Dismantled: President Trump signs executive orders undoing Obama climate policies

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

This past Tuesday, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13783: “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” in an effort to “[avoid] regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation,” and, as Trump himself stated, to “put an end to the war on coal.”

The executive order revokes a number of former President Obama’s executive actions, including Executive Order 13653 about “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change,” as well as the June 2013 Presidential Memorandum on “Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards.” It also rescinds President Obama’s “Climate Action Plan” and the subsequent “Climate Action Plan Strategy to Cut Methane Emissions.”

The order requests the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Scott Pruitt) to review the Clean Power Plan and, if deemed necessary, to revise or revoke the Plan should it not be consistent with the goals laid out in the executive order. Similar orders were issued to the Secretary of the Interior (Ryan Zinke) on Obama-era rules and regulations imposed on coal production and oil and gas development on federal lands.

With these actions President Trump intends to change America’s course on climate action, and while the White House has not yet announced if it will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, this executive order makes it all but certain that the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (behind China), will not meet its climate commitments under the agreement.

By governing with the executive pen President Trump is following through on his campaign promises to roll back climate and environmental regulations and to wipe out the key components of President Obama’s environmental legacy. But, while none of this comes as a surprise, it is hard not to lament the damage these actions will do on long-term environmental progress, both on national and global scales. As British journalist Mark Lynas said to CNN on Tuesday, “This is politically symbolic, as it will show that the Obama legacy on climate can be deleted,” adding that “the rest of the world will be asked to cover for the US falling behind.”

Lynas and others have remarked that there is still hope: some Obama-era rules and policy actions cannot be eliminated by executive action, and market momentum favors renewable energy well over coal at present and in the long-term. With respect to the global momentum on climate change action a lot, however, rests on whether or not China will seize the opportunity to step into a leadership role on climate change, in place of the void created by the United States. As Barbara Finamore, a senior lawyer and Asia director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said to the New York Times on Wednesday, “China wants to take over the role of the U.S. as a climate leader, and they’ve baked it into their five-year plans,” emphasizing that they will “double down” on their commitments.

The states will play a big role as well – especially climate leading California, whose commitments alone would have accounted for 5 of the 26% emissions reduction (from 2005 levels) promised under the Paris Agreement. CA Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, in his talk at Harvey Mudd on March 23rd, stated while there was still much more work to do, the state would not betray the findings of climate science and would lead the country on climate action, even under a recalcitrant Trump administration.

Nevertheless, the executive order does both symbolic and real damage, sending a message to the rest of the world that the U.S. cannot be counted on to lead the way on environmental action going forward. While this poses a significant threat to climate stabilization, it is also an opportunity for increased global cooperation as well as new and stronger alliances until America reverses course and embraces its role as a global leader and partner again.