Energy & Environment
Where Does Donald Trump Stand on Environmental Policy?
After a year of intense debates, drama, and scandals, election day is now less than a week away. The results of the 2016 election will have a major influence on the next four years in politics with regard to a variety of issues, including gun rights, immigration, and tax reform. While environmentalism has not been a highlight of this election cycle, each president has a dramatically different approach to the issue, and the winner will have a serious impact on the future of environmentalism in the United States.
In this two-part series, we will unpack each candidate’s stance on environmentalism and their plans for the future, as well as outline exactly what is within their power to do. This first part will focus on the Republican side of the issue and analyze Donald Trump’s environmental policy. How exactly would Trump’s plan to loosen environmental regulations influence global warming as well as air and water quality? What exactly is Hilary Clinton’s renewable energy proposal and how effective would it really be? These are pressing questions that have gotten little attention throughout the campaign season.
Read Part Two: Where Does Hillary Clinton Stand on Environmental Policy?
The G.O.P. Debates: The Case of the Missing Environmentalist
First a little context. While the 17 original Republican candidates fought bitterly on a variety of issues, they were almost all united in their belief that climate change is a hoax. There were a few exceptions to this rule; Jeb Bush and John Kasich admitted that climate change was real, but not that it was caused by humans, while Carly Fiorina both admitted that climate change was real and caused by human activity. Chris Christie and Rand Paul have both publicly admitted to climate change being real and human-caused (Rand Paul even signed onto a bill agreeing to this) but both later went back on their statements, claiming that the science is still unclear.
Republican runner-up Ted Cruz briefly drew public attention with a clever scientific misinterpretation when he claimed that there has been no warming over the past 18 years, at least if you go by satellite data. His timeline of 18 years would take us all back to the uniquely hot 1997-1998 El Nino. It is true that if you only look at a short period of time and begin with a hot year, it doesn’t appear that much warming has taken place. But if you look at global temperatures over any kind of longer period, they are very clearly going nowhere but up. The methodology behind his assessment also flies in the face of the scientific community, which creates climate change models based on satellite atmospheric data combined with surface measurements, because satellite data can easily be subject to flaws due to confounding variables.
Current Republican nominee Donald Trump has had an even more outlandish position–that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese in order to render American manufacturing less competitive. He has since both claimed that this was a joke and that he never said any such statement, although it still exists on his Twitter account and in videotaped interviews.
Where the Party Stands
The Republican party is often viewed as being anti-environmentalist and generally for good reason. Currently, 182 members, or 34 percent, in Congress do not believe in climate change. While this list of climate deniers includes both Republicans and Democrats, Republicans make up the vast majority of this demographic. In fact, only eight out of 278 Republican members of Congress have taken open stances that they believe climate change is real. However, it wasn’t always the case that Republican presidential candidates also soundly rejected the existence of global warming. Both George W. Bush and John McCain did have environmental proposals when they ran for president and made public speeches about their intentions to aid the environment (although Bush’s environmental legacy was far from positive).
It is not exactly unique that environmental protection isn’t high up on the list of Republican priorities, but is unique that climate change and environmentalism were hardly even touched upon in the Republican presidential debates. The closest these topics came to being debated was within the context of which energy sources the candidates supported, which were universally oil, gas, or coal. Several of the candidates offered support for renewable proliferation to increase domestic energy security, but not at the expense of the economy or energy producers.
The internationally acclaimed COP 21 agreements came to pass without so much as a mention during the G.O.P. debates; the California drought was similarly ignored. This may be reflective of the voting base Republican politicians appeal to, which also has a high percentage of climate deniers. Interestingly enough, this is beginning to shift with time as well; where 24 percent of Republican voters believed in climate change in 2014, now 47 percent embrace the science. If the Republican party shifts enough in its position on environmentalism, it will be interesting to see if Republican politicians will also be forced to change their stances.
Donald J. Trump: Get Rid of All Regulations
Republican nominee Donald Trump does seem to have a consistent view on whether climate change is real (unless you count being confused as to whether or not he blames the Chinese for it). Historically, he has always claimed that climate change is a hoax. His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, publicly stated that, while Trump acknowledges that temperatures are rising globally, he doesn’t believe that human activity has had any influence over this. Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, however, spoke on CNN a day after the first debate to say that climate change was definitely real and man-made–although he reiterated Trump’s general stance that no environmental policies should be put into place that would hurt businesses or cost jobs.
Trump’s environmental policy logically follows his general denial of climate change as relevant or real. Trump’s original plan was to entirely abolish the Environmental Protection Agency–the government body that designs new environmental rules and regulations (working together with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an umbrella department within the Office of Management and Budget). While it is not within his power to do so unilaterally, one of the most important ways a President can influence energy policy is by choosing a new administration for the EPA. Each new President can appoint a new Administrator, who must be approved by Congress. If the president’s recommendation is approved, that further gives him or her the power to reshape both the upper positions of the EPA and the direction the agency will take.
