The Trump Administration and the Curious Case for Climate Optimism

As part of ‘Climate Week’, the Academy of Government will blog on the subject of the environment this week.  We start the week with Professor Bomberg on President Trump and the environment.

Elizabeth Bomberg, Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh,


A perusal of President Donald Trump’s climate and environmental initiatives makes for sobering reading. Within his first 100 days he appointed a series of climate sceptics and oilmen to his cabinet and closest advisory circle. He vowed to ‘end the war on coal’ by attempting to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is designed to regulate carbon emission from power plants. He lifted a moratorium on coal leasing, and issued permits for controversial oil pipelines. Meanwhile, his proposed budget included huge cuts in funding for scientific agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal institution charged with upholding and implementing environmental legislation.  This list is partial.


What readers might not realise, however, is that regardless of what Trump would like to implement, his policies, budget cuts and actions will confront constitutional, institutional and societal barriers. Some of Trump proposals will get through, but a lot will not.  Four checks and countervailing trends are particularly important.


The first check is constitutional.  Both Congress and, even more so, the judicial branch will pose formidable checks on Trump’s power. Any proposed dismantling of the CPP, for instance, will be subject to lengthy congressional but also judicial review, triggered by suits filed by a range of states, environmental, labour and health NGOs.  Even if these NGOs are ultimately unsuccessful in their legal challenge, the delay could last years, longer than the presidential term itself.


The second barrier is economic. Trump cannot stop the global and national market forces which have sent coal use in a downward spiral. Hundreds of US coal power plants have closed, the number of jobs in the coal sector has plummeted. Meanwhile, renewables are a tremendous growth industry in the US, especially in the Midwest. Costs for wind and solar have fallen markedly and employment has shot up.  In the electricity sector, according to the US Department of Energy, employment in solar alone now outstrips employment in oil and gas.


We have also seen formidable opposition below the federal level. Much of the relevant statutory power (and creativity) in climate and environment policy is found here.  California has led other states vowing to defy Trump’s  policies and committing to sharply reduce state emissions in light of federal inaction. Just as important is pushback from a growing number of Republican states like Iowa, Kansas, and Ohio who have benefitted enormously from a renewables revolution which has brought to their states jobs, investment, and reduced energy costs. These Republican leaders have become unexpected champions of low carbon economies and low carbon policies.  Cities will also continue their core efforts to reduce carbon as part of their efforts to reduce costs, protect coasts, infrastructures and public safety. More general citizen mobilization has also grown and diversified. In addition to dramatically increased membership of environmental NGOs, 2017 has featured a record breaking number of protests from unlikely quarters including religious communities, health groups and scientists concerned by the Administration’s dismissive view of research and data.


The adverse impact of Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement will  also be limited.  The official withdrawal will take a minimum of four years (longer than his term) due to provisions written into the Paris Agreement. More importantly, the Paris Agreement enjoys wide support from a huge range of countries, and several other parties to the Agreement have promised to fill the void left by US inaction. These parties include the European Union (‘We are ready to lead the fight’ said a spokesman), but also India and, especially, China which has huge incentives to take on the leadership role abandoned by the US.  China is highly vulnerable to climate change and suffers dangerously high levels of urban pollution. Moreover, its economy benefits enormously from the global development of renewables. For most countries, the environmental, economic and diplomatic incentives for moving forward on Paris far outweigh the temptation to follow a laggard.


Several contributors to this AoG Environment series will identify the changes necessary to address climate change in Scotland and globally. These changes include societal mobilization, an economic shift to low carbon energy, sub-state action and behavioural and cultural shifts. While not receiving much attention in the UK press, these forces are all thriving in the US.  Combined with the constitutional checks outlined above, it is not unreasonable to think these countervailing forces will shape – and in many cases curtail – the Trump’s Administration’s attempt to scupper progress on climate policy and action.  The case for climate optimism continues, with or without Trump.


This blog is an updated version of post first appearing as: Trump’s First 100 Days: The Curious Case for Climate Optimism in The Geographer. Thanks to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for permission to re-post.


Further Reading

For a fuller analysis of Trump’s early environmental and climate policy, see Bomberg, E. 2017. ‘Environmental politics in the Trump era: an early assessment, Environmental Politics, 25(6): 956-63




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