President Donald Trump’s executive order to dismantle the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) is about much more than carbon, coal, and jobs. It has nothing at all to do with “energy independence”—a phrase sure to make seasoned experts roll their eyes toward heaven. After all, every single president since Richard Nixon has waved these words as a heraldic promise. The U.S. today may be nearer to self-sufficiency in energy than it has been in a long time, yet it is still far from the reality.
Killing the CPP is actually about Trump and Republicans exerting their newfound power in Washington. Wiping away the Obama legacy appears to be their clear priority in as many areas as possible, but especially in energy. Obama terrified Republicans with his dignity, intelligence, and capability to set and move the country in particular directions. He swam in shark-infested political waters for eight years, yet he helped empower the renewable energy sector and move forward a sensibility among people, businesses, and corporations that climate change is real, serious, and already having deadly impacts.
If America accepts all of these premises, it could well accept government action to fight climate change for the long term. For the right, this is unacceptable.
Trump’s new executive order can hardly be called a surprise, let alone a shock. Yet now that it’s here, we do need to understand it as an assault on climate action at the national level, and, in conjunction with other actions at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a move to amputate the limbs of federal involvement in environmental matters. The notion that Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, but is doing it anyway, is wrong.
In this regard, it helps to review what the CPP was about in the first place. Simply put, the plan consists of new standards for lowering carbon emissions from power plants, which produce close to 40% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. The overall goal was to reduce emissions 32% below 2005 levels by the year 2030. This would get the U.S. very close to its obligations made under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The CCP was developed within the embrace of the Clean Air Act—a hugely important law that has saved many lives since being signed in 1970—giving the EPA authority to regulate forms of airborne material deemed harmful to the public. In 2009, the EPA under Obama declared that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases “threaten public health and the environment,” and so fell under the agency’s jurisdiction.
Read more: How the United States Looked Before the EPA
This reconceptualization of carbon dioxide did not bring universal acclaim. Even after it was upheld by the Supreme Court, conservatives remained outraged. Since carbon fuels run the U.S., they said, regulating carbon dioxide would inflict upon the nation a new energy tax. This, however, was exactly the point. Economists have been arguing for years that a nationwide carbon tax is a good way to deal with climate change. Yet getting such a thing through Congress had no more chance than nationalizing the solar industry. Regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act was a way to get around this hostile sea of congressional opposition.
Thus, the U.S. was ripped in half over the CPP. As soon as it was officially published in October 2015, 15 states and a number of utilities filed suit against it . A year later, the number of states had grown to 28. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, granted the plaintiffs’ request to block implementation, sending the case back down to the circuit court to decide if the CPP's regulations are legal. Even had the CPP passed the Supreme Court, new challenges would have surely come. Its demise at the hands of the Trump administration was a forgone conclusion.
Do Trump and his EPA director, Scott Pruitt, really reject the overwhelming weight of global climate science? Probably not. Goading liberals (and everyone else) seems a favorite pastime of Trump’s, and he has become quite good at it. As for Pruitt, the shock over his recent denial that carbon dioxide is a primary cause of climate change misses the point, as his real aim is likely to remove regulating this gas from the dominion of the EPA. Once achieved, this would render anything like the CPP impossible. To all of us who believe climate change is a mortal threat on a global scale, this should be a serious concern.
It remains an unstated truth that many Republicans in Congress who publicly disavow the human contribution to climate change do accept it in private. They pander to public ignorance for the obvious political reasons, and this essentially makes them informational toxins to an informed populace. Yet they also do this out of the fear that climate consensus will grant the U.S. government far too much power over U.S. energy, verging on autocracy.
If Americans are dead serious about climate change, they will need to find and utilize all major forms of non-carbon energy. Instead of talking about renewables versus nuclear, they need to talk about renewables plus nuclear. Scolding the Trump administration for rejecting any need to deal with carbon, while wishfully thinking that renewables will be our final techno-fix, is not going to solve the problem.
The Trump White House seems intent on using government power to destroy any climate action at the federal level, taking the U.S. back nearly a decade, preventing it from meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement, and unconscionably weakening the world’s progress in lowering emissions. Perhaps the administration could be urged to favor renewable, nuclear, and hydropower energy sources as potential creators of American jobs. But perhaps not. Either way, the U.S. has a thorny path to tread to get its climate act truly in order—not only for its own sake, but for that of humanity as a whole.
Scott L. Montgomery is an adjunct faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies and Honors Program at the University of Washington.