President Donald Trump’s rollback of Obama-era climate regulations will cause the United States to pump an extra 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere between now and 2035, at a time when scientists say the world needs to slash its carbon pollution dramatically to avoid catastrophe, researchers said Thursday.
The forecast from the climate research firm Rhodium Group is one of the most detailed and comprehensive estimates to date of how Trump’s regulatory U-turn will affect the amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide coming from tailpipes, leaking oil and gas wells, power plants and refrigerants. It concludes that if Trump’s rollbacks remain in place, U.S. climate pollution 15 years from now will be 3 percent higher than current projections indicate.
The cumulative additional amount of greenhouse gases would exceed the current annual output of Russia, the world’s fourth-biggest carbon polluter. The United States is No. 2, behind China.
If anything, Rhodium researchers said their figures probably underestimate the increase because they could not accurately forecast how the effects from some Trump policies would play out. Those include the changes in carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants allowed by the weakening of the Obama administration’s pollution rules.
Despite scientific evidence that has grown only stronger in recent years that man-made pollution is driving up the Earth’s temperatures and worsening disasters like the wildfires in the Western U.S., hurricanes battering the coasts and floods submerging the Midwest, Trump has steadfastly denied that climate change is real.
“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump told California officials this week on a visit to discuss the fires there. “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
Trump’s comments calling climate change a “hoax” and his efforts to unwind regulations have infuriated climate activists and Democrats who have made the issue a major policy plank. Last month, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden listed addressing climate change as one of the four main pillars that the U.S. needs to deal with alongside the pandemic, economic recession and racial strife.
Trump’s dismissal of calls to deal with climate change has also left some Republicans and businesses calling for action to deal with the problem, even though many of the companies had opposed Barack Obama’s regulations. Earlier this week, the Business Roundtable, a collection of CEOs from the top U.S. companies, called for a “market-based mechanism” to reduce emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.
For experts judging how the administration has dealt with climate change, the grades are clear.
“On the climate issue, it’s pretty unambiguously an ‘F,’” said Zeke Hausfather, climate and energy director at Oakland, Calif.-based think tank Breakthrough Institute.
Climate scientists warn that the planet is heading toward a tipping point, and that the industrialized nations responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas pollution haven’t reduced emissions quickly enough to avoid baking in the worst effects of climate change. Many of those worst-case scenarios would be unavoidable once average global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times. Temperatures have already climbed 1.1 degrees and are set based on current emissions rates to rise more than 3 degrees by the end of the century.
But Trump has taken the U.S. in the opposite direction, pressing for increasing oil, natural gas and coal output and eliminating rules that would impose costs on emissions of carbon dioxide.
“It seems to me that a president ought to be paying attention to something that is as big a threat to our way of life as this is, and doing something about it,” said Janet McCabe, the former acting Obama EPA air chief who wrote many of the climate rules Trump has rolled back.
Rhodium projected increased emissions associated with most of the Trump EPA’s deregulatory actions. Reducing vehicle fuel economy standards and revoking California’s more stringent rules would contribute more than half of the extra 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide. EPA’s recent rescission of methane limits for oil and gas producers was also a major driver. Other actions that will increase methane pollution from landfills and and emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases used as coolants, made up the remainder.
Ironically, most of those rollbacks drew opposition from some of the regulated companies — utilities, automakers, oil and gas majors and chemical manufacturers — that were concerned either about falling behind international standards, closing off markets for U.S. manufacturers or damaging corporate reputations as support for climate action grows among Americans.
Rhodium did not include in its estimate the impacts of Trump’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan for power producers and replacement with the Affordable Clean Energy rule because of uncertainty about how those rules would have been implemented by the states. However, Rhodium was confident the ACE rule would not reduce emissions in comparison, and could add hundreds of millions of tons to the total.
Criticism over Trump’s lack of action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution has come from Democrats and moderate Republicans alike. Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican New Jersey governor and EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, said the worst effect has been “denigrating science and scientists” and “going backwards” on climate change, emboldening an anti-expert fringe within the GOP.
“Right now it’s the party of Trump,” she told POLITICO. “If the only Republicans left standing are the QAnon supporters or the far right supporters, that’s how the party will be defined. It’s a real worry.”
Even Republicans who are wary of onerous regulations that they worry would stifle the economy acknowledge that Trump has had an unambiguous effect on efforts to rein in emissions.
“When it comes to regulating greenhouse gas emissions, either from stationary sources or mobile sources, they have not done very much,” said Jeff Holmstead, who served as EPA’s air chief during the George W. Bush administration. “Their actions won’t result in significant greenhouse gas emission reductions that many people — most people — think are necessary.”
Prepandemic emissions have largely been flat since Trump took office, Hausfather said. But that represents a failure, he said, because the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to rise, which means that future action will need to be that much more aggressive to prevent the planet from hitting a point of no return. The fact that the emissions picture isn’t considerably worse from the Trump rollbacks is mostly because of the sharp decline in prices of natural gas and renewable energy over the past decade, enabling them to replace huge amounts of coal, he added.
Overall U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have declined by 14 percent from their peak in 2007 through last year, largely because of that fuel switching. Nearly 90 percent of that decline in carbon emissions took place between 2007 and 2012.
The Trump administration said its efforts have provided stability for businesses without backsliding on emissions.
“President Trump understands economic growth and environmental protection do not need to conflict, implementing common sense policies that have kept our air, water, and environment clean, including lower CO2 emissions, while also putting us on a strong foundation to build one of the strongest economies for decades to come,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement.
Trump has had a single-minded approach to deregulation: “If Obama had anything to do with it, it’s gone,” Whitman said.
And while Republicans largely cheered Trump’s moves to scrap Obama rules, some lamented the administration’s inability to articulate its own vision for combating climate change.
“The administration has definitely fallen short. If you’re going to be repealing things that you don’t like you need to be putting forth your own solutions,” said Dani Butcher, executive vice president of the American Conservation Coalition, a group of young Republicans who have called for bring the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Overall, Rhodium forecasts that emissions during Trump’s first term were expected to fall 4 percent due to cheap natural gas and renewables. But reaching long-term goals “will almost undoubtedly require a concerted federal effort.”
The Trump administration frequently notes that many regulated industries, especially the power sector, continue to reduce their emissions despite the rescission of Obama rules. But that doesn’t mean those gains couldn’t be steeper, or that the declines are due to Trump’s replacement rules either, according to critics.
The Trump EPA says that under its ACE rule, the power sector will achieve 35 percent reductions, on par with the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which was significantly more ambitious and complex. But the ACE rule itself is responsible for 1.5 percentage points or less of those reductions, EPA has acknowledged. The rest are due to the trend of retiring the dirty, inefficient coal plants that the Obama-era Clean Power Plan capitalized on.
“I don’t think they can legitimately claim that the cuts are achieved by the ACE rule,” said Holmstead. However, while Trump’s emissions reductions won’t do much to stave off climate change, Holmstead said that the administration is acting within bounds set by Congress, and he added that any more stringent climate action should be directly mandated by new legislation.
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Zack Colman and Alex Guillén