Would Trump’s reelection lead to climate catastrophe?

By Maxine Joselow, Adam Aton | 11/27/2019 06:51 AM EST

Presidential elections favor the incumbent. So we asked nine environmental experts what would happen to the global climate fight if President Trump is reelected next year.

President Trump gestures to the crowd at a November campaign rally in Lexington, Ky.

President Trump gestures to the crowd at a November campaign rally in Lexington, Ky. Paul Boucher/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Ask environmental experts what would happen to the global climate fight if President Trump were reelected, and the answer is often the same.

"God help us all," said David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law.

"A second term would be a disaster in general," said Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of the Geos Institute.


"It will not be good," said Andrew Light, who served as a senior adviser on climate change under former President Obama.

Their grim outlook reflects broad concern about the intersection of Trump’s reelection and the planetary battle against climate change. A big reason is time. A second Trump term — ending in January 2025 — would overlap with a shrinking window to avert the worst impacts of global warming, including loss of sea ice, more intense heat waves and accelerated sea-level rise.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put a fine point on these warnings last year, calling for a dramatic 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But progress has been slow.

Atmospheric carbon just hit a new record of 407.8 parts per million, and the United Nations yesterday announced that global temperatures are on track to rise by as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius by the end of the century (Climatewire, Nov. 26).

"Every year of delay beyond 2020 brings a need for faster cuts, which become increasingly expensive, unlikely and impractical," the U.N. report said.

So what, exactly, would a Trump win in 2020 mean for climate change and emissions? Would it put the planet on a path toward irreversible climate change or just slow the pace of progress?

To find out, E&E News spoke with nine experts on climate policy at both the domestic and international levels.

Experts generally agreed that Trump’s reelection could lock in some of his most drastic rollbacks of environmental regulations, which so far have been tied up in the courts. It could also encourage other major emitters like China and India to walk away from their own climate commitments.

Still, experts cautioned that there are some big question marks when it comes to how much Trump could accomplish. They noted that many of his regulatory rollbacks have been struck down by the courts, while international markets are moving in the direction of clean energy regardless of U.S. federal policy.

The fossil fuel industry, meanwhile, struck a tone of self-assurance at the prospect of a Trump win.

"It’s important, but we survived eight years of Obama — we’ll survive four or eight years of Trump," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

Regulatory rollbacks

Since taking office, Trump has moved to dismantle a host of regulations aimed at curbing planet-warming emissions from power plants, pipelines and cars.

First came the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature effort to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants. Then came the proposed rollback of clean car standards, Obama’s landmark attempt to curb emissions from automobile tailpipes.

In addition to carbon dioxide, Trump has sought to ease restrictions on methane, another potent greenhouse gas. His administration has proposed eliminating all federal regulation of methane emissions from both new and existing sources in the oil and gas industry.

Many of these major rollbacks have been delayed or tied up in litigation. That means they probably won’t take effect unless Trump is reelected to a second term.

"Every rulemaking is being followed with litigation," Sgamma said.

"Really, to get them all done, they need another term," she added. "We’ll see which ones just don’t make it over the line."

A recent Rhodium Group analysis looked at what would happen to carbon dioxide emissions if all of Trump’s major environmental rollbacks took effect in his second term. It found that CO2 emissions would soar by 1.9 to 3.1 gigatons cumulatively from now through 2035.

The climate impact of that increase cannot be overstated, said Hannah Pitt, an analyst at the Rhodium Group and the author of the analysis.

"That’s more than the annual emissions of 70% of countries on Earth combined," Pitt said. "So it’s a lot of emissions."

Put another way, pumping up to 4.2 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere would take the world closer to a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, a point at which irreversible climate change could be locked in.

In a report released yesterday, the U.N. Environment Programme warned that preventing a 1.5-degree scenario would require reducing annual CO2 emissions by 15 gigatons in 2030.

Still, it’s not guaranteed that all of Trump’s environmental rollbacks would survive legal challenges, said Hayes, who served as the Interior Department’s top lawyer and deputy secretary under the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Hayes noted that courts have struck down several of Trump’s rollbacks so far, in some cases issuing sharp rebukes to agencies.

"The lawyer in me is happy to put on the gladiator outfit and go to war in the courts, because there are glaring defects in all of these major rollbacks," he said. "And the courts have not been kind to the administration, nor should they be."

In the states

Not all of Trump’s environmental influence comes from sweeping federal policy. He’s also trying to curtail liberal states’ authority, fulfill red-state wish lists and boost fossil fuel development across the country.

In southern Alaska, he’s clearing the way for new roads and old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest, the biggest carbon sink in the United States.

Along the coasts, he’s moved to bring offshore drilling to virgin shorelines while throwing up extra hurdles for offshore wind farms.

In the Arctic, he’s opened a wildlife refuge to oil derricks and moved to expand drilling in other remote wilderness areas.

