Support Our Work

Trump’s ‘Extreme’ Cabinet Could Fuel Warming Crisis

Senate hearings into President-elect Trump’s proposed cabinet members began Tuesday, with anti-science politicians and fossil fuel executives being considered for key posts, threatening to undermine the worldwide fight against global warming at a crucial moment.

Given Trump’s campaign promises to rejuvenate the coal sector and boost drilling for other fossil fuels, it’s little surprise that he has assembled a team that could strive to pare back federal environmental protections affecting the energy sector, which is America’s greatest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

President-elect Trump.
Credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar

Stunning many experts, however, is the preponderance of nominees who dispute established climate science and have profited from global warming. Trump’s cabinet could combine President Reagan-era attacks on environmental protections with science denialism reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration.

“It is, first of all, an extreme right-wing ideological cabinet,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped the Obama Administration develop its climate rules and strategies. “Those who are not ideologically far right wing are very corporate in their orientation.”

Trump’s nominees will each require blessings from Congress. The House and Senate will both be controlled by his fellow Republicans, suggesting they will support a team focused on repealing climate protections. Despite most voters telling pollsters they support efforts to slow warming, Republicans have become fierce opponents, frequently citing principles championed by fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks.

Trump’s pick to oversee the EPA is Scott Pruitt, who in his job as Oklahoma attorney general has repeatedly sued the EPA over its rules. To run State, Trump chose former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who downplays the seriousness of the climate crisis. And in picking former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as Energy secretary, Trump is seeking to elevate a paid board member of the company building the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline — somebody who previously campaigned for president on a policy platform that included eliminating the department he is now nominated to lead.

“We’re facing an onslaught of the most extreme anti-climate measures imaginable,” Goldston said.

Tillerson’s hearing is scheduled to be held Wednesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the same day, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is slated to hold a hearing into Trump’s nomination of Elaine Chao, George W. Bush’s labor secretary, to oversee the Transportation Department. Hearings for Pruitt and Perry had not been scheduled by Tuesday morning.

Trump is coming into power during a critical moment for the planet. Falling prices for clean energy and worsening impacts of global warming last year prompted nearly 200 countries to unite around a United Nations climate treaty during meetings in Paris, following decades of false starts and failed agreements.

Weather stations in the U.S. that are having a warmer than normal, colder than normal and record hot year.

Concentrations of heat-trapping gases continue to rise in the atmosphere, with fossil fuel burning mostly to blame. Deforestation, farming, landfills and concrete production also play important roles. Rising temperatures are causing seas to rise at a hastening rate, causing flooding worldwide. Storms, heatwaves and droughts are becoming more vicious.

The changes have rattled American military and civic leaders, prompting the Obama administration to roll out regulations based on existing federal laws to ease fossil fuel use. It’s taken those actions even as the government has promoted fracking and opened public lands and waterways to drilling, boosting U.S. oil and gas production to record levels.

Obama’s climate legacy is likely to be measured by the future success of many of his second-term rules. Among other things, his administration banned oil drilling along Atlantic and Arctic coastlines, introduced measures to curb leaks of climate-changing methane from oil and gas infrastructure, blocked construction of key sections of proposed oil pipelines, and published rules that may limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in the years ahead.

The rules and regulations have triggered angry rhetoric and oftentimes lawsuits from fossil fuel industry groups. It is regulations such as these that are expected to be targeted by Trump’s fossil fuel industry-friendly cabinet.

The looming reversal in America’s leadership in the fight against warming comes less than a decade after Obama upended the recalcitrance on the issue that had been a hallmark of George W. Bush’s presidency. This ping-ponging of climate policies under three consecutive leaders is reminiscent of similar U-turns in other Western democracies following elections.

Some experts blame growing political polarization for the back-and-forth trend. That, in turn, is frequently blamed on the influence of industry-funded think tanks.

“The two parties have adopted pretty much opposing positions,” said Riley Dunlap, an environmental sociology professor at Oklahoma State University. “The toxic brew that produces climate change denial is very strong nowadays.”

This is not unique to American politics. After Australia’s left-leaning Labor party lost power in the 2013 election, conservatives revoked a carbon tax and reversed many of the country’s climate policies, triggering an unusual slump in its renewable energy sector. They also targeted climate science for budget cuts.

And in Canada, the 2015 election of liberal Justin Trudeau as prime minister uncensored government scientists and has led to planning for a nationwide system of carbon taxes.

Dunlap traces the roots of U.S. political polarization back to the 1970s, when wealthy conservative businessmen founded the Heritage Foundation amid social upheaval and protest movements.

Think tanks have proliferated since then, with conservative groups often championing anti-government policies. Some have presences on American colleges. “They've achieved the status of an alternative academia,” Dunlap said. Such groups and policies are fostered by fossil fuel companies seeking to minimize taxes and regulations.

One conservative think tank, the Competitive Enterprises Institute, published a 193-page agenda for this year’s Congress, which would see lawmakers eliminating everything from power plant regulations to rules regarding food additives.

