Trump vs. the Climate, Round 1

Trump vs. the Climate, Round 1
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Trump’s executive order, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” is the latest and perhaps most wide-ranging assault on climate change policy under the Obama administration in the US. Much has already been said about it, with excellent commentaries here, here, and here. In this post, I want to highlight four specific aspects, important in particular for Canadians to think through.

First, this is no surprise. Fossil fuel interests were amongst the most important funders and supporters of Trump’s campaign, providing a number of key advisers either directly or via neo-conservative think tanks. Many of them have followed him into office, including Scott Pruitt at the EPA. These interests were driven by a desire to roll back the Clean Power Plan and various other restrictions on oil and gas development in the US; they were already well represented in Congress.

The strategies of the Republicans in Congress, rather than Trump’s own personal interests, therefore, have driven the regulatory rollback. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had been complaining for years about what he calls the “war on coal” allegedly waged by Obama. They clearly saw the election of Trump, combined with Republican majorities in both Houses, as a unique opportunity to undermine 40 years of environmental regulation at the federal level.

Second, achieving these rollbacks will be much more complicated than simply enacting executive orders. Many of the regulations are deeply institutionalized in government departments and agencies, and in states across the US. Many states, led in particular by California, will resist attempts to roll back climate policy, making it one of the most significant sites of federal–state conflict during Trump’s time in office.

Third, despite this regulatory assault on climate policy, the Trump administration’s relationship to the Paris Agreement remains unclear. As with other areas, Trump himself has veered between wild rhetorical flourishes and mottled ambiguity, but the administration has become relatively circumspect on the subject. The executive order makes no mention of the agreement. Interests close to the administration, notably the new CEO of Exxon Mobil, have argued in favour of the US staying in the agreement.

It is hard to discern this strategic reasoning on the Paris Agreement:

  • If it is simply question of whether they can meet their commitments, they may well be looking at the relatively weak commitment the US currently has (26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025) and deciding it is worth staying in.
  • They might be reasoning that if they stay in then they can both reverse the US’s trajectory on climate policy and bully others to do the same. The Paris Agreement works through a series of iterated climate policy reviews where parties are required to enhance their ambition at each stage; they may be thinking that the best way to undermine this logic is from within. This would make considerable sense for global oil companies like Exxon.
  • They may be worrying about possible retaliation from trade partners via border tax adjustments that would be difficult to apply if they remained in the agreement; indeed EU actors have already hinted they would consider such action if the US pulled out.
  • They may also be weighing the broader geo-strategic problem of ceding leadership on such an important issue to China, which would almost certainly be the result of them leaving the agreement, as David Victor

Whether or not the US pulls out, other major parties have stated very clearly that they intend to continue implementing the Paris Agreement. There is good precedent in that they went ahead with ratifying and implementing the Kyoto Protocol after the US pulled out of that. And now it is a radically different situation, for three reasons:

  • Because a leadership vacuum would provide China with an ideal opportunity to take the lead on global governance for the first time.
  • Because the Paris Agreement is deeply interconnected with much deeper transnational governance of climate change (the recent deal between Scotland and California exemplifies this dynamic) and thus weakens the relative importance of any individual national government, however powerful.
  • Because action on climate change is now so much more embedded in the policies and economic strategies of many countries that they are not that worried from a competitiveness point of view about a US withdrawal.

This is where the issues for Canada become acute. There was already significant tension between the Canadian federal government’s desire to regain Canada’s position in international climate negotiations and its desire to improve global market access for oil/tar sands operations. Trump’s election only makes this tension more acute, re-opening opportunities for oil pipelines, notably Keystone XL, that would enhance market access for Albertan oil, but make it harder to sustain the idea that Canada is seriously engaged in the transition away from fossil fuels. This political tension is of course mirrored at provincial levels for the NDP government in Alberta itself.

What we can draw from the discussion of Trump’s relation to the Paris Agreement, as well as the possibility of US withdrawal, is that other countries are likely to redouble their efforts on climate change, and that many actors within the US now have opportunities to undermine Trump’s federal policy via transnational linkages. And to the extent that they do, the market for Canadian oil is likely to decline sooner rather than later. Aligning with Trump vs. the climate, as the Trudeau government is arguably doing by jumping with such alacrity to reopen the Keystone XL discussion, is not likely to be a winning strategy in the medium to long term, either economically or politically. Trudeau may end up sacrificing Canadian climate change policy at the altar of oil exports, but lose out economically and politically anyway.

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