Donald Trump v. The Environment: learning from past attempts to dismantle environmental policy

Viviane Gravey |

A week after the Paris Agreement entered into force, the United States have elected Donald J. Trump as their 45th President – a man who famously described climate change as “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” His stance on climate change, his strong support for coal and pledge to “lift the restrictions on American energy” have raised fears about his likely actions once in office, and their impact on international efforts to combat climate change. Critically, while he is most vocal against climate change he is no strong supporter of environmental policy in general. While he has backtracked on completely shutting down the US Environmental Protection agency (EPA) he is promising to ‘refocus’ its work:

“The Trump Administration is firmly committed to conserving our wonderful natural resources and beautiful natural habitats. America’s environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas.  We will refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.  It will be a future of conservation, of prosperity, and of great success.” GreatAgain.Gov

In this blog post, I attempt to make sense of the challenges facing environment and climate policy in the US – and beyond – by reflecting on past efforts to undermine and roll-back environmental regulation in the United States of America.

Donald J. Trump is not, by far, the first Republican to run for office on an anti-EPA, anti-climate change action platform. Ronald Reagan made removing environmental ‘over-regulation’ one of his key campaign objectives in the 1980s. Newt Gingrich led a Republican victory in the 1994 Congressional elections on the basis of his opposition to environmental action and its cost. And finally, George W. Bush’s reluctance to act on climate change saw him pull the US out of the Kyoto Protocol in the early 2000s.

What can we learn from these previous deregulatory attempts and their partial failures?

First, that environmental policy is not just made in Washington D.C. – for example, Klyza and Sousa argue the US ‘Green State’ is not only influenced by federal legislation (both environmental and non-environmental) but also by state-level action, by court cases, by implementation of both federal and state policies, by administrative decisions made by the administration and finally by self-regulation from industries.

Second, that these different sites are where policies can both be made and unmade. There are thus many ways in which one can weaken a given policy. It is possible to roll-back a policy, or remove it entirely through legislation. But when doing so is not possible, as Reagan, Gingrich or Bush all found out when failing to weaken Clean Air or Clean Water programs in Congress, there are other tactics. Politicians and others may pursue what Judith Layzer calls “low profile challenges”.[1] They can for example, target the implementation agency – which is often the EPA in the US (air, water pollution) or the Interior Department (for biodiversity) or the Energy Department (for renewables). Congress can also defund specific programs. The President can further appoint anti-regulation, climate-deniers to the head of the EPA – as Donald Trump is expected to do. The President can alternatively use executive orders – as President Obama did repeatedly – to bypass Congress and push for more ambitious environmental policy. But what one President can adopt by executive orders, another can rescind – as Donald Trump is expected to do. It is also possible to use the courts by for example by encouraging businesses to litigate, or refusing to appeal when these businesses win against the EPA.  Conversely, this also means that, despite Republican control of Congress and the Presidency, other sites remain open for environmental policy expansion – in some states, such as for example California, more ambitious climate policies could be adopted now.

Third, that policies are more than a series of specific instruments but are underpinned by narratives and weakened or strengthened by public perception. Over the last 40 years, US Conservatives have reshaped how we think about environmental policy – not just in the US, but in the EU and globally. Layzer contends that US Conservatives have thus “created a storyline that undermines the environmental narrative by discrediting environmentalists and furnishing a principled basis for disputing their claims”.[2] Examples of such principled opposition include calling for the respect for property rights (v. habitats protection), pointing to the costs of environmental action which increases tax burdens on the poor (rarely compared to its benefits), rejecting the precautionary principle as not based on ‘sound science’, or conversely rejecting said ‘science’ as conducted by scientists as ‘in it’ for the money.

Trump and his current attacks on the Paris Agreement are not just a US story but matter to the entire world – as evidenced by Chinese calls for continued US engagement in the Paris Agreement. But Trump’s victory should not be considered in isolation. When it comes to the environment, it marks in many ways the next step in decades of a US Conservative challenge to environmental policy. This challenge has already been successful in reframing what makes a ‘good’ environmental policy; and has rapidly moved from the fringes of US politics to the global mainstream of environmental politics – think for example of the Regulatory Fitness Checks conducted by the European Commission, or efforts to cut environmental ‘red tape’ by UK governments.

In conclusion, reviewing past challenges to US environmental policy shows that US Conservatives and the Republican Party have often failed to dismantle legislation through Congress – but have been much more effective at limiting administrative capacity for implementation (through cutting budget, nominating anti-regulatory advocates to the EPA). They have further been successful at reshaping how environmental policy, in the US and also globally, is perceived, even when out of office, stressing its cost, the ‘red tape’, the losers of regulations and casting doubts on the role of science. Under the Trump Administration, pro-environmental actors need to be fully aware of these different battle grounds – inside the legislature, inside the administration, across the different states and courts – as well as the battle of ideas. Shut out of Washington, it now falls on pro-Environmental actors to not only oppose and report on the future administration challenges to the environment, but also to redefine how they think and speak about environmental policies.


[1] Judith Layzer (2012), Open For Business: Conservatives’ Opposition to Environmental Regulation, MIT Press p. 334

[2] Ibid, p.333