Trump’s August Assault on Climate Policy

This summer has brought record-breaking heat around the world, and no slowdown in the Trump Administration’s systematic undoing of climate regulations. On August 2nd, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration jointly proposed freezing the fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks that were adopted under President Obama. On Tuesday, the E.P.A. unveiled the Affordable Clean Energy (A.C.E.) rule, a proposal to neuter Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was designed to decrease carbon emissions from coal-powered electric plants. Together, these policies are as abominable as they are unsurprising: they represent the fossil-fuel industry’s warmest fantasies, and a fulfillment, more or less, of various Trump promises.

The Obama Administration estimated that its vehicle standards would have cut emissions, over the lifetime of the cars they affected, by six billion metric tons, or roughly as much carbon dioxide emitted by the U.S. in a year. The standards called for average gas mileage, for passenger cars and light trucks combined, to reach about fifty-four miles per gallon by 2025. (In real-life road conditions, this means that you could drive from New York to Philadelphia on less than three gallons of gas.) The Trump Administration, however, wants to freeze gas-mileage standards at about thirty-five miles per gallon, and to prohibit states from setting their own vehicle-emissions regulations—a measure meant to rein in California, which has set standards, adopted by twelve other states, that are even more aggressive than Obama’s. (California officials have vowed to sue the federal government in response. Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said that his state “will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”)

The Administration’s proposed standards, and its convoluted justification for them, are laid out in a nine-hundred-and-seventy-eight-page document called “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (S.A.F.E.) Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026.” The document claims that rolling back the Obama-era standards will save more than five hundred billion dollars “in societal costs” and prevent about a thousand traffic-related fatalities per year. The argument, essentially, is that less ambitious fuel standards will allow automakers to price cars and trucks more affordably, meaning that more people will buy new cars and get rid of old, unsafe clunkers. And because cars will also mostly remain less fuel-efficient, people will need to spend more on gasoline, and therefore will drive less, resulting in fewer traffic accidents and more lives saved. Economists, who call this type of phenomenon the “rebound effect,” are divided on how significant it really is, and, according to Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, many analyses find that its effect is greatly overstated. “What they’re really doing is cooking the books to make it easier to cook the planet,” Gerrard told me, of the Trump Administration. “They’re jumping through all kinds of arithmetical hoops to get the numbers they really want.”

The government itself doesn’t even fully buy the argument it’s making. Internal documents made public last week showed that senior E.P.A. staff members strongly disagreed with the N.H.T.S.A. over the safety-based justification for the new fuel standards. A report that William Charmley, a director in the E.P.A. Office of Transportation and Air Quality, e-mailed to other government staffers in June stated that the “proposed standards are detrimental to safety, rather than beneficial.” Fatalities, it said, would increase, thirty-five thousand jobs would be lost annually, and societal costs could amount to eighty-three billion dollars. (An E.P.A. spokesman called the internal documents evidence of “the robust dialogue that occurred during interagency deliberations.”) Larger, gas-guzzling vehicles release more harmful air pollution—which is strongly linked to premature mortality—than lighter, more fuel-efficient cars, not to mention electric vehicles. (The new power-plant rule will also lead to increased levels of air pollution, and more deaths as a result, according to the rule’s own analysis.) Meanwhile, few can dispute that new-car technology and safety improvements have long progressed alongside efficiency gains. “Ask anyone looking in a rearview camera or tapping auto-lock brakes,” Luke Tonachel, the director of the Clean Vehicle Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. “Trump’s plan creates a false choice between safety and clean air.” He pointed to just one example, the new Ford F-150, a slimmer truck with an aluminum body that got top safety ratings from insurers while also increasing its fuel efficiency from the previous model.

The safety versus sustainability argument isn’t a novel one; it was originally pushed by the auto industry in the nineteen-seventies, during the fight to pass the first fuel-emissions standards. The industry basically said that if the government mandated better fuel economy, everybody would end up driving a Ford Pinto. (At the time, the Pinto was known for its exploding fuel tank. The industry doesn’t make this kind of argument anymore.) “It’s actually just an old meme that goes all the way back,” Carl Pope, an environmental lobbyist who worked on establishing the first federal vehicle-emissions standards, in 1970, said. Pope is now the vice-chair of America’s Pledge, an initiative led by states, cities, and businesses to meet the climate goals set out in the Paris climate agreement despite Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from it. “There were some very dangerous small cars,” he said, “but no longer, not in the U.S.”