Capitol Hill.
Credit: JBrazito/flickr

Once in power, Trump and his cabinet will have vast but not unlimited powers to end America’s young role in the global effort to slow warming. They could repeal regulations, block states from creating their own climate rules, fail to enforce regulations, leave regulations vulnerable in court, and work with Congress to change laws.

Experts also fear that Trump’s cabinet could accelerate global warming by attacking climate science and scientists, slowing efforts abroad to reduce pollution, and making it harder for American communities to adapt as the climate changes.

“Denying the science of climate change means he will do nothing to protect the citizens of the U.S.,” said Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi climate change fellow with the U.K.-based nonprofit International Institute for Environment and Development.

Over the past eight years, the Obama Administration has helped farmers, coastal residents and forest communities adapt to temperature changes, rising water levels and wildfires worsened or caused by global warming.

“All of the adaptation work had to be done through the president's climate action plan and by executive order, because there were not enough champions for adaptation in Congress,” said Kathy Jacobs, a professor and former Obama climate advisor who directs the University of Arizona's Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.

“If we’d been able to move forward with the plans of the Obama Administration, we would have continued to scale up those efforts,” Jacobs said. It’s “very difficult to say” how Trump’s cabinet may support climate adaptation, she said, “in part because they’re actually interested in infrastructure improvements.”

Trump has talked big about infrastructure, vowing spending in the vicinity of $500 billion or even $1 trillion. If designed properly, an overhaul of America’s aging sewers, roadways and other infrastructure could help Americans better cope with changes wrought by climate change. Bigger pipes could temper rising flood risks. Higher roads could protect evacuation routes during floods.

However, it’s unclear whether Republicans in Congress will support paying for it. “I hope we avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said when asked about the proposal.

Changing Laws and Regulations

The most obvious solution for Cabinet members seeking to eliminate Obama-era climate rules would be to revoke them. That could free power plant owners, auto manufacturers and other industries from rules that force them to limit how much pollution they pour into the atmosphere.

Such changes can take years to pull off. Formal proposals must be drafted followed by public consultation. And the changes must be justified scientifically, with false justifications leaving them vulnerable in court.

“One thing they probably can’t do, but would love to do, is repeal the [EPA’s 2009] finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare,” said Robert Percival, a professor who directs the University of Maryland’s environmental law program.

That 2009 finding by Obama’s EPA underpins federal global warming rules, including the EPA’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which will limit climate pollution from power plants if it survives the legal and political challenges ahead. Power plants are America’s biggest source of climate pollution and the rule is considered crucial to making progress toward America’s 2025 pledge under last year’s Paris climate treaty.

Wind turbines in California, a clean source of energy that has been supported by Obama policies.
Credit: Chuck Coker/flickr

“As long as that finding is there, even if they repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, they have to figure out another way to regulate greenhouse gas emissions,” Percival said.

To repeal the finding, Percival said Trump’s cabinet would “have to find some science” showing that climate pollution does not threaten public health. “They’d have to make it up, because all scientists say greenhouse gases do contribute to climate change and it’s going to harm us.”

An easier option than changing some regulations may be to hobble federal agencies like the EPA with obstructive leaders and funding shortfalls, making it harder for them to enforce rules and carry out federal programs.

Another may be for Trump and his cabinet to work with Republicans in Congress and convince them to rewrite the laws upon which federal environmental regulations are based. Those include the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, each more than 50 years old. Newly announced oil drilling restrictions along the Atlantic and Arctic oceans were based on an obscure 1953 law.

Using a strategy called “preemption,” which North Carolina lawmakers used last year to outlaw transgender protections in Charlotte, Trump and his cabinet could also attempt to limit the rights of states, cities and counties to implement their own rules and programs designed to reduce fossil fuel use and slow global warming.

When some experts look at the anti-environmental Cabinet members nominated by Trump, they are reminded of truculent efforts by President Ronald Reagan to bulldoze environmental rules. Many of those efforts failed — though he never had the luxury that Trump will enjoy of simultaneous Republican control of both the House and Senate.

Overhauling or undermining federal laws may, however, be unpopular even with conservative American voters, who have come to take clean air and water for granted. Indeed, Trump has extolled the importance of clean air and water since his election.

“Changing the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act hopefully would generate a huge public backlash,” Percival said. “Efforts to do so got Reagan in big trouble and were soon abandoned.”

Changes to bedrock environmental laws could also potentially be blocked by Democrats in the Senate using filibusters. “They’d have to get at least eight Democrats to vote for them,” Percival said. “They might find a few — but not eight.”

Global Impacts

Trump hasn’t just picked anti-regulatory nominees for key environmental posts, he has picked candidates who have denied the findings of climate science. EPA pick Scott Pruitt, for example, has misleadingly claimed that scientists “continue to disagree” about global warming and “its connection to the actions of mankind.”