In rural areas where wildfires burn, Trump is personally encouraging logging while loosening environmental reviews for timber companies.

And in California, he’s trying to block the progressive state’s authority to issue stringent clean car standards and promulgate a cap-and-trade program with Quebec.

Those actions are big on their own, but they also encourage red states to follow suit with their own extractive policies, DellaSala said. Utah, for example, is trying to copy the deregulation of the Tongass.

Pitt, the Rhodium Group analyst, said she’s been alarmed by "the extent to which [Trump] is willing to go after California and its authority. It seems to go beyond just dismantling Obama’s policies."

Pitt said there may be "other state-level policies that he could make more challenging for the states to implement," citing California and Washington state’s programs to phase out hydrofluorocarbons as well as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Northeast’s cap-and-trade program for the power sector.

Paris withdrawal

Meanwhile, on the international stage, Trump has promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Under the rules of the agreement, the soonest the United States could formally exit is Nov. 4, 2020 — one day after the presidential election.

The good news for climate advocates is that a robust coalition of states, cities and businesses has still pledged to honor the agreement under the slogan "We Are Still In."

Together, that coalition represents more than 60% of the U.S. population, providing a strong counterpunch to Trump’s withdrawal, said Light, the former climate adviser to Obama.

"If you took all these entities together, it’s over 4,000 states, cities and businesses. If they were their own country, it would be the second-largest economy in the world," said Light, who also serves as a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.

Yet the coalition will only get the United States to a 17% reduction in emissions by 2025, according to projections from the World Resources Institute. The original U.S. pledge under the Paris Agreement was a 26% to 28% reduction by that year.

With regard to other countries, a U.S. exit from Paris could send a signal to big emitters like China and India that it’s acceptable to continue investing in new coal plants and other fossil fuel infrastructure, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"There are obviously forces in those countries that have an interest in continuing fossil fuel production," Meyer said. "And they would make use of the U.S. being out of Paris as an argument for why their countries shouldn’t do more."

Peter Erickson, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said U.S. withdrawal from Paris — coupled with four more years of Trump’s "energy dominance" agenda — would send the wrong signal to the rest of the world about fossil fuels.

"For the U.S. to be the world’s top fossil fuel producer — top oil producer, top gas producer and expanding — that undermines, unequivocally, global progress on climate," Erickson said.

"It essentially floods the market with fossil fuels at a time when we need to be going in the other direction. And that matters for prices [and] for markets," he said.

At the same time, though, other countries recognize that the markets are inexorably moving toward clean energy. The cost of renewables like wind and solar has declined dramatically in recent years, while electric vehicle batteries have become more affordable.

A U.S. exit from Paris "really wouldn’t change the interest of countries in trying to benefit from the clean energy economy," Meyer said.

"China has made no bones about wanting to dominate markets for electric vehicles and other clean energy technologies," he said. "Those interests don’t change with who’s in the White House."

Institutional changes

The Trump administration’s most lasting policies might be personnel.

The judiciary has been filled with conservative judges, while agencies have been hollowed out of scientists, economists and the other bureaucrats who make the government work.

Trump has elevated to the federal bench more than 150 judges, including at least 44 appellate judges, approaching the same number Obama got confirmed over both his terms.

Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh are emblematic of those whom Trump is elevating to the bench — in ideology as well as age. His circuit court nominees have an average age below 50, meaning Trump has already changed one branch of government for a generation.

That progress likely would slow in Trump’s second term. Trump benefited from more than 100 federal judicial vacancies at the beginning of his term, part of Senate Republicans’ plan to minimize Obama’s influence.

But the recent health problems of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg raise the possibility that Trump could nominate at least one more justice to the high court. A 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court could tempt anti-climate groups to try overturning Massachusetts v. EPA, the landmark decision that put EPA on the hook for regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

At the agencies, Trump would begin his second term on a better footing than his first.

The biggest difference would be his Cabinet. Some conservatives grew frustrated with the scandals and the false starts of Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first EPA administrator and Interior secretary, respectively.

Trump likely would begin his second term with his current team of Andrew Wheeler heading EPA, David Bernhardt in charge of Interior and Dan Brouillette at Energy. Each of those men is regarded as an effective operator who avoids — or at least minimizes — the distractions that plagued Trump’s first two years.

"I think it will be less dramatic but more effective," said Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions.

Meanwhile, the administration has started moving agencies like the Bureau of Land Management out of Washington, D.C. — part of what acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has described as an effort to get rid of federal workers.

That follows years of federal scientists complaining about political meddling in their climate research. Many of them have left their posts during Trump’s first term, contributing to a "brain drain" across agencies.

These are the folks who are in the trenches crafting and implementing climate policy, Erickson said. Their departure weakens the capacity of Trump’s successor to reverse his policies.

"There’s still loyal public servants clinging on in many of these institutions," he said. "But can they survive another four years of Trump? I really don’t know."