March 28, 2017 – Rachel Cleetus is Lead Economist and Climate Policy Manager
Today President Trump launches an all-out attack on our country’s policies to address climate change, via an Executive Order expected to be signed this afternoon. We’ve known for some time that something like this was in the works. Yet that doesn’t take away from the shock of the order’s destructive details, which were previewed yesterday by administration officials. It doesn’t just seek to undermine efforts to cut carbon emissions; it also rescinds commonsense measures to help protect people from the impacts of climate change.
This much is clear: Our president has so little regard for science that he is blind to the risks Americans face from unchecked climate change. He is so beholden to fossil fuel interests that he’s willing to stand in the way of the economic opportunities provided by a transition to clean energy. And he does not at all understand our deep moral obligation to limit the dangers of climate change for future generations, who will be left to face the consequences of our failure to act.
A battering ram of an executive order: What it means and doesn’t mean
This Executive Order (EO) is a serious blow to our country’s hard-won progress on climate action. Its aim is to dismantle, halt, or slow down many policies that have been years in the making. But most concerning is that there has been no responsible alternative plan proposed to address climate change, showing a real lack of leadership.
Obviously, this EO doesn’t change the reality that climate change is happening, it’s caused by us, and we bear the responsibility to act now or put current and future generations at grave risk.
Nor does it change the market factors that are driving a clean energy transition, or the considerable public health and economic benefits that would accompany this transition. Recent studies of the Clean Power Plan, for example, show that Americans would reap billions of dollars in health co-benefits, such as reduced cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, from the reductions of harmful emissions from power plants. We shouldn’t have to wait on those benefits, especially when renewable energy is becoming cheaper by the day.
And that’s why many states are determined to forge ahead despite this about-face at the national level. Power sector emissions will continue to decline because of state policies and the falling costs of renewable energy and natural gas.
But at a time when we need to accelerate our transition to a clean energy economy and work harder to protect communities from the growing impacts of climate change, this administration is choosing to step back and slow down our progress. Without national leadership to boost state and local efforts, our country’s efforts to address climate change are bound to fall short.
Rolling back limits on power plant carbon emissions
President Trump’s Executive Order takes aim at core elements of our country’s efforts to cut carbon emissions: the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which limits emissions from existing power plants; and standards to limit emissions from new power plants.
To be clear, President Trump cannot just undo these standards via executive order, which is why today’s EO calls for a process of reviewing of the rules that could take an indefinite amount of time. As legal experts have pointed out, the EPA will now have to undertake a long process of unwinding these standards through a proposal and comment process, much like the process it took to finalize them. And the agency is sure to face legal challenges along the way. This is likely to be a years-long process—which is, of course, of little comfort to those who recognize the need for urgent climate action now versus some uncertain future date.
The CPP, promulgated under the Clean Air Act and finalized by the EPA under the previous administration in August 2015, is firmly grounded in law and science and has been years in the making. Among other things, it is underpinned by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling (Mass v. EPA), and the EPA’s Endangerment and Cause and Contribute Findings, which established that global warming emissions threaten public health and welfare. The process of drafting and finalizing the CPP involved an extensive comment period and stakeholder engagement. This was no “midnight” rule.
What’s more, the CPP’s goal of reducing power sector emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is modest at best. EIA data show that national power sector emissions were already about 21 percent below 2005 levels at the end of 2015. Many states are well on their way to meeting their CPP targets. This standard could clearly have been made more ambitious over time in a cost-effective way, given the progress to date and the declining costs of clean energy.
So all the talk about the EPA’s regulatory overreach are clearly at odds with reality. It’s just one more instance where facts do not seem to matter for the Trump administration.
Taking aim at commonsense climate protections
There’s a lot at stake with this executive order, including commonsense measures to protect people from climate impacts and ensure a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.