If the proposed rule is finalized, the U.S. would have weaker fuel-economy standards than the European Union, South Korea, India, Japan, China, and even Saudi Arabia. And it’s not that all these countries—note the inclusion of Saudi Arabia—have made reduced oil use a top priority, Paul Bodnar, a former director at the National Security Council and special assistant to Obama on climate and foreign policy, told me. “There are so many co-benefits to higher fuel-economy standards,” he said. “Energy security, cleaner air, and, of course, benefits to consumers in the form of lower fuel costs.” If a wide range of countries are all setting higher standards, he continued, “I hope someone in the Trump Administration might wonder how that might be in their self-interest and not ours.”

And yet while the Administration is making the argument that individual states shouldn’t have the right to set their own fuel standards, it is saying just the opposite when it comes to power-plant emissions. With its Affordable Clean Energy rule, the E.P.A. will allow states to design their own weaker emission limits, and in some cases even allow them to let power plants opt out of any emission controls at all. Some observers have remarked that the replacement plan is, at least, an acknowledgement from the Administration that it legally has to regulate greenhouse gases. But in terms of addressing climate change, it does nothing, and could—according to its own analysis—even lead to an increase in annual carbon emissions. “It’s like shooting an elephant with a water pistol,” Gerrard said.

The proposed new power-plant standards rely on the same kind of climate-change-minimizing arguments as in the fuel-standards case. Janet McCabe, a former top E.P.A. official who led the office that wrote the Clean Power Plan, pointed out that the Obama Administration assigned a high value to the benefits that come with reducing carbon emissions—what economists and scientists refer to as the social cost of carbon. While McCabe was at the E.P.A., the value was about forty dollars per ton. The Trump Administration puts the value at between one to six dollars per ton, a disparity created by ignoring the global benefits of emissions reductions in favor of considering only the direct domestic benefits. “But things that happen in other countries can still impact the U.S. in terms of, say, defense, national security, numbers of climate refugees,” McCabe said. “Certainly the Defense Department would tell you that.” Between 2010 and 2017, the Department of Defense published thirty-five reports that explicitly addressed the threats climate change presents.

Of the two new proposals, the weakened fuel standards are the bigger threat to the planet. Automakers had begun to adapt to the Obama standards, and emissions were already being measurably reduced. They now will no longer be compelled to improve fuel efficiency anywhere near as quickly, and this means we’ve got even less of a chance of preventing the Earth from warming more than two degrees Celsius—the goal set in Paris. The Clean Power Plan had already run into trouble in the courts—the Supreme Court stayed its implementation—while a glut of cheap, cleaner natural gas, combined with plummeting solar- and wind-energy prices, were already driving coal-plant closures. By 2025, the U.S. power sector is on pace to reduce emissions to twenty-eight per cent below 2005 levels, meaning that it is ahead of the Clean Power Plan’s schedule.

John Holdren, an environmental-policy professor at Harvard and Obama’s former science adviser, told me that while the signal sent by the “rollbacks is terrible—and the rationale erroneous,” other “indignities perpetrated by Trump and his cronies are almost certainly worse.” The withdrawal from the Paris accords “immediately squandered U.S. leadership and moral authority globally,” he said, while the cutoff of aid to developing countries for climate-change mitigation and adaptation has delayed critical investments. He said that if Congress accepts Trump’s proposals for drastic federal budget cuts in clean-energy research, “the resulting delays in needed progress will set back deep emissions cuts for a period the country and the world cannot afford.”

Lately, we’ve felt the effects of climate change with increasing severity: last summer’s heat waves and wildfires were some of the worst in recorded history; then came this summer. And yet these disasters have not given the Trump Administration pause. If anything, the timing of these latest proposals suggests that their backers are bolder than ever. The midterms might have something to do with it; Trump will likely celebrate the Clean Power Plan rollback on Tuesday at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia. The seasons change, of course, and the worst of this summer’s heat will soon diminish. Come November, the polls will open.

This article has been updated.

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