Trump seems ready to fight the world on climate change. But he's likely to meet resistance

Donald Trump is branded with all manner of unflattering labels, but one that hasn’t seemed to much bother him is “climate pariah.”

The president-elect is unabashed in his disdain for America’s global warming policy. He has placed a staunch climate-change doubter and antagonist of mainstream science in charge of reshaping — or as Trump has suggested, dismantling — the Environmental Protection Agency. He has talked frequently about reneging on the historic Paris global climate treaty the U.S. took a lead in drafting. And he has said he wants every federal green-energy program eliminated.

Environmentalists take little comfort in Trump’s recent comments that he accepts “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change and that he has an open mind about it, as what he’s said elsewhere and done so far suggests otherwise.

And even those comments gave scientists cause for alarm. “You can make a lot of cases for different views,” Trump told the New York Times, casting doubt on the finding by more than 90% of climate scientists that emissions are accelerating global warming. “I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.”

Yet few things on Trump’s confrontational agenda put him more quickly on a collision course with the rest of the world, much of his own country and even some in his own party than his stated desire to abandon the fight against global warming. The looming assault on environmental regulation will test the resilience of California’s leadership role in the world, which is defined in large part by aggressive action on climate change that became a blueprint for the Obama administration.

“Donald Trump will be about the only head of state who does not believe in climate science or the responsibility of his government to act,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, which signed up more members in the week after Trump won the election than during the rest of 2016 combined. “This makes the Bush-Cheney administration look like it came from an environmental training camp.”

But Trump may be picking a tougher fight than he knows. The last time the White House made the kind of retreat Trump envisions – when President Bush walked away from the Kyoto protocol in 2001 – the policy landscape of climate change was drastically different.

Much of the action on climate change in this country no longer plays out in federal agencies but at local commissions enforcing laws in 29 states that push public utilities to go green. Their mandates are to encourage investment in cleaner plants and technology development.

Major U.S. trading partners that signed on to the nearly 200-nation accord reached in Paris last year are already signaling that they will retaliate if the United States backs out, possibly by slapping environmental trade tariffs onto some American products.

Bailing on the deal could also increase the influence of China, itself once a chief climate pariah and now a green-energy powerhouse and lead instigator of international climate agreements. Trump is poised to create a leadership vacuum in the fight against climate change that would only expand Beijing’s reach, Chinese officials say. 

None of those potential consequences faze the free-market think tanks urging Trump to go rogue. Just weeks ago, these groups were on the lonely fringe, pursuing an agenda written off as wacky by the mainstream science community, but now find themselves helping drive policy at the highest levels.

“We disagree with President Obama that climate change is the end-all and we ought to reorient the global economy around this phenomenon,” said William Yeatman, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

One of the organization’s most outspoken scholars, Myron Ebell, was tasked by Trump to oversee the transition to the new administration at the EPA. Ebell accuses the mainstream science community of unnecessarily alarming the public about global warming. Where many erstwhile allies abandoned that position in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, Ebell doubled down. Last year, he attacked the call by Pope Francis for action on climate change as “scientifically ill-informed, economically illiterate, intellectually incoherent and morally obtuse.”

That Ebell is now setting the direction of the EPA is horrifying to no small number of policymakers and scientists who have worked on this issue since even before the Kyoto talks. Some don’t even accept it. They expect Ebell will stir so much public outrage that his influence in the new administration will quickly wane.

“He is a fanatical ideologue,” said David Doniger, who directs the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If this were a corporation, would you turn a sales unit over to a nut like that?”

But Trump, who shook up his transition team after winning the election, has left Ebell in charge of the shift at the EPA and may keep him in place to run the agency. Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request to interview Ebell.

In California, state officials are already dusting off their playbooks from the George W. Bush years, when the state launched its ambitious climate agenda in spite of the White House. The state’s clean-energy start-ups and innovation labs are redrafting business plans to focus on serving customers in places likely to be more hospitable to green tech during the Trump administration. Home-grown California technologies thought to be destined for Pittsburgh or Cincinnati may now divert to Paris or Shanghai.

“I don’t see this impacting California one bit,” said Yuan-Sheng Yu, an analyst at Lux Research who wrote a report on the future of climate policy under Trump. “California has made clear it is going to move forward regardless of who is president, just as it did before Obama.”

Trump faces an even more politically daunting barrier: many fellow Republicans. Generous federal tax credits for wind and solar production have provided an economic boost to states red and blue alike. Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa put Trump on notice, saying this year that only “over my dead body” would Congress allow a repeal of the wind tax credits Trump has proposed eliminating.

Still, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which have been dropping for years, are projected to turn sharply upward under Trump, according to the Lux report, even as California and many other states push ahead with their climate plans. 

For starters, Trump’s agenda would enable unfettered operation of America’s most polluting power plants. Obama’s Clean Power Plan – which Trump said he will immediately kill – aimed to shut those down. Without those federal regulations in place, states resistant to the California-type approach are free again to go their own way.

Combine that with Trump’s plan to strip all subsidies for green power, and add a Trump environmental agenda that includes none of the aggressive goals Hillary Clinton set for accelerating solar installations, and the amount of carbon released into the environment surges.

The public remains alarmed by climate change, and Trump will pay a heavy political price if he proceeds, environmental groups warned. 

But even the climate contrarians at the Competitive Enterprise Institute are skeptical about how far he will go. Yeatman pointed to a postelection report in an energy industry publication that said Trump is already putting on the back burner his plan to end the wind and solar subsidies driving so much of America’s green economy.

And the energy plan the Trump campaign has now posted on its website also concerns him. Along with a massive surge in fossil fuel production, Trump promises to “make full use” of “renewable energy sources.”

And on Tuesday, Trump walked back a few more steps. Asked whether he was dead set on abandoning the Paris accord, the president-elect wavered. “I’m looking at it very closely,” he said. “I have an open mind to it.”

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