Early reports indicated that the EO might roll back a recent update to the federal flood risk management standard (FFRMS). The FFRMS, recently updated for the first time in over 37 years, would have helped ensure that federal agencies use protective design standards to guard against flood risks when they build or rebuild in flood-prone areas. With this recent update, communities around the country would be better protected from flood risks and taxpayer dollars would be more wisely invested.
Agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have already published rules (a circular in the case of USACE) for implementing the updated FFRMS, which were accompanied by a robust public comment process. If this rollback is included in today’s EO, that would force agencies to reconsider those rules.
The EO is also expected to repeal efforts by federal agencies to help states, local, and tribal governments prepare for the climate change. We’re talking about valuable planning resources including the data and tools available through https://toolkit.climate.gov/ and https://www.data.gov/climate/, as well as better coordination across federal agencies. State and local officials are counting on leadership and resources from the federal government to help them face the many challenges posed by climate change—including heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flooding—and make their communities more resilient. Now they will be left in the lurch.
Further, the EO will overturn guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality that required federal agencies to take into account the climate implications of their actions in their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. At a time when agencies from the Department of Defense to the US Army Corps of Engineers already understand and are preparing for the risks of climate change to their operations, this guidance would seem like a basic commonsense measure with no downside.
Looking beyond our borders, the EO is expected to roll back support for climate-resilient international development, which is just plain cruel. Many of the world’s least developed countries—which bear little responsibility for rising global carbon emissions—are at the forefront of climate impacts including drought, famine, and forced migration, which can also contribute to civil unrest and war. Millions of people in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are at risk of starvation and death from famine right now.
Helping ensure that agencies like USAID incorporate climate resilience in their good work is a small, but meaningful, way in which our nation can help countries cope with these types of crises. Arguably, that’s a responsibility in keeping with the fact that the US leads the world in cumulative global warming emissions since the industrial revolution.
Dialing down the social cost of carbon
The EO takes aim at the social cost of carbon, a metric that federal agencies use in rulemakings to ensure that they take into account the monetary benefits of cutting carbon emissions.
This action shows that the administration does not seem to care about the very real costs of climate change that Americans are already bearing. Just ask the ranchers who have lost livestock in recent wildfires in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Or local planners in Miami Beach trying to hold back the rising seas with multi-million dollar pumps. Costs like these will rise as temperatures increase and climate impacts worsen, so we have to take them into account as we make decisions about policies to cut carbon emissions today.
Instead of building upon the current social cost of carbon based on the latest science and economics, as the NAS has recommended, the administration is seeking to artificially lower its value.
Setting the record straight on some facts related to the executive order
An advance White House briefing on the Executive Order was filled with a load of fact-free rhetoric from the administration that simply does not accord with reality. Let’s set a few things straight for the record:
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- Human-caused climate change is real, serious, and requires immediate action to cut emissions. There is no putting off the urgency here if we want to have a chance of limiting truly dangerous climate impacts, as numerous scientific bodies have stated. It’s deeply troubling and disingenuous for the administration to seemingly acknowledge man-made climate change and then cast doubt on how serious it is and whether and to what extent we need to act now.
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) core mission is to safeguard public health and the environment—and that includes a responsibility to help address climate change, as well as protect clean air and water. The Clean Air Act is pretty clear on that and the courts have upheld EPA’s role on addressing climate change. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt even admitted as much in his nomination hearing but he seems to be flip-flopping now. It makes no sense for the administration to claim it is returning the EPA to its mission, but then undermine its work on climate change.
- Putting the brakes on the Clean Power Plan (CPP) is not going to bring back coal mining jobs, so let’s put that trope aside once and for all. The reality is that coal-fired power is becoming increasingly uneconomic relative to cheaper, cleaner alternatives like natural gas and renewable energy, pluus coal mining jobs have been lost to mechanization over decades. Regardless of what happens to the CPP, those fundamental underlying market dynamics won’t change. What coal communities need now are real solutions that help diversify their economies and provide transition assistance for workers.
