This post is by Vrinda Manglik, campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s International Climate and Energy campaign
Eight years ago, and again four years later, I stood on the US National Mall in the bitter cold to watch Barack Obama get sworn in for his respective first and second terms as president. Particularly at the dawn of his first term, the mood among progressives was one of joy, excitement and, yes, hope. To our great disappointment, his first term brought crushing setbacks on climate change: a failed climate bill in Congress and the collapse of the UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. But with his re-election and a growing public climate movement, Obama championed climate issues in his second term. Constrained by uncooperative Republicans in Congress, Obama used his executive authority to introduce a comprehensive Climate Action Plan in 2013, to jointly announce with China new targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction, to ratify the Paris Agreement, reject the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and to introduce his landmark Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.
As President-Elect Donald Trump is sworn in, the mood couldn’t be more different. Even as we heed the advice of President Obama in his farewell address to not give in to fear, there is a feeling of nervous anticipation about what is to come. When it comes to climate change, Trump has given mixed signals about his personal views on the matter (see here and here). Unfortunately, since then, his picks for various cabinet positions have included many climate change deniers and friends of the fossil fuel industry, effectively eliminating hope that his administration will be reasonable on climate issues. Nonetheless, there are still some reasons why climate progress in the US will not stop during the next four years, including the likely continued success of renewables and emissions reductions at the state level.
Trump’s cabinet picks
Let’s start with the bad news about Trump’s cabinet nominations. Climate change is touched by many agencies, but here are a few that are particularly significant.
- Environmental Protection Agency: This agency is charged with enforcing federal statutes relating to clean air and clean water, and regulating greenhouse gas emissions (as ruled by the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision Massachusetts v EPA). Trump’s nominee is Scott Pruitt who, as attorney general of Oklahoma, led dozens of lawsuits against the EPA on behalf of big polluters and has fought against its basic mission. A new EPA administrator cannot undo existing rules but could make them weaker, delay their implementation or have Congress cut funding for enforcement.
- Department of Energy: This agency runs initiatives such as Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), which researches clean energy. Trump’s nominee is Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, who denies both that climate change is happening and that humans have caused it. He has even previously called for the Department of Energy to be eliminated. One of the most ominous moves from the Trump administration relating to the Department of Energy was a request in December asking the department to submit the names of employees who had worked on climate change; fortunately, the department refused to fulfill this request. And, early last week, outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz issued a new scientific integrity policy protecting scientists and engineers.
- Department of State: From a climate perspective, this agency is significant because it is responsible for negotiating the US position on the Paris Agreement, and for approving or rejecting international pipelines such as Keystone XL. Trump’s nominee to lead this agency is former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who many are concerned will continue to support oil and gas industries. Under oath at his confirmation hearing, Tillerson denied the existence of subsidies to oil and gas industries, which Oil Change International estimates to be at least $17 billion per year. While Exxon has expressed its support for a carbon price and the Paris Agreement, the company is currently under criminal investigation for misleading investors and the American public about climate change.
At Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, Republican US Senator Marco Rubio also questioned his potential conflicts of interest with regard to Russia, and expressed concern that Tillerson would give Russia preferential treatment. Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, observed in the Los Angeles Times, “For the next four years a fossil fuel friendly Trump administration and Vladimir Putin’s Russia could be aligned around one goal: sell as much oil and gas as possible, climate change be damned.”
Progress will continue
On more than one occasion, Trump has talked about leaving the Paris Agreement, but there’s a good chance he won’t. Climate interests aside, leaving would certainly undermine US diplomatic credibility. There has also been pressure from the private sector for the US to stay in; 365 major corporations including Nike, Unilever and Starbucks signed a letter following Trump’s election, urging him to stay in the Paris Agreement for the signal it sends for low carbon investments. Most importantly, as some have pointed out, Trump may simply find it to be too much of a time consuming, logistical hassle to leave or renegotiate US involvement, and he may find it makes more sense to stay in the non-binding agreement without putting much effort into ensuring the US achieves its goals.
Fortunately, it is quite possible that the US will continue to make good progress on its commitments, even without a federal mandate. The credibility of the US while negotiating in Paris rested on the fact that it was making efforts to reduce emissions at home. The Clean Power Plan (CPP), a rule announced by Obama and the EPA in 2015, provided a great deal of negotiating leverage for the US in Paris. The CPP requires states to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, but it allows states a great deal of flexibility in how they can meet their individual state targets, including joining emissions trading schemes or multi-state compacts. There is currently an ongoing court case regarding the CPP which is likely to go to the Supreme Court, and Trump has vowed to kill it. Nonetheless, rather than wait in uncertainty, numerous states have already started implementing the CPP and will continue to shift to renewables because the economics make sense.
In the US and around the world, renewables are competitive and getting cheaper, and investment continues to shift from coal to renewables. Renewables and natural gas will keep beating coal as the cheapest power source throughout most of the US, with or without the CPP. Battles in the US for the success of renewables, particularly solar, are playing out at the state level, and states such as California are showing incredible leadership. For example, the newly passed SB32 requires California to cut its emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. This ambition should be replicated throughout the country.
Significantly, the solar economy is creating jobs at a rate twelve times faster than the rest of the US economy. Hunger for job creation, particularly creation of blue collar jobs, is a central concern that led to Trump’s election. Creating high quality jobs through a large scale transition to renewable energy should be an aspiration that the Trump administration and progressives alike can get behind. A winning climate strategy in the US is one that helps renewable industries succeed, and allows working and middle class families to succeed along with it.
While the new administration will most likely try to boost oil and natural gas production in the US, the environmental community is prepared to fight back every step of the way. And, when it comes to renewables, the success of clean energy will shine its own light on the path to low carbon in the US.