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With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week that unwinds the environmental policies of his predecessor. The order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to begin withdrawing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce carbon emissions by closing coal plants and building new solar and wind farms. By signing the order, Trump reiterated his campaign promise to bring back energy-industry jobs while bolstering arguments made by climate change opponents.
But some experts think the act was more flash than substance, saying there is still a long and tangled regulatory path before America can abandon its role in curbing global warming. Eric Orts, faculty director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, Denise Grab, senior attorney at the New York University Institute for Policy Integrity, and Justin Gundlach, a climate law fellow at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, recently spoke about what the executive order means on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Here are the key takeaways from their conversation:
Trump’s Order Is More ‘Sound Than Fury’
Although Trump’s executive order is a devastating blow to environmental advocates, it’s not as dire as it may seem. Gundlach, whose work draws him deep into the eye of the climate debate storm, said Trump’s signature does undo what was the beginning of a coherent policy on the environment. But “there were some points of light, in that it seems that they didn’t sweep away every previous executive order that mentioned climate change.”
Grab pointed out that the specific language of the order doesn’t remove requirements for federal agencies to meet their duties under regulations such as the Clean Air Act.
“The executive order itself is a lot of sound and fury signifying not much on its own,” she said. “Whether it will result in substantive changes does remain to be seen.”
Orts agreed, calling the order nothing more than a photo opportunity for the president to deliver on campaign rhetoric. Making regulatory changes in the federal government is a time-consuming process that involves scientific research, a notice-and-comment period and other methods of due diligence.
“The Trump administration has to go through the same process of putting in a regulation as the Obama administration [did],” Orts noted.
The experts also said that if the federal government starts acting against policy, it will open itself up to lawsuits. “You can’t just unilaterally stop doing things without attracting lawsuits,” Orts said. “By executive order, if you are violating the law, just as we’ve seen in the immigration context, you are going to have NGOs coming after you and saying, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t just turn around and do X when the law says Y is the rule.'”
U.S. Role in Paris Agreement
There is widespread speculation that Trump’s rollback on the Clean Power Plan is America’s first step toward reversing its commitment to the Paris Agreement of 2015, which was signed by 174 countries and the European Union. Without the involvement of the U.S., which is the world’s second-biggest polluter behind China, the pact could fall apart.
Yet the experts noted there is some comfort in the fact that the Paris Agreement wasn’t explicitly stated in the order. The omission indicates that the administration is in disagreement over the larger issue of climate change. While it’s anyone’s guess what the internal machinations are, Gundlach said, perhaps Trump sees some benefit to remaining in the pact for now.
“This administration is not building a reputation for coherent and clear moves in one direction,” he added.
Gundlach and Orts noted that climate change policy is also directly tied to national security, which is a topical issue for Trump. As the planet warms, more people will leave their homes, creating an even greater number of refugees. Orts said the administration also has to realize that the scientific basis of climate change has been widely accepted, so there is an expectation that the government must address it.
“Climate change is not going to go away just because you decide not to pay any attention to it,” he said.
In some aspects, the issue mirrors what is happening with the Affordable Care Act. “It’s a rerun of Obamacare,” Orts says. The administration may want to repeal Obamacare, “but you have to have something to replace it, or it blows up.”
“Climate change is not going to go away just because you decide not to pay any attention to it.” –Eric Orts
Order Puts Greater Pressure on States
If federal energy policy is in question, that will make it more difficult for individual states to address problems such as auto emissions and greenhouse gases.
“What the Clean Power Plan did was provide a degree of coherence that states will now have to provide on their own,” Gundlach said.
Grab added that the auto industry likes the regulatory certainty that federal policies provide.
When it comes to the climate change equation, the administration may be overlooking one of the biggest variables: business. Companies worldwide are looking for the next big thing, the next alternative energy market as demand for coal and gasoline decreases.
“It’s easy to just follow the headlines and become pessimistic, but the fact of the matter is the president doesn’t have that much power to just change things,” Orts emphasized. “It’s also true that a lot of businesses are going to be ahead of the curve on pushing back.”