A second Trump term would mean severe and irreversible changes in the climate
This piece was originally published August 27, and has been lightly updated.
During the final presidential debate, both candidates were asked how they would combat climate change and support job growth. President Donald Trump offered few specifics, merely saying that that, “We have the Trillion Trees program. We have so many different programs. I do love the environment.”
But let’s be clear: If Trump is reelected president, the likely result will be irreversible changes to the climate that will degrade the quality of life of every subsequent generation of human beings, with millions of lives harmed or foreshortened. That’s in addition to the hundreds of thousands of lives at present that will be hurt or prematurely end.
This sounds like exaggeration, some of the “alarmism” green types are always accused of. But it is not particularly controversial among those who have followed Trump’s record on energy and climate change.
“As bad as it seems right now,” says Josh Freed of Third Way, a center-left think tank, “the climate and energy scenario in Trump II would be much, much worse.”
The damage has not primarily been done, and won’t primarily be done, by Congress, except through inaction (which is no small thing). Under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate has effectively abdicated its duty as a legislative body; it now mostly exists to approve far-right judges to the federal bench.
In what follows, I’ll assume that if Trump wins, Republicans keep the Senate — and that the situation remains as is, with Congress divided and gridlocked, unable to pass major legislation or effectively restrain Trump. (It is possible that Trump wins and Democrats take both houses of Congress, but thinking about that breaks my brain.)
I’m going to do a quick review of Trump’s record so far on climate and energy. By necessity, it is not comprehensive. The amount of damage done, not only on high-profile issues but through unceasing daily efforts to weaken and degrade the federal bureaucracy, could fill volumes. I’ll just look at the highlights, with a focus on what Trump wants to do and is more likely to get away with in a second term.
First, though, let’s talk about the main thing, which is that a Trump victory would make any reasonable definition of “success” on climate change impossible.
(Note: I asked lots of people for their thoughts on a second Trump term, and for the most part, they did not want to speak on record or in specifics, for fear of giving Trump ideas. The sense of dread is palpable.)
More Trump will ensure the continued escalation of global temperatures
We know from the latest IPCC report that the climate target agreed to by nations — no more than a 2° Celsius rise in global average temperatures — is not a “safe” threshold at all. Going from 1.5° to 2° means many more heat waves, wildfires, crop failures, migrations, and premature deaths. We know that every fraction of a degree beyond 2° means more still, along with the increasing risk of tipping points that make further warming unstoppable.
Hitting the 1.5° target would require the world to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. Doing so would require industrial mobilization beginning immediately. Even hitting 2° would be desperately difficult at this point. There is no longer any time for delay; this is the last decade in which it is still possible.
We know that the US doing its part to reach net zero by 2050 would not be enough, in itself, to limit global temperature rise. By the same token, we know it is wildly unlikely that the rest of the world will be able to organize to meet that goal without US leadership. And in the face of active US undermining and opposition, it will be all but impossible.
Climate policy is complicated, but in the end, it comes down to replacing everything powered by fossil fuels with zero-carbon alternatives, and we know beyond any doubt that the Trump administration is devoted to the interests of its allies in the fossil fuel industry. Everything the administration has done since taking office reflects a single-minded zeal to release fossil fuel industries from regulatory restraints and to subsidize them through public policy.
US carbon emissions have been declining, down roughly 12 percent since 2004. That’s almost entirely due to the market-driven decline of coal in the electricity sector, a trend that analysts expect to continue. The Trump administration disingenuously takes credit for it. But it won’t be enough, on its own, to reduce emissions fast enough to stay on track for net zero by 2050. Not even close.
The US needs to completely transition off electricity generated by coal and natural gas, vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel, and buildings heated by natural gas and oil — and quickly.
Everything Trump has done pushes in the opposite direction. Four more years of Trump, backed by a Republican Senate, will mean a heavy drag on global efforts to control carbon. Progress on decarbonization will slow in the US, and the example America sets will slow other nations’ progress as well, making the aforementioned 10-year mobilization all but impossible. That is a difference that will reverberate for centuries.
Now let’s look at his record.
