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What will be Trump’s deepest legacy? Possible climatic damage

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will use the next four years to try to restore the environmental policies his predecessor methodically exploded, but the damage from greenhouse gas pollution caused by the president’s efforts Trump cannot be easily reversed.

And experts say the climate impact could turn out to be one of the deepest legacies of Mr. Trump’s single tenure.

“Historically, there is always a pendulum to swing between the Democratic and Republican administrations on the environment, and theoretically the environment can recover,” said Jody Freeman, professor of environmental law at Harvard and former Obama adviser. administration. “You can put back rules that purify the air and water. But climate change doesn’t work like that.

Most of Mr. Trump’s environmental policies, which have erased or relaxed more than 100 rules and regulations to control air, water and air pollution, can be reversed, but not immediately. Pollutants like industrial soot and chemicals can have lasting effects on health, especially in minority communities where they are often concentrated. But air quality and water clarity can be restored once emissions are restored.

This is not true for the global climate, even if the protections adopted by the Obama administration are soon restored. Greenhouse pollution builds up in the atmosphere, so the heat-trapping gases emitted due to the relaxation of regulations will remain for decades, regardless of policy changes.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump’s retreat in emissions policies came at a critical time: over the past four years, the global level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has crossed a dreaded atmospheric concentration threshold. . Today, many of the most damaging effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, deadlier storms and more devastating heat, droughts and forest fires, are irreversible.

At home, Biden might find it more difficult than his former boss, President Barack Obama, to use executive power to create tough and lasting rules on climate change, as the conservative majority of six Supreme Court judges are expected to look unfavorably on policies. which greatly expand the power of federal agencies to regulate the industry.

And abroad, the influence the United States once had in climate negotiations has almost certainly been damaged by Mr. Trump’s political setbacks and the withdrawal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. These actions slowed down international efforts to reduce emissions and prompted other governments to follow the US lead by weakening emissions rules, though none followed the US out of the deal.

All of this means that as Mr. Biden works to enact national climate change rules and join the Paris Agreement, emissions attributable to Mr. Trump’s actions will continue, plunging the planet further into one area. danger that scientists say will be much more difficult to escape.

“Donald Trump has been at climate regulation like General Sherman was in Atlanta,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, referring to the Union general who razed the city during the civil war. “Hopefully the rebuilding won’t take so long.”

Scientists have long warned that if the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million, it would become much more difficult to avoid a warming of 2 degrees Celsius. The Paris climate agreement accepted this target because above it the planet is likely locked in a fate of rising sea levels, more violent storms, droughts and widespread heat waves. and massive death of coral reefs.

Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere first hit 400 parts per million in 2016, the year Mr. Trump was elected. But the president has put economic growth above emissions targets, arguing that the climate and other environmental regulations are hurting job creation.

Economists see little evidence that Mr. Trump’s overthrow of climate change rules has strengthened the economy. Auto jobs have been declining since the start of 2019, and the trend has continued despite the rollback of rules on vehicle pollution with greenhouse gases. National coal production fell last year to its lowest level since 1978. In September, the French government blocked a $ 7 billion contract to purchase US natural gas, arguing that the gas produced without control. methane leakage was too bad for the climate.

Meanwhile, in May, carbon dioxide levels reached 417 parts per million, the highest level recorded in human history.

“Because global emissions in 2020 are so much higher than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago, it means that a year wasted in the Trump administration in not taking action on the climate has consequences far greater than a year lost to Ronald Reagan or George W.. Bush or the Bill Clinton administration, ”said Michael Wara, a climate and energy expert at Stanford University.

Analysts say the past four years have represented a closing window in which the world’s largest polluting economies, working together, could have paved the way for a slowdown in the rate of global warming emissions. To do this, a 2018 science report found that global economies should reduce their emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 – and policies to do so should be implemented quickly.

Instead, in the world’s largest economy, they started to unravel.

“We have wasted a very significant amount of time on climate change, which we cannot afford,” said Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, a non-partisan research organization focused on energy and the environment. in Washington. “There is serious damage. Ignoring the climate for four years, you can’t put a price on that. This is a huge problem that needs to be met with long term momentum and extreme dedication, and we have lost it.

A recent analysis by the Rhodium Group, a non-partisan research organization, found that while Trump’s five biggest climate control cuts, including rules on carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes and power plants and methane leaks from oil and gas wells were to go ahead, an additional 1.8 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases would be in the atmosphere by 2035. That’s more than emissions combined energies of Germany, Great Britain and Canada in one year.

Assuming Mr Biden succeeds in putting them back into action, two years would pass before those rules were legally finalized, resulting in even more emissions.

“If Biden puts the rules back in place, the emissions will be lower than our study count, but it will still have a lasting effect,” said Hannah Pitt, co-author of the study.

Speaking of Mr. Trump’s rollback of Obama-era auto fuel economy rules that would have reduced tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide, she said: “Four years of a Trump administration plus a year or two to put a rule in place – cars purchased during this time will be less efficient and burn more fossil fuels than they otherwise would. And these cars can stay on the road for 10 or 12 years. And once these greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere, they trap heat for decades.

It is also not certain that Mr Biden will be able to reinstate all of these rules, let alone make them stricter. The Biden administration can legally restore environmental protections to some public land that Mr. Trump has opened up for oil and gas drilling, but using the executive branch to develop far-reaching regulations on stack and tailpipe emissions can be more problematic with a conservative Supreme Court 6-3.

Legal experts say Mr. Trump’s appointment of Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett could prove to be an important part of Mr. Trump’s climate legacy, especially if Mr. Biden is unable to persuade Congress to enact new climate change laws. Then he would seek, as Mr. Obama did, to use the executive power of the Environmental Protection Agency to control greenhouse pollution.

“I think the new Supreme Court is going to make implementing climate policy by regulation much more difficult than it was four years ago,” Wara said. “It’s not clear that Biden can just revert to a stricter version of the Obama regulations. It’s just not that simple when you have a tribunal that looks much more suspiciously at the agencies that wield executive power. “

In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s actions, nationally and internationally, have helped encourage leaders in some other major economies to lower their emissions standards.

“There was a domino effect,” said Laurence Tubiana, who served as France’s senior climate ambassador during the Paris negotiations in 2015. “While Trump has destroyed US climate policy over the past four years , he pushed some other countries to do the same. ”

Ms Tubiana specifically referred to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who took inspiration from Mr Trump on climate issues, calling the movement to reduce global warming a plot by “Marxists” to stifle economic growth, and the former Australian Minister Scott Morrison, who like Mr. Trump dismissed the link between climate change and forest fires while promoting the use of coal.

And, said Ms Tubiana, a climate-friendly Biden administration will once again be welcome in the global community.

“The whole world is waiting for the United States to come back to the climate,” she said. “There will be immense relief when it does.”

But Ms Tubiana and others said it was difficult to see how the United States could return to the climate leadership role it occupied when Mr Obama helped forge the Paris Agreement.

“The United States will no longer be seen as the individual leader,” she said, but will instead have to work in “a competitive partnership with the EU and China.” But that might not be a bad thing.

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