The Climate Can’t Afford Another Trump Presidency

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Written By Pinang Driod

On the last Saturday before Donald Trump took office, in January 2017, I watched the controlled chaos of a hackathon unfold in a library at the University of Pennsylvania. Volunteer archivists, librarians, and computer scientists were trawling government websites, looking for data sets about climate change to duplicate for safekeeping. Groups like this were meeting across the country. Flowcharts on whiteboards laid out this particular room’s priorities: copy decades of ice-core statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; scrape the Environmental Protection Agency’s entire library of local air-monitoring results from the previous four years; find a way to preserve a zoomable map of the factories and power plants emitting the most greenhouse gases.

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The fear was that the incoming administration would pull information like this from public view—and within a week, it did. By noon on Inauguration Day, the Trump administration had scrubbed mentions of climate change from the White House website. By May, officials had taken down the EPA’s page laying out climate science for the general public, as well as 108 pages associated with the Clean Power Plan, the landmark Obama policy meant to curb emissions from power plants—months before the Trump administration tried to repeal the policy altogether.

The administration’s goal was to bury the issue of climate change. Nothing was done to address it; the very mention of it was knocked from the national agenda—and, by extension, the international agenda. If Trump returns to office, he will surely double down on this strategy.

First, the global implications: The United States would probably exit from the Paris Agreement again, Michael Gerrard, the founder and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told me. Despite its status as the wealthiest big emitter, the United States continues to express little to no interest in substantially funding global climate action, even during Democratic administrations. For now, though, at least the country is still at the table for international climate talks. Pulling out of Paris might be a largely symbolic move, but it could have a domino effect. “India, Indonesia, Brazil—if they see the U.S. is not acting, it’s easy for conservative politicians in those countries to say, ‘These big rich guys aren’t doing anything; why should we?’ ” Gerrard said.

Domestically, it would in some ways be harder now for Trump to meaningfully alter climate policy than it was when he first came to office. Electric vehicles have become popular, and solar power will likely be the cheapest source of electricity in basically every country by 2030. Heat pumps have proved to be fantastically efficient, and a bipartisan consortium of 25 governors just agreed to quadruple the number of them installed in homes in their states. One consequence of the Trump administration was the emergence of a new kind of subnational climate diplomacy: Mayors and governors began meeting with international leaders to discuss the issue on their own. During a second Trump term, these efforts would surely pick up again.

In addition, certain new climate-friendly policies are so good for Republican states that their representatives probably won’t want to touch them. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 promotes clean power by offering major tax credits to individuals and businesses that make or use renewable energy, and most of that money is likely to flow to red states.

But a second Trump administration could still do major damage. The fossil-fuel lobby would work to dismantle climate policies. Groups led by the Heritage Foundation and the America First Policy Institute are already making a “battle plan” to block electricity-grid updates that would allow for solar and wind expansion, to prevent states from adopting California’s car-pollution standards, and to gut clean-power divisions at the Department of Energy, among other things.

Under a second Trump term, the EPA would no doubt be threatened with budget cuts, as it was during the first. Staffers would likely retire en masse, as they did before, and enforcement of climate policy would slow or stop.

But the first thing to go will likely be the websites—again. The U.S. has no law against a government agency deleting pages from its own websites, even if the information on them is in the public interest. “We have been telling the Biden administration that this is a real vulnerability,” Gretchen Gehrke, a co-founder of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, told me. For now, all of the data sets that those teams of hackers scraped the first time around are still housed on private servers, just in case.

This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “Climate Denial Will Flourish.”


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