Throughout his presidential campaign, now President-Elect Donald Trump made it clear that he is no friend of the environment: He promised to scrap the Clean Power Plan, threatened to pull the United States out of the historic Paris climate agreement, and pledged to cut off funding for renewable energy development. He called climate change a “hoax” and appointed climate denier Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team.
On the international stage, Trump becoming president makes the United States the only country in the world whose leader denies the scientific reality of climate change.
“It’s a nightmare, to have a climate denier in the White House,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, told ThinkProgress. “It’s scary for our leadership on climate, and it’s scary for me as a parent. I think the decisions we make in the next decade are going to be some of the most pivotal that we ever make in the history of humanity.”
But if having a climate denier in the White House makes environmentalists terrified, it also makes them determined. For environmental groups, four years of President Trump is both a nightmare and a frightening new reality — and they’ve already begun preparing to fight Trump’s attempts to undermine and roll back climate and clean energy policies.
Taking Trump to court
On the federal level, that means that Trump can expect environmental groups to use litigation to stymie any attempts to rollback regulations. Trump will already face a historic lawsuit from 21 youth plaintiffs who are suing the office of the President of the United States in an attempt to force greater action on climate change — and it’s unlikely that the legal challenges to Trump’s non-existent climate policy will stop there.
“It’s a nightmare, to have a climate denier in the White House.”
“If the Trump administration follows through on promises made to unravel climate and clean energy efforts, groups like NRDC will use all the tools in our toolkit to fight off federal rollback,” Kit Kennedy, director of the energy and transportation program at NRDC told ThinkProgress.
Courts could be a key way to force progress on climate during a Trump administration. Under a 2007 Supreme Court decision, for example, the EPA is required to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. If the Trump administration fails to do that, environmental groups can take them to court. If Trump orders the EPA to reissue rules under the Clean Power Plan that would be friendlier to industry than current rules — something that he could do via executive power — he’d also likely see those new regulations challenged in court.
And projects that expand the fossil fuel infrastructure of the country, like the Dakota Access pipeline, will also face lawsuits and litigation if approved by the Trump administration. Just last week, Standing Rock Sioux Chair Dave Archambault II told Grist that if the Army Corps of Engineers were to grant an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline, allowing the project to go forward, the tribe will sue.
Looking to the market
Trump has talked big game about lifting regulations on fossil fuel production in an effort to bring jobs back to areas of the country like Appalachia, which have been hit hard by the transition away from fuel sources like coal.
Trump’s election seems to have revived corners of the coal industry that appeared to be in terminal decline — stock in the bankrupt coal giant Peabody Energy, for example, skyrocketed 47 percent in the wake of Trump’s election.
But Sierra Club’s Hitt says that revitalizing the coal industry will be more difficult than simply lifting regulations like the federal coal leasing moratorium or the Clean Power Plan.
“We aren’t building any new coal plants, we are rapidly retiring existing ones, and there’s just no demand for the coal coming from anywhere,” she said. “I think the markets were reacting more to the political rhetoric than the reality on the ground.”
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is familiar with working under the specter of a fossil fuel-friendly president — the campaign started under President George W. Bush, whose energy policy was defined by deep support for oil, gas, and mining. At first, Beyond Coal worked to stop proposals for new coal plants, successfully preventing 184 coal plants from being built. Then, in 2010, they turned their attention to retiring existing coal plants — since then, they have been able to secure pledges from utility companies across the country to retire 242 existing coal plants, 45 percent of the coal plants across the country. Much of that success, Hitt said, comes from working with grassroots groups to influence change at the state level — where, according to Hitt, most of the policy discussions that dictate whether a coal plant will remain open or close are carried out.
“I take solace in the fact that we have this long track record of winning in the states and winning in the cities, and we’re going to keep doing that,” Hitt said.
And it’s unlikely that the Trump presidency will inspire utility companies to reconsider their decisions to shutter old and aging coal plants. Many coal plants are retiring because they are old and would require expensive updates to be competitive with newer, natural gas-fired plants — closing for business reasons, that is, rather than political reasons. And the wave of closures is not insignificant. In 2015, 18 gigawatts of electric generating capacity (1.6 percent of total capacity) was retired in the United States — and 80 percent of that capacity came from retiring coal plants.
