Part 2: Three Reasons Donald Trump Could Be Good News for the Climate

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In my last post, I asserted that despite Donald Trump’s already atrocious environmental and climate policy, his election could ultimately turn out to bring good news for the climate. That post looked at the first of three reasons for hope: that Trump’s win forces progressives to rethink climate policy.  With Trump now apparently on the verge of pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, let’s look at two additional reasons for hope during this trying time.

Reason #2 for Optimism: Clinton’s defeat provides an opening.

If Trump’s victory forces environmentalists to rethink climate policy, the corollary result—Clinton’s defeat—provides more space within which to operate.  We are no longer tied to the policy initiatives of recent years.  We can aim higher.

Remember, when Obama took office in 2009, he embraced policies far bolder than those he implemented. In particular, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, Obama asked for “legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution….”

Somehow, a Congress controlled by his own party quickly quashed the new president’s aspirations. Climate policy took the form of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, nicknamed “Waxman-Markey” for its sponsors.  (To this day, people closely associate Waxman-Markey with cap-and-trade.  But while the bill had its merits, it was a 1,400 page hodge-podge of policies that happened to include a watered-down version of cap-and-trade.)  After the bill squeaked out of the House (219-212), the Senate let it die without a vote.

When Republicans won control of the House in 2010, the promise of bold climate legislation fell into hibernation. Obama did what he could under existing law, using executive powers to regulate power plants and increase vehicle fuel economy, for example, but the opportunity for transformational change was lost.

Instead, the climate debate became a fight over EPA’s Clean Power Plan regulations and symbolic projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. By the end of his presidency, Obama no longer even bothered to advocate a carbon cap.  Clinton’s climate policy proposals suggested she would have simply picked up where Obama left off.  With Clinton’s loss, it’s time to change the game and demand more.  Instead of fussing over regulations, we now have room to debate policies like Pure Cap-and-Dividend which would bring us to net zero emission by 2040 and negative net emissions thereafter.

Reason #3 for Optimism: Trump’s election has opened the door to a political realignment.

Given today’s hyper-partisanship, one can easily forget that climate policy holds great potential for bipartisan cooperation. Here again, Trump may help things along—even if only unwittingly.  With his approval ratings flagging and his White House in chaos, many Republicans have already started to keep a distance.

Consider that the first meaningful spending bill of the new administration (the omnibus appropriations for the remainder of fiscal 2017) largely ignored Trump’s priorities. For example, as Russell Berman pointed out in The Atlantic, the increase in funding for border security—a Trump obsession—was just $1.5 billion; former Vice President Biden’s “moonshot” cancer initiative, by comparison, received $2 billion.  And neither the EPA nor the State Department saw its funding gutted, as Trump requested.

Moreover, Trump’s outlandish position on climate change (his bizarre “Chinese hoax” claim) may, in a sense, provide cover to make it easier for Republicans to break from him on the issue than it would be if Trump took a more moderate approach. After all, Republicans have already been drifting toward recognizing the need to take meaningful action.  (Unfortunately, they have thus far generally favored weaker, corporate-friendly carbon tax proposals instead of a strong carbon cap.)

Even Fox News finds the Trump Administration’s position on climate to be out of touch. Interviewing Pruitt last month, Fox’s Chris Wallace took the new EPA Administrator to task for Pruitt’s recent claims that humans are not driving climate change.  “Simple question, what if you’re wrong?” asked Wallace, who earlier in the program cited work by the UN panel on climate change.

If Trump continues running his administration into the ground and maintains his oddball views on climate change, we could potentially see moderate Republicans ally themselves with Democrats to forge progress on a number of issues, including climate policy. Sound crazy?  Sure, but didn’t a Trump presidency sound crazy a year ago?  (Doesn’t it still?)  Moreover, that bipartisan spending bill discussed above?  It passed both chambers with a veto proof majority.

There are other ways we could see a realignment that allows progress on climate. Some predict that, having been frustrated by the Republican’s lack of progress on healthcare, Trump will look across the aisle to work with Democrats.  In doing so, he could grudgingly give way on climate policy in exchange for support for funding for his border wall, for example.

Or Trump could simply reverse himself on climate policy. NATO was obsolete until it wasn’t.  Trump planned to cancel NAFTA until he didn’t.  He could similarly flip-flop on climate policy.  That could happen later today when Trump plans to make an announcement on the Paris Agreement.  Or he could flip-flop next month, or the month after.  When facts and reason do not guide a man, political ideology is dust in the wind.

We saw signs Trump could change his position on climate in early April when White House officials suggested that a carbon tax was under consideration.  The Administration put the kibosh on that idea within hours; nonetheless, given Trump’s past rhetoric regarding climate change, it’s astounding that the idea was even floated.

And current reports describe an internal White House struggle over the future of the Paris Agreement. Discussing the agreement on Face the Nation last weekend, Defense Secretary James Mattis referenced Trump’s recent meetings in Brussels with the other G-7 leaders and said of Trump, “I am quite certain the president is wide open on this issue as he takes in the pros and cons of that accord.”

The idea that Trump will go so far as to advocate a game-changing climate policy proposal akin to Pure Cap-and-Dividend remains far-fetched, of course.  But that doesn’t mean the political chaos he has wrought won’t open the door wide for progress.  Stranger things have happened.  A lot of them.  Recently.