How safe is Obama’s environmental legacy under Trump?

Publish date: January 18, 2017

Barack Obama spent the final days of his presidency quantifying his environmental legacy in the pages of America’s most established scientific journal, Science.

Barack Obama spent the final days of his presidency quantifying his environmental legacy in the pages of America’s most established scientific journal, Science.

It was a remarkable event: Rare are politicians that would submit their accomplishments to the arcane world of peer-reviews. It was characteristically bookish and poignant – an appeal to academia and science in the face of an incoming administration that doesn’t have much use for science, reading, or facts.

Obama devoted part his first term and all of his second to lowering US reliance on fossil fuels, boosting green energy, and giving the US a leading role in a global fight against climate change in which he enlisted China.

In his policy paper for Science, Obama argued that, regardless of what his successor does, the upward trajectory of solar and wind power is irreversible. He also wrote about seeing natural gas surpass coal for US power generation.

windfarmtexas A wind farm in Texas. (Photo: Wikipedia)

His administration installed a rule to ratchet down the industry’s methane leaks and put a moratorium on coal leases on public lands. Along the way, he clipped truck emissions and updated efficiency standards for appliances.

And just before Christmas, he permanently blocked off parts of the Arctic and the US Atlantic seaboard for oil drilling.

Trump has vowed to erode all of Obama’s environmental stands, particularly Obama’s entrée to the Paris Agreement, the Clean Power Plan, which would cut power plant carbon dioxide emission 32 percent by 2030.

And, of course, he’s called climate change “bullsh*t” and a “hoax,” and said he’ll pull out of Paris. His choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency reflects the corrosive sentiment: the nominee, Scott Pruitt, has built his career on suing the agency.

Given that much of what Obama put in place was done through regulatory rule-making via the EPA, or by executive order, how vulnerable is it?

That depends on the Trump administration actually proving that greenhouse gasses aren’t dangerous to human health and security. Interestingly, the matter actually is one not of fact, but opinion – Trump’s preferred arena. But the opinion is hard to shake. Here’s why:

In 2007, the US Supreme Court said it was up to the EPA to regulate climate gases as pollutants as spelled out by the federal Clean Air Act of 1970.

In 2009, the agency issued an “endangerment finding” determining that they were, in fact, dangerous and subject to regulation.

The agency looked into the potential for more tumultuous weather, death rates tied to rising temperatures, lethal exposure to pathogens, rising seas, melting ice, read thousands of pages from UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, and concluded there was a “compelling” reason to believe greenhouse gases were hazardous, and that things were getting worse.

The America Chemical Council and other industry lobbying groups challenged the finding in the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia in 2012.

They lost. The Court ruled that the EPA’s interpretation of its authority to regulate pollution was “unambiguously correct.”

epa The US Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo:

Bringing any focus to Trump’s wide-ranging promises to gut environmental regulation would, by necessity, mean pushing to trash the EPA’s endangerment finding – something environmentalists in the US, now recovered from the initial shock of his victory, see as nearly impossible.

That’s because, if the Trump Administration wanted to take the finding to court again, it would have to present new evidence emerging since 2009 that greenhouse gasses aren’t dangerous.

Good luck. All of the evidence since then shows exactly the opposite: The world has experienced some of the worst storms and most parching droughts, endured the hottest year on record, and seen huge populations go on the move in search of arable land.

Pruitt was obviously picked for his potential to rot the EPA from the inside, but the agency he would head can’t just shift course on inauguration day. It needs to explain why it’s changing its mind despite mountains of evidence showing it’s wrong to do so.

Because Pruitt has spent the last few years suing the EPA over the Clean Power Act, government ethics rules might mean he’d have to recuse himself from even participating in such an autophagic spectacle. Even if he did attack the endangerment finding, the first court it would land in would be the same DC court that that upheld it.

With well-heeled, litigious environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council and democratic states’ attorneys general mobilizing to sue the Trump administration, any challenges to the endangerment finding would result in lawsuits that would stretch beyond Trump’s first, possibly only, term.

Scott Pruitt EPA Nominee Scott Pruitt before his first meeting with Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York. Credit: Still from NBC News

One way for Trump to avoid getting mired in all that would be to reach back to 1970 and try to amend the Clean Air Act so it specifically sheds oversight of carbon dioxide, methane and the other greenhouse gases.

That would mean getting the Republican majority in Congress excited about writing legislation to weaken or overturn a law that has long enjoyed bipartisan support and affection.

But in the days before his inauguration, it’s becoming clearer to Republicans that blindly acting on Trump’s Twitter spasms and campaign promises – like bleeding the US healthcare system, building a wall on the Mexican border, unraveling NATO, and blowing kisses to Russia – could brew into hemlock before midterm congressional elections in 2018.

Republicans will doubtless chip away at regulation around the corners, but it would take a broad, lemming-like assault to kill the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Power Plan for which it’s a foundation.

Whether the US can maintain gravitas in global climate talks under Trump is doubtful. But here, too, Obama has left something behind for the international community: a momentum that includes China.

As the world’s second biggest emitter, China grumbled all the way to COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 about how quantifying its emissions would destroy its coal driven industrial complex. By the end of the gathering, Obama had helped draw Beijing into committing to cuts, and it has been doing so at other COP gatherings ever since. This week, China killed plans for 104 coal plants in its continuing thrust away from fossils.

China is still the world’s second worst polluter after the United States, but it’s investing $360 billion on renewables like solar and wind by 2020. As the world’s largest installer of both photovoltaics and solar thermal energy, China’s position in world climate talks is aligned with creating its own markets for renewables.

At home, bowing to the economic forces coming from indisputable climate change has largely been the position of Obama and his State Department all along, and the momentum is clearly growing.

That’s an Obama legacy that Trump – and his cruel promise to coal miners to bring back their jobs – will ignore at the economic peril of the country he said he’d “make great again.” That’s hardly the shrewd businessman under half the US electorate thought it voted for.

Likely, the momentum toward clean energy left by Obama will outlast the next administration. The question whether the country, and the world, will let Trump miss the bus.