6 ways Trump’s re-election will worsen the climate crisis

Black silhouette against sunset sky of man on left side of screen facing several belching smokestacks

Modified from original photos by Nathan Congleton, Flickr (Trump) and Mason Cummings, TWS (landscape and smokestacks)

Drilling and fossil fuel focus unlikely to let up

Right now, climate change is winning. Global temperatures are rising and humans are largely to blame. Super-charged extreme weather disasters like wildfires and hurricanes are illustrating the consequences of the trend more starkly every day. Meanwhile, President Trump keeps on spinning lies about the sciencecutting environmental safeguards and doing everything possible to boost the short-term prospects of his pals in the fossil fuel industry--no matter how it will affect the rest of us.   

But there is at least one piece of positive news on offer: people notice. A majority of registered voters now say climate change will be at least a “somewhat important” issue informing their choice in the 2020 election. Challenger Joe Biden has a prime opportunity to speak to those climate-concerned voters, including some who supported Trump back in 2016, and highlight not only his own ambitious climate plan to get the U.S. to net-zero emissions by 2050, but the horrible toll of Trump’s anti-science “climate arsonist” approach. 

Any honest evaluation of Trump’s record and likely path forward shows that if re-elected, he will make the climate crisis even worse, including locking in some far-reaching and irreversible changes. Below we’ll take a look at just a few ways his second term in office would likely spell climate disaster. 

If re-elected, Trump will... 

1. Keep drilling and mining on public lands

Nearly one-quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels that were drilled or mined on public lands and waters. From practically the moment he was inaugurated, Trump has fed that trend. Within weeks of entering the White House he lifted a moratorium on new coal leasing on public lands, the first chapter of an ongoing fire sale to oil, gas and coal producers that shows no sign of letting up. Trump’s Department of the Interior has issued fossil fuel leases at rock-bottom rates, concocted ways for oil and gas companies to more easily avoid making royalty payments and seized on the COVID-19 pandemic to push drilling near cherished national parks. In recent weeks, the Trump administration even released a decision that officially opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, based in part on an “unsupported” argument that oil extracted there won’t majorly affect greenhouse gas emissions. All told, fossil fuels extracted from public lands leased under Trump could generate more than 4.7 billion metric tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. 

On the other side of the ledger, Biden has said he that if elected, he would move to ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters. In addition to cutting fossil fuel use and emissions in its own right, it’s likely such a policy would send a strong symbolic and market signal and spur further improvements elsewhere. He would also work to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reversing Trump attacks. 

2. Try to artificially prop up dirty coal power

Coal is dying out in the U.S., and much work remains to ensure ex-coal miners can adapt and find new work in its wake. But even in its weakened state, the burning of coal to generate electricity accounts for a huge share of greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change (not to mention air pollution linked to asthma, cancer and other illnesses). It’s dirty, it’s heating the planet and its extinction is overdue. 

Trump doesn’t care about any of that. He cares about doing the bidding of powerful coal executives and scoring political points. That’s why one of his most cherished energy policy projects has been artificially propping up the coal industry, whether by supplanting President Obama’s Clean Power Plan with a polluter-friendly alternative, rolling back rules meant to reduce coal ash and toxic coal wastewater, or undercutting the legal basis to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Even though experts say nothing Trump can do will actually reverse coal’s long term market-driven decline, there is little doubt that if returned to the White House, he’ll keep pushing dangerous measures to that end, increasing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as he slashes environmental rules. Biden’s climate plan, meanwhile, would necessarily entail a reduction of coal use while developing programs to help formerly coal-dependent communities find a new way forward while protecting health and retirement benefits. 

3. Hamper renewable energy development

It's practically the inverse of coal’s long-term death spiral and present favored status: renewable energy is considered to have a very healthy future, but President Trump has a long record of antagonism toward it and his administration has likely stunted its progress. The latter efforts have included big budget cuts to federal renewable energy programs, tariffs on solar componentscharging retroactive rent to wind and solar producers and a failure to hold competitive renewable energy lease sales on public lands—all while continuing to bail out and subsidize fossil fuels. Even though Trump can’t kill renewable energy in the long run, he can slow its progress, eating up valuable time while scientists say we only have a few years left to avert the worst effects of climate change. 

Biden has said he will prioritize developing renewable energy on public lands and waters (a great untapped resource) as well as more broadly, with an eye toward completely eliminating carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035. 

4. Further gut protections for wild nature, our ally in trapping emissions

In addition to cutting fossil fuel development and increasing renewable energy investments, our goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions requires restoring and protecting landscapes to absorb climate emissions and help communities and species adapt. Unsurprisingly, Trump has done precisely the opposite. A prime example: the recent Trump administration plan that sets the stage for the federal government to open millions of acres of Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging and development, threatening to severely weaken a landscape that has been hailed as a carbon-trapping secret weapon in the battle against climate change. If elected, Biden could reverse that Tongass rule, and he has said he embraces plans to protect 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by the year 2030.  

5. Make cars and trucks guzzle more gas

Most U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. Among Trump’s big efforts to tear down the Obama administration’s climate and energy accomplishments was rolling back Obama fuel efficiency standards, a move experts say could lead to hundreds of millions’ more tons of carbon emissions from automobiles sold over the next decade. Besides that, the auto industry, alleged beneficiary of the plan, has been uneasy about Trump’s fractious and legally questionable approach, which could force them to sell different cars in different parts of the country. And there’s still more damage Trump could do: In 2019, judges overturned the administration’s attempt to suspend penalties on automakers that fail to meet fuel standards, but with another term and more Trump-friendly judges installed, he could get another shot at it, and another shot at disincentivizing cleaner, more efficient cars and trucks.  

Biden has said he will take various actions to make cars more efficient and move the entire industry toward a cleaner future, including by beefing up fuel economy standards again, helping to deploy a more robust electric charging-station infrastructure in the U.S. and restoring the electric vehicle tax credit.  

6. Unravel international cooperation

The U.S. will be able to officially leave the Paris climate agreement one day after the 2020 election, and if Trump is re-elected, that exit will be more or less set in stone. By contrast, Joe Biden has said that if he is elected, he will re-enter the agreement and commit to more ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction goals than those in the treaty. If and when Trump makes the American exit official, it could provide cover to other major-polluter nations to cut corners on their own emissions reduction efforts. It would also stand as one more example of Trump’s Withdrawal Doctrine, a pattern that has seen the federal government embrace nativism and repeatedly abdicate its role as a global leader and trend-setter, sowing chaos where unity and cooperation are sorely needed.