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Examining the environmental policies of the Trump administration

Many analysts mooted potential catastrophic scenarios in the lead up and immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's election victory, including The Economist, which discussed the interesting clash of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffed by global warming skeptics while grappling with its mandate to protect the quality of America's natural environment.

But how much of Trump's campaign bluster has actually materialized deep into the President's second year in office? We explore that question and look at some of the ongoing battles between the administration, the opposition, and other environmental stakeholders.

A Child Nurtures Young Plant

The Paris Agreement

On the campaign trail in North Dakota back in May 2016 Trump delivered a speech which sent shockwaves through the environmental and sustainability communities. Although not entirely unexpected, given Trump's self-declared love of coal and disdain for climate science, the remarks offered a fair-warning to voters before the election of November that year.

Trump stayed true to his stated principles and duly withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in June 2017, only a month before meeting French president Emanuel Macron in France's capital city (where the original agreement had been drawn up less than two years prior). But what exactly is the Paris Agreement? And, moreover, how did the United States enter into the agreement in the first place, and what effect will withdrawal have on the future of global climate policy?

A full dissection of the agreement is beyond the scope of this article but the core goals were threefold:

  1. To limit the average global increase in temperatures from pre-industrial times to "well below" two degrees celsius (ideally limited to 1.5).
  2. To increase global resilience to temperature rises and to pursue a future with lower greenhouse gas emissions, without threatening food production.
  3. To make financial and budgetary decisions consistent with a future based on lower greenhouse gas emissions and greater climate resilience.

Late in his second term of office, Barack Obama signed an executive order in acceptance of the Paris Agreement. After announcing the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement, Trump faced a decision regarding the manner of the exit. Facing a four-year timeline in following the formal withdrawal process, some analysts believed the incumbent president would seek to quit the UN framework responsible for the deal altogether. However, the White House later released a statement announcing the administration's intent to abide by the lengthier process instead.

A domino effect of withdrawals by other nations was feared by some but has not materialized in the year since the United States announced its intention to leave. Key players including China, India, and Russia all reaffirmed their commitment to the agreeement in seperate statements.

What remains clear, even to the eternal optimist, is that climate change action requires a truly collaborative effort. Leading polluters must pull their weight in order to encourage their peers to follow suit. It remains to be seen whether the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris agreement will incline other nations to reduce their efforts, or whether they will redouble their pursuit of reduced emissions in the face of American skepticism.

If Trump is a one-term president then the Paris agreement withdrawal may, in effect, last only a matter of months. Any future administration will be free to rejoin the deal. However, making predictions of this variety in a volatile political landscape is inherently dangerous.

Another factor worth considering is the usefulness of the agreement in the first place. Analysts have already argued that the 'accord' was utterly toothless in the first place. This is largely because the agreement involved no enforceable penalties for non-compliant nations and enforcement on a national level remained entirely voluntary under the terms of the deal. Ultimately, it's likely that national self-interest will continue to thwart multilateral dealmaking in the long pursuit of sustainable climate policy.

Environmental Lawsuits

We are all stakeholders in environmental policy as citizens of, not only the United States, but of the world. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, for instance, has already filed over 50 lawsuits against the Trump administration --- with considerable success.

Nevertheless, Trump's supreme court picks (Mr. Gorsuch and Mr. Kavanaugh) will hold considerable sway in shaping the nation's response to disputed policy actions of the President.

The Private Sector

In many ways, corporations are the ultimate judge and jury in determining America's clean energy future. Although Trump has actively sought to bolster fossil fuel companies through his actions to date (the NY Times lists 76 regulations that are on their way out), many businesses have rallied around the Paris agreement.

Public companies including Apple, Google, Intel, and Unilever were proactive in attempting to persuade the President to remain in the agreement. It's worth noting that public concerns regarding sustainability should help drive the ongoing work of firms in reducing their emissions in order to win and retain climate-conscious customers.

Meanwhile, Trump favored industries (such as coal) are likely to be in a permanent state of decline regardless of any regulation rollbacks made by this administration.

And, as we pointed out in the earlier case study, American companies like Starbucks are already successfully pursuing their own sustainability frameworks completely independent of political influence.

Legacy Building

In the climate business the only thing all parties appear to agree on is that time will be the arbiter of the global warming debate.

But crossing our fingers and hoping for the best is not a responsible strategy. An Environmental Protection Agency staffed by climate change skeptics is a deeply worrying development, but whether or not current political wrangling proves to be a minor blip or a major setback remains to be seen.

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