Trump has steadily rolled back regulations on fossil fuel companies
“When I think about the horrors of a Trump term two, I think about lock-in of domestic policies,” says Sam Ricketts of Evergreen Action, “buttressed — and in places even made permanent — by his continuing to stack the courts.”
In his first term, Trump has blocked, weakened, or rolled back 100 environmental, public health, and worker safety regulations. Among them are virtually all the steps Obama took to address climate change, from the Clean Power Plan for the electricity sector to tighter fuel economy standards for transportation, emissions standards on methane for oil and gas operations, efforts to integrate a “social cost of carbon” for agency decision-making, reform of fossil fuel leasing on public land, and energy efficiency standards on light bulbs. (Trump also wants to go after toilets and showerheads.)
Every one of those decisions would have the effect of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmentalists have sued over all of them, and thus far, Trump has lost more cases than he has won. Many of the rule changes pushed through by his agencies are being rejected by courts for being rushed and shoddy.
Given another term, Trump’s agencies will have more time to fill out those arguments and resubmit those rules; almost any rule can be justified eventually. Meanwhile, the federal bench will be packed with more sympathetic Trump appointees ready to rubber-stamp those rules.
And if federal judges object, the administration can appeal the cases to the Supreme Court, where Trump will almost certainly have had the opportunity to replace a justice or two. With a solid 6-3 or 7-2 majority on the Court, virtually anything the administration wants will end up being approved.
For example, Trump’s Department of Interior tried to rescind Obama’s 2016 rules limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public land; the court recently rejected the attempt, calling it “defectively promulgated” and “wholly inadequate.” Given time and a friendlier court, the rule would be doomed. (Here’s a comprehensive tracker of all the rule changes so far, and their status.)
The administration is also going after other methane rules on oil and gas operations, and in the process, trying to change the EPA’s rulemaking process to make future regulations more difficult. That brings us to a key point.
The Trump administration is stacking the deck to advantage fossil fuels
Aside from all the rules the administration has eviscerated, is eviscerating, and plans to eviscerate, it is also pushing several changes to agency procedures that will make it more difficult to regulate in the future.
Under administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA has proposed to alter the way it does cost-benefit analysis to exclude consideration of a rule’s “co-benefits” — reductions in other pollutants that come as a side effect of reducing targeted pollutants. (A coalition of environmental groups has opposed the change, which violates EPA precedent, statutory intent, and common sense.) If the change goes into effect — as it surely will given another term and friendlier courts — all future air quality rules will be weakened.
The EPA has also promulgated a “secret science rule” that would exclude from consideration a wide swath of studies demonstrating the danger of air pollution (including its danger in helping spread Covid-19). Without those studies to rely on, justifying public health regulations would be more difficult going forward. The EPA’s own independent board of science advisers said the change would “reduce scientific integrity” at the agency.
Speaking of independent science advisers, starting under Pruitt, the EPA began pushing out science advisers who had received grants from the agency (which includes most of them) and replacing them with fossil fuel cronies. Amusingly, even a science board packed with Trump appointees has said that three of the agency’s major recent rule changes flew in the face of established science. Still, given another term to finish the job, Wheeler could effectively eliminate independent scientific review at the agency.
The administration has also gutted the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to rigorously assess the effects of its actions on the environment and local communities, and is one of the principal avenues through which communities of color and other vulnerable communities communicate their interests to the federal government.
In July, the White House Council on Environmental Quality released a proposed rule that would dramatically limit the range of federal agency actions to which NEPA applies, limit consideration of cumulative and indirect impacts (like climate change and environmental justice), and curtail public involvement in the decision-making process and judicial review. Given another term to see the change through, the White House could shape every major federal agency decision going forward.
The administration is also trying to revoke California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act, which allows the state to set its own (typically more ambitious) emissions standards. If it succeeds, it would sabotage not only California’s standards but those of the 13 states (and Washington, DC) that have adopted them.
And it won’t be the only way a vindictive Trump could go after his perceived enemies. “Blue states will be starved of federal funding, which means massive cuts that inevitably lead to a degradation in environmental enforcement and investment in cleaner energy,” says Freed, “but also likely big reductions in mass transit funding and aid to cities that will push more people into cars and more emissions.”