Climate science is unequivocal in showing that air pollution causes global warming, which in turn reshapes weather and landscapes, posing deadly threats to communities worldwide. To minimize the impacts of climate science-related discoveries on the fossil fuel industry, opponents of climate action frequently attack scientists and their work, attempting to diminish their credibility.

Fears of attacks from Trump and his cabinet have rattled America’s scientists. Climate experts abroad fear that a resurgence in American science denialism could spread to business leaders and other governments, hampering progress toward implementing the United Nations climate treaty.

A climate rally held in Paris during United Nations climate negotiations in late 2015.
Credit: Takver/flickr

“We know we could be hauled into Congress to face hostile questioning from climate change deniers,” Penn State professor Michael Mann wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “We know we could be publicly vilified by politicians. We know we could be at the receiving end of federal subpoenas demanding our personal emails. We know we could see our research grants audited or revoked.”

For Mann and other scientists, including those who protested in the streets of San Francisco during an annual geophysics confab last month, anticipating dangers under Trump requires little imagination.

“I faced all of those things a decade ago,” Mann wrote, referring to a time when George W. Bush was president — “the last time Republicans had full control of our government.”

Experts abroad are also unsettled. The U.S. and China are the world’s biggest climate polluters, and they both reversed years of opposition to climate action by playing key roles in mustering support for a U.N. climate agreement struck during talks in Paris in late 2015.

“If the U.S. doesn't honor the commitment it made at the Paris climate talks last year, developing countries will be abandoned to face a climate crisis they did not cause,” said Harjeet Singh, a climate expert in Delhi with the nonprofit ActionAid. “The U.S. must acknowledge its share of responsibility.”

The Paris agreement took legal force around the time of the U.S. election. It represents a total rethink following decades of failed global climate diplomacy, relying on voluntary pledges from all nations to ease their impacts on the climate instead of mandatory emissions cuts from rich ones.

America pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than a quarter by 2025 compared with levels in 2005, though the pledge is of questionable value following Trump’s election win. If Tillerson is confirmed as secretary of state, a lifelong oilman will assume leadership of American climate diplomacy.

Through ExxonMobil’s work in Russia, Tillerson has developed close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which could influence America’s approach to global climate diplomacy.

Russia’s economy and government budgets are propped up by drilling for oil and gas, much of which is exported, making the nation one of the world’s greatest greenhouse gas polluters. The melting of Arctic ice caused by global warming could help Russia access more fossil fuel reserves.

The Kremlin has not overtly obstructed global climate action, but the country weakened the Paris agreement by putting forth an underwhelming climate pledge.

“Putin was a very strong climate denier but in his last speeches he’s much more careful,” said Vladimir Chuprov, a Russian official with the nonprofit Greenpeace. “After the oil price collapse, he more often mentions the need to phase out oil dependence.”

Perhaps surprisingly, amid Trump’s nominations of climate science denialists for key cabinet posts, many foreign climate experts were relieved by Trump’s nomination of Tillerson.

After ExxonMobil spent decades obscuring climate science and funding groups that attacked climate scientists, in recent years it has voiced support for a modest carbon tax. The oil company, which is one of the world’s biggest climate polluters, publicly welcomed the Paris Agreement. With Trump leading America, however, there is no guarantee that support will last.

“The announcement that Rex Tillerson will be nominated to be secretary of state is, quite remarkably, cause for hope,” said Robert Stavins, a Harvard economics professor who tracks international climate policy. “I hear that repeatedly.”

Fears that the U.S. might abandon the Paris agreement were stoked by Trump’s campaign promises to do so. Even without withdrawing from the treaty, America could hamper efforts by other countries to tackle climate change by refusing to take its commitments under the Paris agreement seriously, or by obstructing U.N. climate talks.

America could also fail to provide any of the billions of dollars in financing promised by rich countries to poorer ones to help them grow their economies with clean power, reducing their climate impacts. Authorized by Congress, the U.S. recently made a $500 million payment to a global climate fund. Future payments now seem far less likely.

America’s withdrawal from its leadership role on climate could leave China to take over, perhaps in partnership with the European Union. Europe emerged as a global leader on climate action during George H. W. Bush’s presidency in the 1990s, though that role was diminished in recent years as Europeans became distracted by other crises.

Concerns that countries abroad could waver in their commitments to the Paris agreement following Trump’s win in November have so far proven unfounded. Experts still expect that the rest of the world will continue to work together to fight warming, even if America sits out the fight during a key moment.

“It seems difficult to imagine the energy transition that’s been set in motion being completely reversed,” said Louise van Schaik, a sustainability researcher at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “The new market forces and other countries will go on. The U.S. is unlikely to position itself well for the post-carbon future with the Trump cabinet.”

You May Also Like:
Obama Just Made the Case for His Clean Energy Legacy
It’s Official: 2016 Was Second Hottest Year for U.S.
U.S. on Track to Become Net Energy Exporter by 2026

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the surname of the NRDC director of government affairs. It's David Goldston, not Goldstein.