State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Trump vs. Clinton: What the Election Could Mean for Climate Policy


This post was updated on May 27.

The outcome of this year’s presidential election could have far-reaching implications for the fate of our planet because the two presumptive candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, have very different ideas about climate change.

According to a March Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans are worried about global warming, up almost 10 percent from last year. A new report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 92 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters and 56 percent of Donald Trump supporters believe global warming is occurring; moreover supporters of both candidates are more likely to vote for a candidate who strongly supports taking action on climate change.

If elected, what, if anything, would the two candidates be likely to do about the Paris climate accord and climate change? Two experts from the Earth Institute weigh in on the implications of Trump and Clinton’s stances and proposed policies.


Photo: Gage Skidmore
Photo: Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump

On May 26, discussing his energy policy, Trump said, “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement.”  He claims the agreement is one-sided and bad for the U.S. Trump does not believe China, currently the world’s largest emitter of CO2, or other countries will keep their commitments under the Paris agreement. “Not a big fan because other countries don’t adhere to it, and China doesn’t adhere to it, and China’s spewing into the atmosphere,” he said.

After President Obama addressed world leaders at the Paris climate conference in December, saying that “for all the challenges we face, the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other,” Trump said, “I think one of the dumbest statements I’ve ever heard in politics, in the history of politics as I know it, which is pretty good, was Obama’s statement that our number one problem is global warming.”

“The only global warming I’m worried about ,” he said, “is nuclear global warming because that’s the single biggest threat.”

Trump has called climate change a hoax, tweeting in 2012, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He has since claimed he was being sarcastic, but he has stated, “I am not a great believer in man-made climate change.”

“Nobody knows what Trump really believes on anything since his answers seem so off the cuff, dependent entirely on what he thinks the audience wants to hear,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University and chair of the faculty of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “But he has expressed skepticism about climate change and also about international agreements. And also about anything that Obama signed onto. So I think the combination would make me extremely nervous that he would annul the U.S. agreement [the Paris accord] in the same way that George W. Bush, upon taking office, repudiated the Kyoto Protocol.”

Scott Barrett, the Lenfest-Earth Institute professor of natural resource economics and vice-dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said, “It is hard to know what Donald Trump would do about the Paris Agreement if he became president, as his views on many issues seem changeable. Based on his previous comments about climate change, however, it seems likely he would reverse at least some of the executive actions taken by President Obama. For example, he would almost certainly drop the Clean Power Plan. He might also repudiate the [Paris] agreement itself.”

“Doing either, let alone both, of these things would severely weaken the global effort to limit climate change,” said Barrett. “This is because for most countries, cooperation is conditional. Most countries are willing to play their part in achieving a group goal such as stabilizing the climate, but only if they see other countries doing their best to achieve the same goal. In Paris, every country accepted that climate change was a real and urgent problem requiring international cooperation. However, Donald Trump doesn’t even agree with the aspirations set down in this agreement.”

The Paris agreement says that any country may withdraw on three years notice. But since most of the Paris agreement is aspirational and not binding, it is essentially unenforceable.

“The only binding parts concern monitoring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions, which have an independent basis in U.S. law, so that would probably continue,” explained Gerrard. “But if Trump were president and did pull the U.S. out of the Paris scheme, that would embolden those other countries that don’t want to act on climate change to do the same. If the world’s historically largest emitter is not acting, many other countries will say, ‘Why should we?’ So I think it would be globally disastrous.”

Laurent Fabius, the former French foreign minister who helped negotiate the Paris accord, said that the U.S. election is critical. “If a climate change denier was to be elected, it would threaten dramatically global action against climate disruption,” he said.

If the United States were to withdraw from the Paris agreement, however, there are specific actions in the U.S. that a court might eventually force Trump to take, said Gerrard. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that if the Environmental Protection Agency found that greenhouse gases pose an endangerment, which it did, the EPA must take action to deal with it. Various lawsuits have been brought to prod EPA along and make it go further than it has, and Gerrard said he would expect to see more of those cases, though they tend to take years.

Meanwhile, Trump has designated the EPA as one federal agency he would cut in order to reduce spending.

On Trump’s campaign website, there is no section on climate change or energy policy, but we know some of his positions from his past comments and his speech on energy policy. Trump is a vocal supporter of fracking; when New York banned fracking outright in 2014, he called it “a terrible situation.” He wants to revitalize the coal industry and expand domestic oil and natural gas production. He has promised to overturn Obama’s measures to cut U.S. emissions and protect waterways from industrial pollution. He has said it’s “disgraceful” that the Keystone XL pipeline was not given a permit and wants TransCanada to reapply for the pipeline, saying, “I want it built, but I want a piece of the profits. That’s how we’re going to make our country rich again.” While campaigning in West Virginia, Trump said, “The miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania … Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again, believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.”