Over at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Trump appointees have pushed through a Minimum Offer Price Rule (MOPR). It’s quite technical (I explain it here), but the net result is that state policies meant to support clean energy will be cancelled out in regional energy wholesale markets. It would cost consumers billions of dollars and prop up uneconomic coal power plants.
The MOPR is also under litigation from multiple groups. Again, given four more years and a compliant Supreme Court, it will probably stick. And FERC’s Republican commissioners have said they want to expand its use.
FERC also recently pushed through reforms to PURPA (the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act) that would disadvantage small-scale clean energy projects. And it has long pushed an argument for ending net-metering programs (which incentivize rooftop solar) nationwide; that and other steps against distributed energy resources will likely feature in a second term.
At least in this term, the administration chose not to go directly after the EPA’s 2009 Endangerment Finding, which classifies greenhouse gases as pollutants subject to the Clean Air Act. Rumors abound that the administration will go after it in a second term, given a friendlier Supreme Court. That would take one of the only major existing regulatory tools against greenhouse gases in the US off the table.
Speaking of the Supreme Court, an emboldened conservative majority is likely to go after the Chevron doctrine, which gives federal agencies wide latitude in interpreting congressional directives. “I don’t think it’s a matter of if Chevron would be overturned,” says Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, “just a matter of what case gets them to do it.”
Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch have recently been making noise about radically limiting the ability of federal agencies to regulate at all, under a hyper-conservative interpretation of the “nondelegation doctrine.”
“It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of this issue,” my colleague Ian Millhiser writes. “Countless federal laws, from the Clean Air Act to the Affordable Care Act, lay out a broad federal policy and delegate to an agency the power to implement the details of that policy. Under Kavanaugh’s approach, many of these laws are unconstitutional, as are numerous existing regulations governing polluters, health providers, and employers.”
There may already be five conservative votes on the court for this radical lurch backward. If Trump gets another two SCOTUS appointments, it is all but a certainty.
Land, water, and wildlife are also getting the shaft
I’ve mostly been focusing on the EPA and energy, but Trump’s damage is omnidirectional.
Earlier this year, the administration gutted Obama’s Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule, removing pollution protections from a wide swathe of wetlands and streams.
Over at the Department of Interior, Trump’s first appointee, Ryan Zinke, went on an industry-friendly bender, weakening land and species protections, ramping up oil and gas leasing on public land, and purging senior staff and 4,000 jobs. He eventually resigned amid a hail of ethics investigations — so many the New York Times had to put together a guide — and some are ongoing.
Zinke was replaced by oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, who managed to get as far as rolling back a bunch of wildlife protections before also coming under investigation for conflicts of interest. He has held on so far, though, and has a long wish list (there’s a tracker here), with almost every proposed change devoted in one way or another to weakening wildlife protections and expanding oil and gas drilling on public land.
A second Trump term will almost certainly see a renewed push for more offshore oil and gas drilling, expanding on the recent opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A plan to open virtually all the nation’s coastal waters to drilling was put “on hold” after pushback from courts and coastal communities last year, but it will return, as will further delays for offshore wind projects.
Bernhardt also moved the headquarters of DOI’s Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, Colorado (a fossil fuel hub), and gave DC staff 30 days to decide whether to follow. Predictably, and by intent, the move resulted in an enormous brain drain, as about half of the experienced staff left.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue did something similar, moving the USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture — research agencies investigating, among other things, lower-carbon regenerative agriculture — to Kansas City. Critics saw the move as an obvious bid to make filling positions and coordinating with other federal researchers more difficult, thus strengthening the influence of big, carbon-intensive industrial agriculture.
There is no telling how many more agencies Trump could gut given four more years. Many staff, at EPA and other agencies, have been holding on to hopes of a new president. If Trump is reelected, there’s likely to be a huge exodus of knowledge and talent from the federal government.
Trump’s foreign policy is entirely devoted to fossil fuels
Promoting fossil fuels has been one of the few consistent themes of Trump’s foreign policy.
