March 28, 2017
The new administration of US President Donald Trump is now engaged in a very public rejection of President Obama's ambitious plans to address climate change. President Trump is proposing to repeal the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan for the electricity sector, roll back vehicle fuel economy standards, and is moving forward with the approval of carbon intensive energy infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline.
In Canada, these developments are leading to demands from some sectors that Prime Minister Trudeau's government to pull back on its climate change plans, particularly the introduction of a national carbon pricing system. There are several powerful reasons why Mr. Trudeau should reject these pressures.
First and foremost, denying the existence of climate change, or its linkages to human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, will not make the physical reality a changing climate and its increasingly visible consequences for the United States and the rest of the world go away. The US has already experienced extreme weather events and their effects, consistent with the projected impacts of climate change. Extensive flooding of coastal areas, for example accompanied hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Secondly, undoing key elements of Mr. Obama's climate change strategy may be much more difficult than Mr. Trump anticipates. Key elements of Mr. Obama’s plan are grounded in long-standing provisions of the US federal Clean Air Act. These provisions require that the administration act on pollutants that are found to “endanger” the public health and welfare of human current and future generations. An "endangerment" finding regarding greenhouse gases, and requirements for action, were embedded in the settlement of litigation between the administration of former President George W. Bush and twelve states, several cities, and non-governmental organizations.
Undoing these arrangements would require amendments to the Clean Air Act. The Republicans may have the majority in the House of Representatives needed to pass such amendments. The US Senate is a different story. There the Republicans are short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster, even if a few coal-state Democrats vote with the Republicans, as they did in the confirmation of Mr. Trump’s USEPA Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt.
Moreover, state level action on climate change will continue. Although California has been the only state so far to implement a cap and trade system, other states are considering some form of carbon pricing, and have been following its lead with a host of other measures related to low-carbon fuels, energy efficiency and low-carbon renewable energy sources. A similar situation exists in Canada, where the four largest provinces have now adopted some form of carbon pricing, and are moving forward on a range of complementary policies intended to facilitate transitions to low carbon economies.
In the electricity sector, a key focus of Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the movement away from coal is being driven by powerful economic and technological forces far beyond the measures adopted by Mr. Trump’s predecessor. The availability of cheap natural gas and increasingly cost competitive renewable energy sources, are playing at least as important a role in the declining use of coal in the US. On vehicle fuel economy, it is far from clear that all major automobile manufacturers would abandon the Obama administration's requirements even if Mr. Trump weakens them. Better fuel economy serves the long-term interests of consumers. It is also highly unlikely that California, a market itself large enough for manufacturers to cater to, would abandon higher standards even if Mr. Trump does.
Action on climate change seems likely to continue at the global level. Climate change policies are deeply embedded with the EU and many of its leading member states, particularly Germany. Those structures would take many years to undo, even if right-wing Trump sympathizers achieve some level of success in current European elections. Outside of Europe, other nations, who are increasingly conscious of the impacts of climate change, seem ready to move into the leadership vacuum being left by the United States. China has specifically signaled its interest in playing such a role.
Finally, recent public opinion polling has shown Canadians to be rejecting the environmental policies of the Trump administration by overwhelming margins. At the same time, support the introduction of a national price on Carbon remains solid, especially among the progressive voters who handed Mr. Trudeau his majority government in 2015.
All of this suggests that the most prudent course of action for Mr.Trudeau, both economically and politically, is to carry through on his commitments to take action on climate change. Indeed, if Canada is to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and in the longer term prevent “dangerous” climate change, these efforts need to be intensified and expanded.