Trump recently tapped Republican Representative Kevin Cramer from North Dakota to be one of his energy advisors. Cramer is a well-known climate skeptic and advocate for oil and gas drilling. He has said he would advise Trump against initiating a carbon tax. “The American public wants to see something done on climate change. But we don’t have to throw oil and gas and coal and fossil fuels under the bus to do that,” said Cramer.


Photo: Nathania Johnson
Photo: Nathania Johnson

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton has called climate change “an urgent threat” and “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.”

After the Paris climate conference, she said, “The Paris agreement is testament to America’s ability to lead the world in building a clean energy future where no one is left out or left behind… as president, I will make combating climate change a top priority from day one, and secure America’s future as the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.”

Clinton has promised to deliver on the U.S. commitment to the Paris accord, without having to rely on Congress to pass new legislation. She proposes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 percent in 2025 relative to 2005 levels and chart a path to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050.

Clinton’s plans include generating enough renewable energy to power every U.S. home with half a billion solar panels installed by the end of her first term, and cutting energy waste by one third in homes, schools and hospitals. She proposes to reduce oil consumption by a third by developing cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles, boilers and ships; cut methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent and establish tough standards for reducing leaks. Clinton will implement and extend pollution and efficiency standards, and defend Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which requires states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing fossil fuel power plants. She will launch a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge with states, cities and rural communities to help them go beyond federal standards to cut emissions and expand clean energy. She is planning to create a situation room in the White House just for climate change so that she can monitor where climate change impacts are happening in real time and develop strategies to deal with them.

Clinton also pledges to invest in clean energy infrastructure, innovation, manufacturing and workforce development to create good paying jobs; increase public investment for R&D in clean energy and new technologies such as advanced nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage; and has put forth a $30 billion plan to help coal communities with benefits and new job creation. She will prioritize environmental justice.

John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, said that she would like to work with Congress on climate change, but given the obstructionism of most Republicans, instead of attempting sweeping environmental change, she will likely focus on smaller legislative actions and executive powers. She will try to work with Congress on issues where there is common ground, such as on investment in clean energy and energy efficiency, research and development, and ending fossil fuel subsidies.

“Hillary Clinton’s views on climate change are very much in line with those of other national leaders,” said Barrett. “She would obviously support the Paris agreement, and would likely work with other states to ensure that its potential was fully realized. However, the Paris agreement won’t be able to stabilize the climate. … Even if Hillary Clinton is elected, and does what she has pledged to do domestically, much more will need to be done globally to reduce the threat of climate change.”

“Paris is not nearly enough,” said Gerrard. “She would need to go further, and I think her people realize that.”

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law is helping to identify legal tools that the next president could use if so inclined, such as a report it issued with N.Y.U. and U.C.L.A. on Section 115 of the Clean Air Act. Section 115 says that if air pollution from the U.S. is causing damage in other countries, the EPA should require the states where the pollution originates to come up with plans to abate the pollution. “If we had a Clinton presidency, she might well utilize that authority,” said Gerrard. “And one big advantage it has over what they’re using for the Clean Power Plan is the Clean Power Plan is just limited to the power sector, whereas this could cover everything [all sources].”

“We not only need a president who will support the Paris agreement,” said Barrett. “We also need a president who has the vision and diplomatic skills needed to develop other, complementary approaches to limiting climate change.”

“If Trump becomes president,” said Gerrard. “I think there will be a lot of exploration of action at the state and local levels, which is what happened under the Bush presidency, and also exploration of federal litigation tools. And we’ll make efforts to persuade the new administration that the case is so compelling that action has to be taken. … If he’s the rational hardheaded businessman he says he is, he’ll look at data and consider facts. Time will tell.”

“A Clinton presidency,” said Gerrard. “Could set the U.S. and the world on the right trajectory and help both adopt greater ambition, and more importantly, methods to achieve that ambition.”


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Richard Mercer
Richard Mercer
8 years ago

This should be read by those Democrats, who are Sanders followers and say they wouldn’t vote for Clinton if she gets nominated. People need to wake up to the fact that there is nothing (short of preventing global nuclear war) that is more important. I like Sanders too but will vote for scientific sanity in our government, which means voting democrat.
72% of GOP Senators and a majority in the House, are AGW deniers.
We simply cannot afford to have them control the Whitehouse too.

The article was kind in using the term “skeptic” for these people. They are nothing of the kind.