Exposing the contradictions in Trump's assault on climate change policy

Exposing the contradictions in Trump's assault on climate change policy
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The Trump administration recently formalized its decision to withdraw from the historic Paris agreement on climate change, making the United States the only country in the world to oppose to the pact. (Syria, which had been the final remaining holdout, signed the agreement in 2017.)

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoSunday shows - Biden foreign policy in focus Pompeo defends Trump on Russia in Chris Wallace interview Pompeo: Decline of free speech on college campuses keeps me up at night MORE said the decision to exit the Paris agreement was made “because of the unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses, and taxpayers by U.S. pledges made under the Agreement.” Days later, President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE, who has aggressively criticized the agreement since before the 2016 election, doubled down, saying the Paris agreement “would just put us out of business” and “It would’ve been a catastrophe."

These dire predictions about the costs of addressing climate change have been a mainstay of the Trump administration’s rhetoric since its beginning. Yet at times when it was convenient to take the opposite position, the administration has argued that climate regulations in fact impose no costs on the economy. These contradictory efforts have been used to mislead the public, courts, and policymakers as the administration works to protect the coal industry at the expense of the American people.


The Trump administration has contradicted itself starkly when discussing the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s most ambitious effort to reduce greenhouse gases. This rule, which set limits on power sector emissions, would have alone accomplished much of the work needed to meet the United States’ Paris agreement pledge. In 2017, Trump said of the Clean Power Plan: “Perhaps no single regulation threatens our miners, energy workers, and companies more than this crushing attack on American industry.” The administration took a diametrically different approach in June when it repealed the Clean Power Plan and replaced it with a toothless and potentially counterproductive new rule. In this proceeding, the Trump administration stated that “the most likely result” of the implementation of the Clean Power Plan “would be no change in emissions and therefore no cost.”

The enormity of the contradictions is breathtaking. A regulation that in 2017 was “a crushing attack on American industry” by June 2019 would impose “no cost at all.” And by November 2019 that very same effort to reduce emissions would “put us out of business” and be a “catastrophe.”

These wild swings are obvious efforts to mislead the relevant audience of the moment.

In the case of the Paris withdrawal, the assertion about enormous consequences is an effort to energize Trump’s base. In the case of the Clean Power Plan repeal, the opposite assertion about nonexistent consequences is an effort to make the replacement of a policy with a much worse one look palatable to the courts. This was in fact a direct response to a very different Trump administration claim from October 2018, when it proposed the repeal of the Clean Power Plan and acknowledged that doing so would lead to 1,400 premature deaths annually and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of net harms to the American people. When the public response to this proposal made the Trump administration fear a court reversal, it switched gears and concealed these consequences by assuming that states would adopt legally infeasible and unrealistic compliance approaches.

It is not surprising that the Trump administration has made diametrically opposite claims in its effort to dismantle greenhouse gas regulation, given that it essentially appropriated the playbook of the coal industry, its main ally in this misguided deregulatory effort. For example, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, cast the Clean Power Plan as the central villain in the story of coal’s downturn when it petitioned the Supreme Court in February 2016 to stay the rule. Peabody told the Court that “from the time EPA first proposed the Rule and condemned the coal industry to a greatly diminished future, coal company share prices have plummeted and coal companies have declared bankruptcy.”


But when Peabody petitioned for bankruptcy only two months later, its filings did not mention the Clean Power Plan or any other environmental regulation — not even once — pinning the blame instead on “precipitously declining demand and pricing in recent years due to the rise of low priced alternative energy sources — including an abundance of natural gas.”

The Peabody filings mentions of regulatory compliance costs consist only of a brief reference to “increased regulatory hurdles” and a single sentence near the end of a long discussion of financial obligations. Peabody told a true story to the bankruptcy court. But it told a false one to the highest court in the land, and succeeded in blocking a landmark climate policy. Trump later finished the job, scrapping the Clean Power Plan entirely.

Public attacks on critical climate policies have perpetuated the false notion that reducing greenhouse gas pollution will damage our economy. As both the Trump administration and the coal industry have admitted — at least at times — cleaner energy sources are already outcompeting fossil fuels on the open market, reducing consumer costs while providing enormous environmental and public health benefits. Additional policies are needed to accelerate this trend and boost U.S. competitiveness in global clean energy markets, and such policies are enormously beneficial, not burdensome.

In light of this reality, the inconsistent claims of the Trump administration can be understood only as efforts to mislead the American people and our institutions. This empty rhetoric, devoid of any factual support, is in service of a policy of providing support to coal companies that imposes enormous harms on the American people. 

The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is the latest manifestation of an effort that will necessarily fail. The Trump administration has turned over its climate change policy to the coal industry, but the plight of this industry is being caused by market forces, not the environmental regulations that the administration reviles. But until the effort to mislead the American people and our institutions is exposed, and the contradictory claims on which it is based are fully understood, the public and our planet will continue to suffer.

Richard L. Revesz is the Lawrence King Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at New York University, where he directs the Institute for Policy Integrity