Climate Policy in the Age of Trump

A Plausible Path Forward

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order that places a hiring freeze on non-military federal workers in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, January 2017.  Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Of the many reasons that a slim minority of voters chose to elect a bombastic reality television star to be president of the United States, climate change was surely not high on the list. Nonetheless, Donald Trump assumed the office last week openly hostile to the environmental movement. He has threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, gut the Barack Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and cut funding for climate science research. Should he follow through, two decades of work trying to translate a growing understanding of human-caused global warming into explicit treaties at the international level and emissions policies at the federal level will have reached their denouement. And that, in the long run, might be a good thing for the climate.


Since international efforts to limit carbon emissions began in earnest almost 30 years ago, there has been little evidence that either international agreements or national commitments to cap and reduce emissions have done much good. Analysis published late last year by our research outlet, the Breakthrough Institute, found that the carbon intensity of energy systems fell faster before climate policies were enacted in California, Germany, and around the world through the Kyoto Protocol. Modeling by the Yale economist William Nordhaus (the uncle of one of the authors) released last year reached a similar conclusion. 

Emissions growth rates in various economies around the world have risen and fallen over recent decades, mostly owing to macroeconomic factors or technological developments. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the opening of China to the global economy and its subsequent entry into the World Trade Organization, and the Great Recession all had clear and demonstrable impacts upon emissions. So, too, did the shale revolution in the United States and France’s and Sweden’s decisions in the 1970s and 1980s to go nuclear. Carbon treaties, caps, regulations, and taxes, meanwhile, have not.

The trend will likely hold. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, to which nations committed in lieu

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