Trump’s proposed selection to lead the EPA transition team is none other than Myron Ebell, the director of the Center for Energy and the Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group that uses bogus science to question “global warming alarmism.” Ebell is a famous climate denier and believes that Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which will dramatically shift the future of energy production in the United States, is not only a huge waste of government funds but also illegal because of the undue burden the regulations place on American businesses. At this time it’s unclear if Trump’s intention is to attempt to make Ebell the new EPA Administrator, but his current position as leader of the team puts him at the top of the suspected list. Alongside Ebell, the EPA transition team includes Republican energy lobbyist Mike Mckenna and former Bush Administration Interior Department solicitor David Bernhardt.
In the event that Trump is able to get his EPA transition team approved by Congress (and they will almost certainly face some opposition), they would be well equipped to try to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and remove many environmental regulations. Which brings us to the simple cornerstone of Trump’s environmental policy: remove as many regulations as possible. Trump has said that he will fight to do away with all regulations he believes are unnecessary in order to allow American businesses more operational freedom and greater room to grow.
In terms of Republican politicians, this position is in no way unique, but few presidential candidates have taken such a hard line stance against previously established environmental regulations (runner-up Ted Cruz would be fighting a very similar battle right now). Trump’s plan includes freeing up protected federal land, both on and offshore, for oil and gas drilling. Interestingly, designating an area as federally protected government land under the Antiquities Act is one of the few ways a president can directly use their executive authority to protect the environment. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are both known for designating huge areas of land as federally protected, Clinton doing so several times specifically to prevent oil and gas companies from drilling in certain areas. For Trump to attempt to use executive power to remove these designations is a little like one president fighting directly with the legacy of a previous president.
More Fossil Fuels
Trump has said he would open up these swaths of federal land for coal mining leases and remove some of the rules that protect waterways throughout the nation from drilling, which is of concern if you’re an environmentalist or if you drink water. Trump is, in fact, one of few politicians still talking about the fantasy power source of “clean coal” in 2016. The general concept behind clean coal is to burn coal as efficiently as possible and then capture the emissions afterward, making it as “clean” as possible. While it’s true that we have made coal cleaner, it’s impossible to burn coal without some pollution. Clean coal has proven much more expensive and difficult to scale than its early proponents thought, making it far from a viable method to reduce carbon emissions. This is particularly true when less expensive and more efficient alternatives exist.
Trump’s focus on coal in particular is interesting, because coal as an energy source has dropped significantly in popularity and coal-fired power plants are rarely built these days (President Obama, coming from coal-heavy Illinois, also once preached the benefits of the mythical Clean Coal, although he’s since done an 180 on the issue and one of the key focuses of his Clean Power Plan is to regulate and reduce coal emissions by as much as possible).
Trump has made public that he views regulations on pollution as an obstacle to the success of business and jobs in America, although research indicates that over the past few decades the negative impacts of regulation on business have been modest and the demand for cleaner technology has in the past repeatedly stimulated innovation and growth in the private tech industry. If his EPA team was driven by the goal to free up businesses from all regulation, this would also involve dismantling key provisions of the Clean Water act and Clean Air Act. While a president can’t literally change the provisions of these acts, the administration he or she puts in place can reinterpret them and Trump could effectively remove the enforcement mechanisms that enable these acts to have their nationwide impact. Trump has, in fact, publicly stated that he would review the EPA endangerment findings, which are used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. To strip away the EPA’s ability to regulate air and waterborne pollution would dramatically increase the United States’ role as a global polluter and worsen public health throughout the United States.
It’s important to look at our current political context to see if Trump really could do any of what he proposes. His selection of an EPA transition team of climate deniers is a little ridiculous and simply unrealistic considering that any new administrator could be blocked by Democrats in the Senate. A figure as divisive as Myron Ebell, or any of the other members of the team, will simply not make it through Congress. If Trump does become president he will most likely have to consider a more neutral person to take the EPA Administrator role.
The fact that Congress is largely deadlocked between the two parties on environmental issues has been and will be a huge obstacle for any president trying to accomplish anything (a problem that extends far beyond the environment). Because of this gridlock, nearly all political efforts to combat climate change have had to come through executive action, a pattern that can be easily seen throughout Obama’s two terms. Trump’s commitment to reversing Obama’s executive actions would potentially mean undoing much of the last eight years of environmental policy efforts, worsening air and water quality and giving fossil fuel companies greater access to federal land for fracking and drilling. By specifically using executive power to accomplish this, it would be within Trump’s hands to dramatically peel back the progress that the environmental movement has made in the United States. His plans should be taken seriously by American voters as a threat to the future of our public health and energy security and to the ever worsening global problem of climate change.