The U.S. has over recent years forged a role as a global leader on clean energy and climate change. At the federal level, the Obama administration oversaw a number of regulatory actions that collectively have driven down overall U.S. emissions and have been on track to a roughly 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. Longstanding high investment in energy research and development has paid off in technological advances. States and local jurisdictions have been expanding their own renewable energy goals and improving their preparedness for climate-driven extreme weather events. The U.S. was a key force behind the recent international agreement to include all countries, including the world’s biggest emitter, China, in a rational, robust, and country-based approach to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
Donald Trump’s election raises the question of whether the U.S. will continue to be a leader on climate change and clean energy. After a long and arduous process with strong U.S. leadership to organize international action on climate change, momentum had been built behind the current process of nationally-determined goals and nationally designed strategies. Within the U.S., there will be questions about whether climate strategy will be undone.
A look at the new situation highlights both negative risks for existing policies and potential areas of continued action. A few major features of this new situation bear highlighting.
There is still uncertainty about what Trump’s climate and energy policies will be. Trump did not develop many specific proposals about energy or climate change. He mentioned support of energy independence, fossil energy (including coal), affordable energy, and jobs. He did not specifically address clean energy; given that it would support energy independence and jobs, it is hard to know at this stage if he would intend to include that in his overall strategy. On climate change, there is even less development of policies. During the campaign, Trump was dismissive of climate change and even called it a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, and said he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement.
Many U.S. policies are already in force. Most policies enacted by the Obama administration over the past eight years have been regulatory actions and not simple executive orders. This is an important distinction—regulatory actions take years to develop, revise, and finalize. Courts often weigh in on specific questions about regulatory interpretation, such as for the recently finalized Clean Power Plan
for the electricity sector. Undoing some rules like energy efficiency standards and fuel efficiency standards is not actually easy, as it would have to follow a new regulatory process that would satisfy the requirements of scientific and stakeholder input, as well as survive potential court challenges.
Failure to enforce would invite additional lawsuits. In addition, barring a change in managerial style, it seems unlikely that Trump’s administration would quickly become a well-oiled machine focused on climate priorities. So there is considerable momentum already in the body of regulations on the books that would continue to influence the broader economy, and in some areas such as technologies, actually locks in improvements. Trump can slow down new initiatives but would have a hard time unwinding all of the processes that have been put in place over the last nearly decade of intense work by the current administration.
International efforts will continue. The Paris Agreement was designed to engage with specific national circumstances of each country, and the new administration will not have much ability to change the approach currently being taken by the international community. The Republican platform—which is a guide to potential Trump policy—expresses skepticism about funding international mechanisms and explicitly states opposition to financing the Green Climate Fund, an important component of the Paris Agreement. Nevertheless, given the links of climate to other international issues, Trump will need to stay at least partially engaged in the discussions.
There remains deep interest in climate action from a number of non-governmental stakeholders. Unlike during the former President George W. Bush years, the global level of interest in climate action is high in many stakeholder groups, including many parts of the private sector. The science is clearer. Clean energy costs have dropped dramatically—even since 2008, costs for wind are down 40 percent, solar photovoltaic 60 percent, and LED lighting 90 percent. These cost reductions make action to shift toward clean energy much easier and make the benefits to health and jobs very clear.
Climate change won’t go away. The issue of climate change will come knocking on Trump’s door in a number of ways. Because of the much larger international interest in climate change as an issue that affects other countries’ livelihoods and economies, this issue will be inextricably linked with other foreign policy goals of a Trump administration, including trade and security. The health effects of climate change and continued burning of fossil fuels will continue to beset Americans. And state and local leaders will continue to have to contend with climate-related events like heat waves, droughts, and flooding.
There is a relatively broad recognition that, as an outsider, Trump has not developed detailed proposals on many issues. Climate change and energy are not different in this sense. In addition, others have already observed that Trump’s campaign sought to be conciliatory in his victory speech and indeed tried to message stability to the international community just ahead of the election. There is therefore a possibility for engagement as President-elect Trump and his team begin to develop their strategy. For example, George W. Bush came into office with little background on the issue, and while he was not broadly seen as a climate champion, his administration eventually engaged constructively with some of the important issues, in contrast to his early more strident approach.
The Paris Agreement was designed to engage with specific national circumstances of each country, and the new administration will not have much ability to change the approach currently being taken by the international community.
Finally, this election certainly brings up the question of what the long-term U.S. strategy could look like. It was already well understood that, beyond even the next four years, U.S. climate policy would have to rely not only on the executive branch but also on a broad base of new legislation from Congress, action from state and local officials, and implementation of climate goals by a broad array of non-government stakeholders. California, as just one of many examples, has set highly ambitious climate goals and has enacted legislation at the state level, including a cap-and-trade policy, to deliver on these goals. There has been substantial progress on technology, innovation, and resilience outside the U.S. government in the past decade, and there is no reason to believe that people will want good health, better technologies, or clean air less just because of a change in administration. So while the coming four years will certainly look different under a Trump presidency, there are still pressures that can push emissions down that involve improvements in technology, continued impact from regulations already in place, and state and local actions.
Nathan Hultman is a nonresident senior fellow for global economy and development at the Brookings Institution. This article originally appeared here.