In the final weeks of his administration, President Obama made some important progress on the climate and environment. Unfortunately, much of that forward momentum is expected to be undone as the Trump administration, with its focus on rolling back environmental regulations and expanding fossil fuel extraction, begins to implement its policies. In his fourth day in office, President Trump has signed an order to revisit President Obama’s decision on Keystone XL, now allowing the 1,110-mile pipeline — which would transfer oil from the highly-polluting tar sands in Alberta, Canada, down to the Gulf of Mexico — to possibly move forward, along with the Dakota Access pipeline, the source of major protests among Native Americans. His administration also removed content on climate change from the White House website. Amid a profound shift in focus, scientists have found that 2016 was the hottest recorded year on record and the third record-breaking year in a row.
To recap what President Obama accomplished in his final days before leaving office: He transferred $500 million to the UN-managed Green Climate Fund, bringing the total U.S. transfers to date to $1 billion. Increased financial support from wealthy, developed countries for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries was seen as critical to gaining the political support of developing countries for the Paris climate agreement. As part of the negotiated settlement, the U.S. committed to transfer $3 billion to the fund. The Trump administration has not said whether it will follow-through on this important international obligation and send the remaining $2 billion.
President Obama made it more difficult for future administrations to allow for offshore oil or gas extraction in the Arctic and Atlantic. The Washington Post reports: “Obama used a little-known law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic and a string of canyons in the Atlantic stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia. In addition to a five-year moratorium already in place in the Atlantic, removing the canyons from drilling puts much of the eastern seaboard off limits to oil exploration even if companies develop plans to operate around them.” Simultaneously with Obama’s announcement, Canada proclaimed a ban on offshore drilling in its waters. It’s not clear whether President Trump has the powers to rescind Obama’s move, but Congress can undo the action if they have the votes.
Lastly, in the final days of his administration, President Obama sent a powerful message on conservation, vastly expanding the number of protected monuments. According to NPR, Obama set aside 1.35 million acres of land in southeast Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument. In addition, he created the Gold Butte National Monument, which will protect 300,000 acres in southwest Nevada. In a first, these protected areas will be managed collaboratively with Indian tribes. Many state officials were angered by the move, as more than 80 percent of land in Nevada and 65 percent of land in Utah is owned by the federal government. Over his two administrations, Obama created or expanded upon 34 national monuments. The New York Times writes that President Obama has protected more than 533 million acres of federal monuments, more than any other president.
As President Trump takes power, the domestic debate over climate change and the economic impact of environmental regulations — mostly, it seems, narrowly focused on the impact on fossil fuel industries — has reached a fever pitch. Trump’s nominees to lead administration departments have been testifying on Capitol Hill and they have made a range of statements.
Uniformly, there was acknowledgement that climate change is happening, and that humanity has played some role in that change. However, other statements seemingly downplayed climate change as an issue, conveyed that it may be difficult to make progress on the climate without hurting economic growth, or bolstered the position that climate change is not settled science, that there are still too many unknowns. None of the nominees echoed Trump’s early position that climate change is Chinese-sponsored or a hoax though, a statement from which he seems to have back-tracked. But also none committed to any serious action.
It’s important to note the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together all the world’s leading climate scientists, has found “it’s extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Also, some 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and humanity is fundamentally behind the change.
Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, said “the risk of climate change does exist” and “action should be taken.” However, he also seemed to back track a bit when he stated: “the increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.” He reiterated his previously-stated support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax and also argued the U.S. must continue to play a role in global negotiations on the climate.
Secretary of energy nominee and former Texas governor Rick Perry said the climate is changing and “some of it is caused by man-made activities.” He added that “the question is how we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth.” In response to concerns about a questionnaire, which was sent to energy department climate scientists by the Trump transition team in an effort to identify those who worked on international climate negotiations, Perry said he had no part in that, and “I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone who would attack them. I will be an advocate (for the programs) … but I’m not sure I’m going to be 1,000 percent successful.” According to The Washington Post, during Perry’s tenure, Texas became the “nation’s leading wind energy state.” But at the same time, he also oversaw a great expansion in oil and gas exploration.
Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, nominee for secretary of the department of interior, admitted that climate change is “indisputable” and humans are influencing the climate, but he also said: “I think where there’s debate on it is what that influence is, what can we do about it.” The department of interior has a potentially major impact on the U.S. fight against climate change, as it oversees public lands that can be used for oil, coal, and gas extraction. Zinke has issued statements supporting the expansion of energy production on federal lands, including renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. One positive: Zinke is seen by some as an advocate on conservation. He has repeatedly supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund, opposed efforts to sell off federal lands, and, siding with Democrats, been a proponent of “land banking.” He also made some positive statements about the National Park Service, arguing that President Trump’s plans to spend a trillion on infrastructure should also include $12.5 billion to deal with the back-log of maintenance for national parks.
According to CNN, in his hearing to be confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma, said: “Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some matter impacts that change. The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.” Through his position in Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA 13 times, charging the agency with over-reaching in its efforts to regulate national carbon emissions. He also received some $300,000 in contributions from oil and gas companies. Under aggressive questioning by Senator Bernie Sanders and other democrats, Pruitt acknowledged the EPA indeed has an”obligation” to regulate carbon emissions. Time magazine argues this may signal the Trump administration will not try to overturn the EPA’s finding that it’s obligated to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. In fact, if Trump’s EPA seeks to undo Obama’s clean power plan, they will need to first come up with a replacement.
While Trump scales back the Obama administration’s climate and environmental ambitions, other countries are trying to pick up the slack and provide leadership. While Europe has long provided important role on the climate and environment, China has stepped up. On the Paris climate accords, President Xi Jinping recently said “all signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it, as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” China has halted development of over 100 major coal plants and pledged to invest $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020. According to Bloomberg, China is already the world’s top investor in renewable energy, at $86 billion per year, more than a third higher than levels in the U.S.