Trump’s Climate Deniers Fiddle While the World Burns
This week, the administration is expected to replace the climate-saving Clean Power Plan with a rule that would do nothing to protect our planet—and our children’s future.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere, driven by burning coal, oil, and gas, hit almost 410 parts per million in 2018 and surged to nearly 415 parts per million this May—the highest levels in 3 million years.
The effects: 120-plus-degree heat waves in India and Australia. A 128-degree heat index (heat and humidity) in Brownsville, Texas. Hurricanes with record rainfall in the Southeast last year. Catastrophic wildfires in the West. Disastrous flooding this spring through the Midwest. Death, illness, and destruction in more and more communities, more and more often.
And we’re just getting warmed up. Much worse suffering lies ahead.
This week, Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who serves as Trump’s administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to replace the landmark Clean Power Plan with a do-nothing fig leaf called the Affordable Clean Energy rule—really, a Dirty Power Plan.
And later this summer, Wheeler and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao plan to blow up Obama’s equally historic Clean Car Peace Treaty, which was forged with automakers, states, labor, and environmentalists in 2010 and 2012.
Disdain for science and fact starts at the top. Trump told the BBC that climate “changes both ways.” He put William Happer—who believes the atmosphere needs more CO2 and that this blameless gas is being demonized like the Jews under Hitler—on the National Security Council staff, where he recently blocked State Department testimony to Congress on climate-driven security risks.
But like so many other Trump regulatory rollbacks, these new rules will hit the wall in the courts. NRDC, joining forces with state, environmental, and business allies, will challenge the Clean Power Plan repeal and the Dirty Power Plan replacement—and we expect to win.
Unpacking the Assault on the Clean Power Plan
Sweltering in the sun at Georgetown University in June 2013, President Obama said, “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” He directed the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Air Act—enacted on a bipartisan basis in 1970 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007—to start cutting climate-changing pollution. The centerpiece of his climate solution was the Clean Power Plan, aimed at cutting carbon emissions from power plants—then our largest climate polluters—by nearly a third from 2005 levels by 2030.
When issued in 2015, the Clean Power Plan was thought to be both ambitious and achievable. Coal interests managed to convince the Supreme Court to block the rule’s implementation while their lawsuits proceeded by fear-mongering its supposedly devastating impacts, but in reality, meeting the Clean Power Plan’s targets is proving to be a walk in the park.
It turns out that everyone—the EPA, coal companies, even NRDC—underestimated how fast market forces would bring down power plants’ carbon pollution. The power sector has been rapidly shifting to cleaner and cheaper ways to generate electricity, ranging from natural gas (which still emits half the CO2 of coal) to emission-free wind and solar. And energy efficiency gains in our homes, appliances, and businesses have held electricity demand flat. As a result, power plant carbon pollution is already down 28 percent from 2005 levels—and is poised to surpass the Clean Power Plan’s 32 percent reduction goal for 2030 by a wide margin.
In the meantime, the climate crisis has only deepened. Monster hurricanes, fires, and floods are here and now for millions of Americans. Impacts are no longer far in the future and in other parts of the world. A president who cared about these ever-more-urgent dangers and the lower-than-expected costs of responding would have ordered the EPA to strengthen the Clean Power Plan, not cynically kill it.
NRDC, in fact, has shown that the EPA could nearly double the Clean Power Plan’s carbon pollution reductions for less than the original rule was supposed to cost. Using the latest available data on industry trends and costs, we showed that carbon pollution could be cut 60 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. These emissions reductions would generate climate and health protection benefits of up to $101 billion per year, and they could be achieved for around $6.2 billion in 2030, less than the Clean Power Plan was originally expected to cost.
But President Trump and his minions at the EPA are bent only on protecting polluters and re-creating a fossil-fueled past. With this rollback rule, Administrator Wheeler and his air chief Bill Wehrum are pursuing three audacious goals.
First, catering to Trump’s obsession with undoing his predecessor’s legacy, they want to erase the Clean Power Plan. They will have to convince the courts that their do-nothing replacement meets their legal duty to act under the Clean Air Act.
Their second goal is to cook the books on science and economics, permanently warping the way the EPA counts and values air pollution’s dangers to the American people. As we’ve shown before, by fiddling with dose-response curves for dangerous fine particles and by finagling with cost-benefit analyses for carbon pollution, they want to hide both the enormous health and environmental costs we’ll bear and the billions of dollars in benefits we’d reap from sensible pollution curbs.
Their third goal is to make the Clean Air Act a toothless tiger. Congress armed the EPA with powerful tools to curb dangerous pollution, but Wheeler and Wehrum want to “reinterpret” the law so that it cannot be used to get more than cosmetic carbon pollution reductions from power plants.
But not if we can help it. NRDC will take Trump’s EPA to court, together with state allies and a coalition of public health and environmental organizations. We’ll show that the Dirty Power Plan violates the law.
To meet the ever-more urgent climate crisis, the Clean Air Act requires a real plan to curb power plants’ carbon pollution, not a do-nothing stand-in. It requires scientific and economic honesty, not analytical deceit.
It’s time to throw the coal lobbyists out of the temple and restore the EPA to its proper job of protecting Americans from the climate crisis unfolding before our eyes.