Donald Trump’s plan to bring an abrupt halt to America’s crusade against climate change will test California and other states like never before as they seek to wrest control of the nation’s energy future from a hostile White House.
The energy plan Trump unveiled on Tuesday left no doubt that the states are now on their own — and that the White House is already poised to weaken some of their pioneering efforts.
Left uncertain, though, is whether Trump can unilaterally relinquish the nation’s role as a global leader in the fight to curb emissions, or whether the progressive states — with an assist from legally savvy environmental groups — can preserve that mantle.
Shortly after Trump signed his energy plan, Gov. Jerry Brown vowed that the president’s “outrageous move will galvanize the contrary force.”
Brown and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are moving fast to consolidate the power of several other states and countries that are united on climate action, and are emerging to fill the American leadership vacuum on the world stage that the Trump administration has created.
It’s a formidable coalition, with U.S. states and foreign governments representing a billion people and a third of the global economy. Whether it can be harnessed to bring America in a direction the White House is now dead set against remains to be seen.
It is up against an Environmental Protection Agency now run by climate deniers, a president who has shown only contempt for the international accord on global warming, and a White House energy blueprint that altogether disregards the scientific consensus that catastrophic weather changes are bearing down on humankind.
“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said at the EPA building in Washington on Tuesday, where he signed the rollback of Obama’s climate effort while surrounded by coal miners. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusions and to cancel job-killing regulations.”
The plan reflects an about-face for the U.S. on energy. It shelves the landmark Clean Power Plan that mandates electricity companies reduce their emissions. It seeks to dislodge consideration of climate throughout the federal government, where it has been a factor in every relevant decision in recent years.
Under the order, the federal government will abandon the “social cost of carbon” that regulators had painstakingly calculated and begun factoring into their decisions on permit applications and rule making. Restrictions on methane releases at oil and gas drilling facilities would be eased. Agencies will also stop contemplating climate impacts as they launch new projects, and restrictions on coal leasing and fracking on federal lands will be lifted.
After insisting his executive order would spark unencumbered job growth — a prediction many economists dispute — Trump made a vow that could also be interpreted as an opening for California and like-minded states.
“We are returning power to the states, where the power belongs,” Trump said. “It was taken away from them and not handled well. They are the ones we should now — and will now — empower to decide.”
The last time the federal government balked on addressing climate, during the administration of George W. Bush, California used the force of its giant economy to bolster the renewable energy industry and push other states in the same direction. Now it has several fortified partners motivated to test the limits of their influence over the energy market in ways they weren’t when the Obama administration was playing that role.
“These states did not feel compelled to do anything while the EPA was acting” to combat climate change, said Michael Wara, an energy expert at Stanford Law School. “Now they are going to step up…. The last time we saw this fight, it was mostly California acting. That’s not the world we live in anymore. The more the EPA steps away, the more states are going to act.”
Brown predicted Trump’s actions will mobilize the climate movement in a way Obama never could. “I have met with many heads of state, ambassadors,” he said. “This is a growing movement.…Things have been a bit tepid [in climate activism]. But this conflict, this sharpening of the contradiction will energize those who believe climate change is an existential threat.
“We are reaching out to other states in America and throughout the world and other countries,” he said. “We have plenty of fuel to build this movement.”
Brown has taken to reassuring world leaders that America is not abandoning the principles negotiated in the global climate treaty signed in Paris — even if the White House is. He talks of working in tandem with China — a Trump nemesis — to keep ratcheting down emissions.
Under pressure from a newly reenergized Democratic base of voters, Washington state and Oregon politicians are looking to move aggressively to bring their energy policies more in line with those of California. Across the country in New England, a collection of states limiting power plant emissions through a carbon trading program is mulling over expanding its reach.
“Those states have enormous power,” said David Bookbinder, chief counsel for the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that focuses on global warming solutions. “They can expand the emissions rules into other sectors of the economy. They can ratchet down their targets” for greenhouse gases.
Such actions have tended to nudge less progressive states in the same direction in the past. In Ohio, for example, Republican Gov. John Kasich recently vetoed an effort to get rid of his state’s clean energy mandate at the behest of an increasingly influential clean energy industry there. But the oil and gas lobbies have also become more organized and sophisticated in recent years, and environmentalists looking to pressure Midwestern states into embracing California-style policies will have a fight on their hands.
“Utilities will fight this until the end,” Bookbinder said. “It is hard to change the entire mind-set of an industry that has grown up on decade after decade of fossil fuels.”
But while climate activists are confident that the green economy will ultimately prevail as the cost of wind and solar continue to plummet — and the cost of burning coal just doesn’t compete with cleaner technologies, including natural gas — they are not confident it will happen quickly enough.
Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who has helped shape the state’s climate policy and has been in the fight for nearly a decade, says that despite all that is going on in the states and other countries that he finds encouraging, the political reality facing the climate movement right now is dispiriting.
“The fact of the matter is this guy is still president, Republicans still control the Congress, they still control 70% of statehouses,” he said. “We are in an absolutely terrible position.”
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