He announced early on, amid a flurry of misinformation, that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. (That decision will go into effect on November 5, regardless of the election outcome.) Though some State Department staffers are still attending international climate meetings and participating in lower-level dialogues, top US leadership has spurned the entire process and shows no sign of reengaging.
Instead, Trump is trying to manage oil prices by making deals with cartels, bullying other countries to buy US oil, seeking to export liquid natural gas to India, and jostling with Russia and China over trade routes through the melting Arctic.
In a second term, Trump is unlikely to rejoin Paris; he’s much more likely to remove the US from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change entirely. It is an open question whether the Paris framework could survive that at all.
Four more years of Trump would leave democracy, and hope for a safe climate, in tatters
The above constitutes a highly selective list, a small portion of the damage Trump has done to climate and energy progress across federal agencies and international agreements. There are plenty of other examples to cite, including his beloved trade wars, which he will undoubtedly expand in a second term. A recent analysis found that his solar tariffs to date have cost 62,000 jobs in the solar industry and blocked 10.5 gigawatts of new solar from coming online. (If you can stomach a more comprehensive list, check out this piece from the Global Current.)
The main bulwark against Trump’s changes so far has been the courts, but that bulwark will not hold against an administration with four more years to bolster its legal cases and appoint sympathetic judges.
Under Trump and McConnell, the Senate has already appointed 200 federal judges, almost a quarter of the total number. If McConnell keeps the Senate, the next four years could see half of federal judges being Trump appointees and a 7-2 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. That would likely mean a rapid return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, radically curtailing the reach of foundational environmental laws. Trump — or, more precisely, the Federalist Society — would be utterly unrestrained.
And that’s not even accounting for the possibility that Trump could simply ignore court judgments he doesn’t like, which seems to be the logical next step for an administration that has faced so little accountability for its law-breaking.
In a second term, especially if Republicans keep the Senate, there would be few tools left to use against Trump’s march into the fossil fuel past. Big businesses and financial institutions might exert some influence. The EU might impose a border adjustment tax. But most hope would fall on direct activism.
Yet activism is only going to get more difficult, as it tends to under authoritarian states. “It’s impossible to separate the massive, vicious assault on democracy and civil rights Trump would prosecute in a second term from the actions he would take on climate and energy,” says Freed. Many states have been passing laws ramping up the scope and severity of penalties for direct activism, increasingly being redefined as “domestic terrorism.” Trump’s use of federal forces to brutalize protesters in Portland is likely a preview of a much more extensive crackdown on civil disobedience in a second term. Some environmental groups are already having serious discussions about how to prepare their members.
There’s no sugarcoating it: If Trump wins the election and Republicans keep the Senate, democracy in America might not survive. At the very least, any hope of public policy to rapidly decarbonize the US is off the table. The US will push actively in the opposite direction.
I often think about this passage from a 2016 commentary in the journal Nature (signed by 22 noted climate scientists):
Policy decisions made during [coming years] are likely to result in changes to Earth’s climate system measured in millennia rather than human lifespans, with associated socioeconomic and ecological impacts that will exacerbate the risks and damages to society and ecosystems that are projected for the twenty-first century and propagate into the future for many thousands of years.
Thousands of years.
Trump’s damage to the climate is not like his damage to the immigration system or the health care system. It can’t be undone. It can’t be repaired. Changes to the climate are, for all intents and purposes, irreversible. They will be experienced by every generation to come.
It is a cliché by now to call this the most important election of our lifetimes, but even that dramatic phrasing doesn’t capture the stakes. From the perspective of the human species as a whole, the arc of its life on this planet, it may be the most important election ever.
New goal: 25,000
In the spring, we launched a program asking readers for financial contributions to help keep Vox free for everyone, and last week, we set a goal of reaching 20,000 contributors. Well, you helped us blow past that. Today, we are extending that goal to 25,000. Millions turn to Vox each month to understand an increasingly chaotic world — from what is happening with the USPS to the coronavirus crisis to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work — and helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. Contribute today from as little as $3.