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The most damaging part of Trump’s climate change order is the message it sends

“Climate change doesn’t matter” is a devastating signal to the world.

trump introduces his eo
“An EO every bit as big as these hands ...”
(Photo by Ron Sach-Pool/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump signed his long-awaited executive order on “energy independence” yesterday. It was a sprawling mess — a laundry list of Obama policies Trump wants to “suspend, revise, or rescind.” If you want to know the details of what it does, read Brad Plumer’s explainer.

Before it is overshadowed by the next Trump outrage, I want to take a step back and try to get some perspective on what it tells us about Trump’s administration, and what it means for climate change.

The EO is a very different beast from the health care bill the Republicans just failed to pass, but it does have a few things in common: It expresses no coherent governing philosophy, it is an answer to no obvious problem, and moves policy in a direction that is wildly unpopular. The difference is that Trump doesn’t need Congress to do this, so he just did it.

This EO is a dangerous form of “soft power”

If there is philosophy binding together the disparate elements of the EO, it’s that climate change doesn’t matter.

The actions in it are clustered around the theme of undoing efforts to address climate change. And the message it sends to federal employees, other governments, and the private sector is this: The federal government is no longer interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It is that message, its intangible and “soft power” effects, that is the most significant part of this EO — more significant, arguably, than its substance. (Nathan Richardson of Resources for the Future has a good piece on this.)

The signal it sends to the world is dismal and devastating: a blow to America’s “soft power,” a stain on its record, and an impediment to all future international cooperation.

But in its particulars, its damage is limited, and almost none of it immediate. (Its one immediate effect will be to serve as a full employment act for environmental lawyers.)

The headlines saying that Trump has wiped out Obama’s climate legacy are exaggerated. Much of Obama’s legacy cannot be reversed — with the stimulus bill alone, he set in motion changes in energy markets that have now achieved an unstoppable momentum. Renewable energy will continue to get cheaper and grow; coal will continue to decline.

It’s difficult to put numbers on how much the EO will affect carbon emissions. Larger structural factors, like the price of natural gas, will matter much more in the near term. Much of the EO’s impact will only be felt with the passing of years, and only truly felt if Trump wins a second term.

Its biggest targets — Obama’s EPA rules on carbon from both new and existing power plants, along with his methane regulations — cannot simply be erased. The EPA will have to launch a new rulemaking process for each of the three, and at every step along the way environmentalists will fight them in court. That process could easily take longer than a presidential term and there’s no way to predict how it will turn out.

The endangerment finding — EPA’s ruling that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant — is still in place. Until it is overturned (which is unlikely), EPA is legally required to regulate CO2. So EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will have to write weaker rules and justify them in court, which will not be easy, as Plumer explained in detail. There’s no guarantee he will succeed. (The Bush administration’s efforts to implement weak regulations on mercury, introduced in 2005, were finally rejected by the Supreme Court in 2009.)

And those three rules are the only targeted policies with clear, quantifiable effects. The rest were somewhat more intangible, with long-term and largely unquantifiable implications. The CEQ guidance on incorporating climate into environmental reviews; the work done to quantify the social cost of carbon; orders to agencies on carbon mitigation and resilience — these were all, in their own ways, exhortations, nudges to get federal agencies to start thinking about this stuff.

Trump’s federal agencies won’t do much thinking about climate change when they make decisions. But we knew that already — nothing in Obama’s EOs could have forced them to.

What Trump can kill with this EO are seeds Obama planted that would have borne fruit in coming years, all the stuff he intended to hand off to Hillary Clinton for her to strengthen.

The EO is scattershot, unmotivated, and unpopular policy

It’s obscure what problem the EO is really intended to solve. No one was planning to build new coal plants anyway. The Clean Power Plan, for all the hype around it, wasn’t particularly stringent. Several states — indeed, most of the states suing the federal government over it — are already on track to meet its 2024 targets, with or without policy. Most carbon policy with teeth is being done at the state level anyway. Lifting the coal moratorium won’t boost coal production or coal jobs.

Lifting these restrictions on coal (along with the stream-protection rule Trump reversed earlier) is not going to spark any coal renaissance or create any new coal jobs. Coal is taking a beating in the market, here and around the world, because alternatives are cheaper.

There’s nothing Trump can do about the decline in coal jobs. Even the most anti-Obama coal executive on the planet, Robert Murray of Murray Energy, knows this. He supports Trump’s assault on climate policy and wants it to go further (after all, he stands to benefit!), but he’s under no illusion it will help coal miners. “I suggested that he temper his expectations,” Murray told the Guardian about his meeting with Trump. “He can’t bring [the jobs] back.”

All those coal miners at Trump’s signing ceremony? He told them, “You’re going back to work.” He literally said those words to their faces, just before signing.

He is lying to them, whether he knows it or not. They are being used as ghoulish props in a cheap populist pageant. Trump will not put any of them back to work.

Obama’s regulations took health costs that coal executives were externalizing onto the public and tried to internalize them into the price of coal. Trump is reversing that — allowing them to resume offloading their costs. He’s transferring wealth from the public to coal executives. That’s all.

It is almost comically plutocratic policy smeared with a thick sheen of populist rhetoric. There’s no public policy rationale for it.

And it’s wildly unpopular. The number of Americans who are “concerned believers” in climate change just hit a historic high, as Gallup reported. More to the point, carbon pollution restrictions on power plants have always been popular, across demographics. Even among Republicans! Even among Trump voters!

republicans on climate change (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)

This is scattershot and utterly unmotivated policy, rooted in deep scientific ignorance, enriching a small set of fossil fuel executives on the basis of no coherent policy rationale.

And for what? So that Trump can go on TV and glad hand with coal miners.

There are 50,000 Americans mining coal*. There are 260,000 Americans working in the solar industry.

coal employment
Obama’s war on coal began in 1985.

As with health care, Trump made grand, impossible promises on the campaign trail. As with health care, he doesn’t seem to know or care much about policy details, so he turned writing the policy over to someone else. For health care, it was libertarian ideologues in Congress; for climate change, it was climate denialists and fossil fuel lobbyists.

As with health care, the climate EO is, to quote Jonathan Chait, an “ultimately doomed effort by a brain-dead party to ignore a problem with which their dogma cannot grapple.”

As ever, Trump seems oblivious to the gravity of what he’s doing, the potentially fateful consequences he is risking in exchange for little more than a photo op. The best hope climate hawks have is that, having “kept his promise” and had his dramatic signing, Trump will consider this a job well done and won’t feel the need to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Predictions are useless these days.

Millions of lives and billions of dollars are at stake in climate change, along with untold suffering, unjustly distributed. Time is agonizingly short. Watching Trump bat the issue around for cheap populist huzzahs has the air of an absurdist nightmare.

* CORRECTION 3/29/17: Originally the post said there are 77,000 coal miners in the US, drawing on Wikipedia. But that is apparently out of date; FRED has the latest numbers.

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