How Trump Can Affect Climate Change: 6 Questions with Jack Cushman

John H. Cushman Jr. has decades of experience covering Washington and presidential transitions, much of that time in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Now managing editor of InsideClimate News, Cushman describes the most tumultuous of transitions as Donald Trump takes office and begins to unpack his campaign promises and turn them into action. Trump ran on a platform opposing climate action, promising to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and vowing to speed further development of fossil fuel resources on U.S. soil. Cushman analyzes what lies ahead with Trump leadership and the climate crisis.

What do you expect the new Trump Administration to mean for climate change?

Unless the president and his whole team reverse course, it means the end of any leadership by the United States federal government in the world’s attempts to address the climate crisis.

Practically the whole cabinet, from President Trump himself to Vice President Mike Pence and most of those named to head government agencies, are on the record questioning the mainstream consensus that the problem of climate change is urgent or that its solution lies in a rapid, global shift away from the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels.

The Trump Administration’s environmental, energy and economic policies instead are geared toward untrammeled development of coal, oil and natural gas.

What signs are there that President Trump intends to carry out his campaign pledges to reverse course on climate change?

The moment he entered office, he took steps to disavow President Obama’s entire Climate Action Plan, saying he was determined instead to build up fossil fuel energy production.

His cabinet choices include anti-regulatory figures such as Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, filed lawsuits arguing against many of the agency’s most important regulations, and opposed the agency’s science-based regulatory finding under Obama that carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels endangers public health and the environment.

That finding lies at the heart of the entire effort to use the Clean Air Act to fight global warming, as the Supreme Court has said the law requires.

What will be the most significant step?

Probably trying to pull the plug on the Clean Power Plan, intended to regulate emissions from electric plants, among the biggest sources of carbon dioxide pollution.

The CPP was challenged by coal companies and coal-friendly states, who got the Supreme Court to put a hold on it while the legal battle proceeded. An appeals court should be issuing a ruling on its legality any day. However the court rules, an appeal to the Supreme Court is almost certain.

It’s not easy for Trump to simply undo a rule like this if it survives court challenges. But under Pruitt, don’t expect the EPA to do anything to push the rule forward.

Are there other actions that Trump has the power to take unilaterally?

Right off the bat, he signed memorandums intended to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, two projects that Obama had blocked. His instructions to federal agencies are to grease the skids for these two pipelines, and to expedite all kinds of other energy projects.

Trump also can be expected to lift a moratorium on leasing of coal from public lands, which Obama imposed in order to overhaul royalties and take account of the climate damages from coal production.

In general, he wants to open up access to public lands for mining and drilling by the fossil fuel industry, which is eager to exploit the buried treasure that lies there.

Trump and Congressional allies of the industry don’t like the government’s method of calculating the cost of future damages that will result as today’s pollution brings about a warming climate. They’d rather not include this harm in any cost-benefit analysis of federal policies. When you hear them criticizing the “social cost of carbon,” that’s their target.

What about the Paris Agreement on climate change?

Trump has never hidden his disdain for the treaty, as well as for the scientific consensus that underpins it. He’s already turning away from the United Nations generally. And while Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon chief executive chosen to become secretary of state, said he would advise Trump to keep a “seat at the table” in climate talks, he also signalled that the boss won’t engage in policies that he thinks put U.S. industries at an economic disadvantage.

It’s hard to see how Trump’s broad energy agenda squares with the goals of Paris, which demand rapid reductions in global emissions from fossil fuels. Killing carbon regulations, building long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone pipeline, and trying to reverse the long decline in coal consumption are all examples of what environmentalists call “carbon bombs” that could make it impossible for the U.S. to live up to its climate pledges.

On top of that, the U.S. had been aiming not just to reduce its emissions by nearly a third in the next 15 years or so, but to reduce them as much as 80 percent by mid-century. This would have to mean keeping a lot more fossil fuels in the ground, and investing in a high-efficiency, clean-energy future. That’s the exact opposite of what Trump is emphasizing.

Because the United States has historically put more carbon dioxide into the air than any other country, emits more per capita than any other major nation, and is still the Number 2 polluter behind only China, a weakening of its commitment to fighting the climate crisis alarms many other nations.

Do those who favor urgent action on climate change see any positive signs out there?

Yes, several.

First, the rest of the world hasn’t declared surrender on the planet’s environmental future. Big powers like China and Europe are urging their United Nations partners to stay the course, and smaller counties, especially those most vulnerable, are maintaining pressure too, as best they can.

Second, governments in many states and cities, including some of the biggest ones like California and New York, are determined to carry out their own programs to cut emissions. If they do, it can have nearly as much impact as the federal government.

Third, hundreds of big businesses have pledged to make steep cuts in their own emissions or to invest heavily in promising new clean-energy technologies. Large investors say they are eager to exploit new opportunities. And farsighted financial institutions continue to warn about long-term risks of pursuing business as usual in a changing world.

Many experts see market forces inexorably turning against dirty fuels, especially coal. Renewables, especially cutting-edge wind and solar energy, are getting cheaper all the time and won’t come to a sudden stop because of the vagaries of politics.

Finally, environmental activists say they are battered but unbowed. They know how to play a defensive game, which traditionally means litigation to slow fossil-fuel momentum. But they are trying to go on the offensive, too, with grassroots lobbying, mass protests, and political organizing. One big test will be a planned march on Washington at the end of April, as Trump ends his first 100 days. But ultimately, climate activists know, the key to reversing political direction is to win elections.

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