Compounding the domestic trend, an uncertain demand for coal overseas could be enough to keep coal from surging too much under a Trump administration. China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, has been moving away from the energy source in recent years, due a slowdown of their economy coupled with environmental regulations meant to combat pervasive air pollution. Meanwhile, though, Japan has been ramping up its coal power and financing coal projects in several developing nations in Asia.
But even if the Asian markets suddenly began to demand U.S. coal, the United States still lacks the infrastructure necessary to send that coal overseas. A handful of proposed coal export terminals, which could have dotted the coast of the Pacific Northwest and would have shipped huge amounts of coal overseas, have withered under extreme local resistance: Of the six coal export terminals that have been proposed since 2010, just one proposal — a terminal in Longview, WA, that would ship a maximum of 44 million metric tons of coal a year— remains.
The market forces against coal go on: Renewable energy is cheaper than it has ever been before, becoming increasingly cost competitive with dirtier fuels like coal, oil, and gas — especially in places that encourage economy of scale, like utility-scale solar. And renewables are being installed at record rates — last year, the world added 147 gigawatts of renewable energy, the largest annual increase ever. Of that, 77 percent of new installations were wind or solar. Proponents of renewable energy also secured a win in Congress this year with the extension of crucial solar and wind tax credits — credits that the Trump administration might leave alone.
Still, having a coal-friendly White House might go a long way to emboldening coal companies in a way not seen under the Obama Administration.
“I think we’re going to keep making progress, but the coal industry is going to feel like they’ve got friends in high places,” Hitt said. “If anybody was out there thinking that we could just coast into our clean energy future, I think we should put away those illusions. We are going to have to fight for our clean energy future, and we’re going to have to fight harder.”
Turning to the states and cities
If climate action is going to happen under President Trump, it’s going to take place at the local level — which is why environmentalists are looking to cities, states, and regions as leaders on climate during the coming Trump years.
“There is plenty that states and cities can do on their own with no permission needed from the federal government to move forward on climate and clean energy,” NRDC’s Kennedy said. “This has always been the case — it is how our energy system works, and I think we will see renewed effort on this.”
Even with the shadow of a Trump White House casting a pall over renewable energy at the federal level — solar company stocks took a dive after the election, for instance — states could pass legislation aimed at ramping up the share of renewable energy more locally. Some states have already done this. Oregon, for instance, passed legislation last year requiring the state’s two largest utilities to completely phase out coal-generated electricity by 2030, while doubling their share of renewable energy. This summer, California passed historic climate legislation that requires economy-wide emission reductions of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
“There is plenty that states and cities can do on their own with no permission needed from the federal government to move forward on climate and clean energy.”
And it’s not just blue states that are ramping up their commitment to renewable energy. Iowa and Texas — both states that went for Trump in the election — are the two leading states when it comes to installed wind capacity in the country.
“There is a basic change in our energy system that has been going on over the last decade, a huge scaling up of renewables, and a huge reduction in the cost of renewables,” Kennedy said. “And that momentum, which was largely generated at the state level, will be hard to stop.”
Cities, too, can be instrumental in leading the fight against climate change — globally, they hold more than half of the world’s population and account for 70 percent of global carbon emissions. In the past few years, more and more cities have committed to going 100 percent renewable — twelve cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have pledged to use 100 percent clean energy, and four cities have already accomplished it. And cities have shown that climate action can be a bipartisan effort — in San Diego, which has pledged to go 100 percent renewable, the city’s Republican mayor helped lobby the business community to get on board by convincing them that transitioning to a green economy would boost jobs and improve infrastructure.
“It’s an avenue for progress on clean energy and it also sends an important political message, that mayors care about this and our cities care about this,” Kennedy said.
Beyond states and cities, community activism will continue to be an important tool in the fight against climate backsliding. From protesting pipelines to fighting against fracking, local activism has notched a number of high-profile wins in the past few years, and Greenpeace’s Diana Best expects those movements to continue even under President Trump. Communities impacted by fracking might try to pass fracking bans at the municipal, county, or state level. Communities besieged by proposed fossil fuel infrastructure — like export terminals — might try to pass citywide bans on new fossil fuel projects, like in Portland, Oregon.
“For communities facing the threat of fossil fuel project in their backyard, a Trump administration isn’t going to change that,” Best said. “They’re still going to have to fight.”