With the stroke of a pen this week, President Donald J. Trump undid all of the progress his predecessor had made in fighting climate change.
Or did he?
Rolling back the clock on environmental regulations was certainly the president’s intent.
“I am taking historic steps to lift restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump said during a signing ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The order aims to reverse policies put forward under the administration of Barack Obama. It calls on the government to abandon the “social cost of carbon” calculation regulators have been factoring into their decisions on permit applications and rulemaking. It would also ease restrictions on the release of methane at oil and gas facilities.
The order calls on agencies to stop looking at climate impacts in their consideration of new projects, and it lifts restrictions on coal leasing and fracking on federal lands.
For environmental activists around the world, the order represents a huge step backward. It’s a complete reversal on energy policy, and it puts into jeopardy this nation’s ability to meet its obligations under the historic agreement signed in Paris with 194 other nations. It strips the United States of its role as leader in the war against climate change.
Of course, that’s exactly what the president was hoping to do.
The good news is it might not be that simple. What this order really represents is an opening salvo in what might be a prolonged fight.
How much the order will actually accomplish might be the topic of years of debate, and in the end, some of that discussion might not really matter.
Many energy companies and other industries have already moved ahead with efforts to meet the stricter environmental standards put forward under the Obama administration. Those companies aren’t likely to change course simply because of an executive order. Some might slow down, but the fact is that for a lot of them this train has left the station.
Coal has been on the decline as an energy source for decades, and that trend is not going to reverse itself just because of the president’s order.
The Clean Power Plan the president seeks to dismantle is a product of extensive rulemaking. Tearing it apart will require a similar effort.
Regulators will have to draft rules and hold hearings. They’ll have to listen to testimony from folks who have a stake in the decision. They’ll have to explain why this change in approach makes sense.
The whole process might take a year, or even longer, and once regulators finally navigate that process and put forward new restrictions, they’ll have to defend those rules in court.
It’ll be even worse than the healthcare debate. It’ll be, as the president might say, “complicated.”
Of course, none of this makes the president’s order any more appealing to those who have been working for years to ensure a habitable world for future generations.
They will keep fighting, though, and the stakes in this fight will be high.
If the president succeeds in rolling back environmental regulations, climate change will cause billions of dollars in economic damage. It will endanger public health, and it will make life more difficult for people who are already struggling to survive.
We should all be hoping the president fails in this effort. Future generations are counting on it.