with Texas Climate News earlier this year.
Trump’s most significant climate-related rollbacks have included:
- Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, a move that takes effect on Nov. 4. (Biden has promised to rejoin the pact.)
- Replacing Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from electricity production (by replacing coal with lower-carbon natural gas and renewables) with the less ambitious Affordable Clean Energy rule, aimed at increasing plant efficiency.
- Relaxing Obama’s automotive fuel-economy standards for greenhouse pollution, “virtually undoing the government’s biggest effort to combat climate change,” as the New York Times reported.
- Rescinding Obama’s regulations to limit emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming gas, from oil and gas facilities.
There are many more, as recorded on the Climate Deregulation Tracker database maintained by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law along with a companion effort, the Silencing Science Tracker.
As listed on the Climate Deregulation Tracker, here are a few of the headlines for descriptions of the most recent rollbacks:
- Oct. 29: “Trump administration lifts protections on country’s largest national forest” (an Alaska area valued as a crucial “carbon sink” to remove carbon from the atmosphere)
- Sept. 24: “Department of Energy moves to prevent future efficiency improvements in furnaces and water heaters”
- Aug. 17: “Bureau of Land Management greenlights drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”
- July 15: “Council on Environmental Quality finalizes National Environmental Policy Act regulation amendments” (which could “limit or eliminate climate change consideration from analysis of fossil fuel projects”)
The Climate Deregulation Tracker now has entries for 163 actions on about 100 regulations (about 70 finalized and about 30 still in process) that would “scale back or wholly eliminate federal climate mitigation and adaptation measures.”
The Silencing Science Tracker, which includes other environmental and health subjects, now lists 470 “anti-science actions” by federal, state and local officials during the Trump administration – 326 of them at the federal level, said Romany Webb, senior fellow and associate research scholar at the Sabin Center, who maintains the science database. Some were taken by Trump transition officials before his inauguration, she added.
In a recently published analysis, Webb and a Sabin Center colleague, climate law fellow Daniel J. Metzger, concluded that Vice President Mike Pence’s pledge that Trump would “take care of our environment and follow the science” in a second term would be a “marked departure” from the first term.
Trump and his administration “have consistently censored, misrepresented, and stifled scientific research and discussion,” they wrote. “Many of the administration’s actions have targeted climate scientists, who have been removed from their positions, prevented from publishing their research, or had their findings misrepresented or simply ignored by officials. Instead of relying on science, the administration has turned to industry for advice, and put their priorities first.”
The Silencing Science database documents “a marked change” from previous administrations’ attempts to suppress science, Webb told Texas Climate News. Trump Administration “officials are very overt about the fact that they’re doing that and are very openly critical of science in a way that past administrations really weren’t.”
After much-denounced acts of “government censorship” early in Trump’s term, such as removing climate-science information from agency websites and reports, administration officials appear to have become “more sophisticated in their techniques for undermining or downplaying science,” Webb said. This new approach includes things such as “mandating the way researchers have to conduct their research so as to potentially change a finding,” she added.
One telling example of restrictions came last year, when the new head of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) told its scientists to limit projections of climate-change impacts to the period ending in 2040, which would exclude worse damage expected from then until the end of the century.
Such mandates are widely regarded as an attempt to shape influential appraisals of climate change’s expected hazards, such as next year’s edition of the National Climate Assessment. That report is a comprehensive scientific overview, assembled every few years by hundreds of other federal and other scientists.
Recent appointments to key science jobs in federal agencies are also seen as moves by the administration to affect the National Climate Assessment. For instance, in September a University of Delaware climatologist who NPR reported “has spent much of his career questioning basic tenets of climate science” was named to a key position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has a crucial role in federal climate and weather predictions.
A second term
Without a published agenda or party platform to study, looking ahead to a second Trump term inevitably involves a fair amount of tea-leaf reading. In Trump’s case there are a lot of tea leaves to examine. They include forward-looking statements by administration officials and continuing efforts to overcome setbacks resulting from judges’ adverse rulings on challenges to rollbacks.
Statements by Trump and administration officials depict a view of science as a political weapon. On “60 Minutes” two years ago, Trump dismissed research findings that climate change is strengthening hurricanes: “Look, scientists also have a political agenda.”
Similarly, a Trump-appointed Interior Department official who had represented the coal industry said that “science was a Democrat thing” in explaining why a study on coal mining’s impacts on public health was canceled, the Washington Post revealed last year.
On the campaign trail, Trump has given every sign of staying the course on climate and energy issues. He has repeatedly spoken of “clean, beautiful coal,” which is actually the most polluting of the fossil fuels. He traveled to Texas’ oil-rich Permian Basin in July to warn that a Biden win would mean no more drilling there. (An unsubstantiated charge, the fact-checking Associated Press said.)
In a more explicitly predictive vein, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler is among officials talking about a second Trump term. Wheeler is himself a former coal-industry lobbyist against Obama’s regulations. He told the Wall Street Journal in September that Trump, in the Journal’s paraphrase, “would press forward with efforts to ease regulatory burdens on business” and “allow his agency to implement additional measures such as including a cost-benefit analysis of any new regulations.”
Writing in the National Law Review early this month, several members of the international law firm K&L Gates flatly stated that the president and EPA administrator “do not see climate change as a significant threat and, therefore, generally view carbon regulation as unnecessary. … (E)xpect his administration to double-down on his agenda to roll back climate-related regulations and policies that his team believes exceed statutory authority or lack sufficient benefits.”
That doubling-down, they predicted, would include things like weakening vehicle fuel-economy and greenhouse emissions requirements for future model years not covered in the first lowering of Obama’s standards.
In their analysis for Columbia’s Sabin Center, Metzger and Webb identified eight energy and environment policy goals they think Trump would pursue, based on his record and on his and administration officials’ recent statements:
- Continuing support for fossil-fuel production
- Supporting coal’s use to produce electricity
- Supporting nuclear power
- Continuing “hostility” to renewable energy
- Pursuing technologies to capture and store carbon emissions in lieu of reducing them
- Opposing energy-efficiency measures
- Restricting the authority of “environment-conscious” states
- Taking more actions “to reduce the role of science” in government decisions
Webb told TCN that energy efficiency is one of the things that she will monitor particularly closely in a second Trump term.
“We’ve seen a couple of proposals recently that are not simply revising existing energy-efficiency standards, but actually making it more difficult to adopt more stringent standards in the future,” she said.
Bill Dawson is founding editor of Texas Climate News.