What Will Trump’s Most Profound Legacy Be? Possibly Climate Damage.
President-elect Biden can restore many of the 100-plus environmental regulations that President Trump rolled back, but much of the damage to the climate cannot be reversed.
WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will use the next four years to try to restore the environmental policies that his predecessor has methodically blown up, but the damage done by the greenhouse gas pollution unleashed by President Trump’s rollbacks may prove to be one of the most profound legacies of his single term.
Most of Mr. Trump’s environmental policies, which erased or loosened nearly 100 rules and regulations on pollution in the air, water and atmosphere, can be reversed, though not immediately. Pollutants like industrial soot and chemicals can have lasting health effects, especially in minority communities where they are often concentrated. But air quality and water clarity can be restored once emissions are put back under control.
That is not true for the global climate. Greenhouse pollution accumulates in the atmosphere, so the heat-trapping gases emitted as a result of loosened regulations will remain for decades, regardless of changes in policy.
“Historically, there is always a pendulum to swing back and forth between Democratic and Republican administrations on the environment, and, theoretically, the environment can recover,” said Jody Freeman, a professor of environmental law at Harvard and a former adviser to the Obama administration. “You can put rules back in place that clean up the air and water. But climate change doesn’t work like that.”
Moreover, Mr. Trump’s rollbacks of emissions policies have come at a critical moment: Over the past four years, the global level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere crossed a long-feared threshold of atmospheric concentration. Now, many of the most damaging effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, deadlier storms, and more devastating heat, droughts and wildfires, are irreversible.
At home, Mr. Biden may find it more difficult than his former boss, President Barack Obama, to use executive authority to create tough, durable climate change rules because the six-justice conservative majority on the Supreme Court is expected to look unfavorably on policies that significantly expand federal agencies’ authority to regulate industry.
And abroad, the influence that the United States once had in climate talks was almost certainly damaged by Mr. Trump’s policy rollbacks and withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Those actions slowed down international efforts to reduce emissions and prompted other governments to follow the American lead in weakening emissions rules, though none have followed the United States out of the agreement.
All of that means that as Mr. Biden works to enact domestic climate change rules and rejoin the Paris accord, emissions attributable to Mr. Trump’s actions will continue, tipping the planet further into a danger zone that scientists say will be much harder to escape.
“Donald Trump has been to climate regulation as General Sherman was to Atlanta,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School, referring to the Union general who razed the city during the Civil War. “Hopefully it won’t take as long to rebuild.”
Scientists have long warned that if greenhouse gases in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million, staving off a warming of 2 degrees Celsius would become far more difficult. The Paris climate accord agreed to that target because above it, the planet is likely locked into a fate of rising sea levels, stronger storms, widespread droughts and heat waves, and mass die-offs of coral reefs.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere first hit 400 parts per million in 2016, the year Mr. Trump was elected. But the president put economic growth above emissions targets, arguing that climate and other environmental regulations were harming job creation.
Economists see little evidence that Mr. Trump’s rollback of climate change rules bolstered the economy. Jobs in the auto sector have been declining since the beginning of 2019, and the trend continued despite the rollback of rules aimed at vehicle pollution from greenhouse gases. Domestic coal production last year dropped to its lowest level since 1978. In September, the French government actually blocked a $7 billion contract to purchase American natural gas, arguing that gas produced without controls on methane leaks was too harmful to the climate.
Meantime, in May, carbon dioxide levels reached 417 parts per million, the highest level recorded in human history.
“Because global emissions in 2020 are so much higher than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, that means that a year wasted in the Trump administration on not acting on climate has much bigger consequences than a year wasted in Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton’s administration,” said Michael Wara, a climate and energy expert at Stanford University.
Analysts say that the past four years represented a closing window in which the world’s largest polluting economies, working together, could have charted a path toward slowing the rate of planet-warming emissions. To do that, a scientific report in 2018 found that the world’s economies would need to reduce emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 — and the policies to do so should be implemented rapidly.
Instead, in the largest economy in the world, they began to fray.
“We’ve lost very important time on climate change, which we can ill afford,” said Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan energy and environment-focused research organization in Washington. “There is severe damage. To ignore climate for four years, you can’t put a price on that. It’s a huge issue that needs to be confronted with long-term momentum and extreme dedication, and we have lost that.”
9 November 2020
The New York Times