- Claims that the CPP would lead to huge electricity price increases are false, despite the administration’s parroting of talking points from bogus industry studies. The CPP’s emission reduction goals are modest. We’ve already seen power sector carbon emissions come down substantially over the last few years and at the same time in 2016 power prices hit record lows because of cheap natural gas and rapidly falling costs of renewable energy.
- Halting the CPP does nothing to promote so-called “energy independence.” The US already gets most of its electricity from domestic sources so this argument doesn’t hold water.
- Finally, the administration should stop hiding behind misleading economic arguments in defending its inaction on climate change. Make no mistake: This EO is about protecting the profits of fossil fuel companies, not protecting the American economy. The real long-term threat to our economy is unchecked climate change. Just to give a few examples of the types of economic risks that climate change contributes to: Sea level rise threatens millions of people and billions of dollars of real estate along our coasts; recent wildfires have caused millions of dollars in agricultural damage in Texas; and California’s recent drought cost the state billions of dollars. What’s more, ramping up renewable energy would provide significant economic benefits to our country.
The world is watching
Climate change is a global problem, of course. It’s going to require ambitious action by all nations across every sector of their economies to actually hold down the global average temperature increase to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
That’s why it’s illogical to suggest, as the administration has, that because the CPP wouldn’t achieve that goal by itself by 2030, it’s useless. No single short-term policy by any one country will make a noticeable dent. But by adopting ambitious, comprehensive policies and acting together over the next few decades, we have a chance.
And we have made hard-won progress on the global front in securing the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. While today’s EO is silent on US participation in the Paris Agreement, it should be considered an assault on the spirit of Paris.
The Paris Agreement relies on a ‘pledge and review’ framework where countries volunteer commitments and then aim to live up to them by implementing domestic policies. The US has pledged to cut emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. We’re already more than a third of the way to meeting that goal based on the latest US Greenhouse Gas Inventory, but there’s more work to be done to get all the way there.
The Trump administration is attempting to roll back national policies that were meant to deliver on that pledge, even as it doubles down on an energy plan that prioritizes fossil fuels. That’s a recipe for turning up the spigot on emissions at time when sharp cuts are urgently needed.
Yes, state policies, the federal renewable electricity tax credits, and market forces will continue to drive progress on renewable energy and help cut emissions. But, no, that’s not enough.
In fact the next phase of the Paris Agreement was supposed to encourage country’s to ratchet up the ambition of their emissions cuts to bring them more in line with a long term goal of net zero emissions later this century. We need the US government to show more leadership so the world can trust that we fully intend to live up to both the short and the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, and by the same token create the conditions for other countries to do the same.
While the Trump administration dithers, China is showing that it intends to not only meet, but likely surpass its Paris commitments. China’s National Energy Administration forecasts that the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will fall 1 percent in 2017, marking the fourth year in a row that its emissions have fallen or remained stable. The country aims to invest over $360 billion in renewable energy through 2020, and create over 13 million jobs in the sector. Of course, the massive public health benefits alone make the switch to cleaner energy worthwhile for the people of China.
Fighting for climate action
President Trump is ignoring science—and, even worse, he’s ignoring the long-term interests of the American people and the global community. In a democracy, that type of arrogance inevitably has consequences. Congress too will ultimately need to answer to the public if it continues to duck its responsibility to act on climate.
Despite the setback from today’s executive order, our fight for climate action will continue. In cities, states, and at the national level. In town hall meetings, legislatures, boardrooms, and in courts. With businesses; labor, faith, and environmental justice groups; students; scientists; and everyone else who cares about the future of our planet and our economy.
We’re building a movement for positive, transformative change that will bring benefits to everyone in our country, and we will ultimately hold our nation’s leaders accountable.
You can be part of it. On April 29, the People’s Climate Movement will march in force in Washington DC. Please join us!
For nearly half a century, the Union of Concerned Scientists has combined the knowledge and influence of the scientific community with the passion of concerned citizens to build a healthy planet and a safer world. www.ucsusa.org