Roar writer Chen Ly on US President Donald Trump’s tumultuous history with environmental policy, and what this could mean for president-elect Joe Biden.

Throughout his White House tenure, President Donald Trump has famously expressed views of climate scepticism while proclaiming himself a “great environmentalist”. On the surface, these stances seem quite contradictory – so how exactly have they shaped Trump’s environmental policies? And what exactly is President-Elect Joe Biden poised to inherit?

Donald in Paris

The Trumpian politics of the past four years can be largely characterised by a resurgence of the “America First” mindset readily apparent in Trump’s environmental policies – the epitome of which is undoubtedly the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. As the failed Kyoto Protocol’s successor, the Paris Agreement was negotiated by 196 countries at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference and signed in 2016. The landmark multinational treaty’s primary aim is to drastically decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to limit global warming to 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels, by 2100.

On November 4, 2019, the US began its formal exit process. A year later, on November 4, 2020, the US had officially withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. The withdrawal also included the reduction of financial support for the Green Climate Fund, designed to help developing countries reach Paris Agreement targets. The rationale behind withdrawing was economic concerns, with fears the agreement would disproportionately disadvantage US businesses and taxpayers. Trump argued the treaty allowed countries like China and India to increase emissions to the detriment of the US. However, many argue that the US, and other Western countries, have historically been the largest emitters of GHGs, and as such should shoulder a greater share of the work. 

On American Soil

Trump’s rollbacks of Obama-era policies hit much closer to home than Paris. Deregulation and expansion of the fossil fuel industry have been trademarks of Trump’s plan for economic growth. Since 2016, 84 environmental rules and regulations have been repealed, with a further 20 currently in progress. A notable example is the replacement of Obama’s Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, allowing states more freedom to regulate their own emissions. As part of ongoing fossil fuel development, Trump also approved the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines via executive order. In 2019, the administration completed plans to open Alaska’s Arctic refuge to gas and oil drilling.

Regarding nature, Trump’s policies have been a mixed bag. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has supported recycling programs, yet recently proposed cuts to funding for recycling work and waste minimisation. During the Trump administration, over 1.3 million acres of wilderness areas have been protected, while other monuments have been opened up for mining and drilling. These decisions are emblematic of both Trump’s ambiguous environmental stance and his staunch economy-driven form of governance.

Picking up the pieces

Clearly, the environment was not and has never been a key issue for Trump. It has, however, has been increasingly important to Americans across the political spectrum. The Trump presidency has seen numerous natural disasters – Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the California wildfires, to name a few – bringing climate debates to the fore. Moreover, the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was met by harsh criticism both domestically and internationally.

Ultimately, Trump’s impact on the environment is neither irreversible nor groundbreaking. Trump’s legacy will not be his mixed environmental record, nor pulling out of the Paris Agreement. It will be the transformation of political discourse. The rise of right-wing populism and of scepticism towards authority and science, whether rightly or wrongly, can be attributed to Trump. The most lasting damage Trump causes to the environment may well be the simmering climate scepticism he has so deeply imbued into mainstream politics. That is his legacy. And this, arguably, will be Biden’s greatest mountain to climb.

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