Solar panels on home rooftop

Past 4 Years of Federal Climate Policy ‘Waste of Valuable Time

The US’ official exit from the Paris Climate Agreement this November marked yet another disappointment for climate advocates, who have watched the Trump administration roll back dozens of Obama-era environmental policies.

They will look back on Trump-era climate policy “in horror, basically”, says Robert Glicksman, professor of environmental law at George Washington University. He cites deregulation, disinformation, and failure to retain climate experts in the government’s ranks as some of the worst setbacks.

Outside of the federal government, state and local officials raced forward in the fight against the climate crisis, contributing to a slight reduction in per capita emissions during Trump’s term. Still, the cooperation of the federal government is essential to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“We have a very active grassroots movement of tens of thousands of young people who are terrified for their future and who are ready to ensure that Joe Biden makes good on his Build Back Better plan that they voted for,” Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakasha told WBUR.

Trump-Era Rollbacks

In the past four years, Trump has attempted over 100 rollbacks of environmental policy. He has completed 84, according to a running tally by the New York Times.

Selected Climate Policy Rollbacks

  • Lowered Obama-era standards that required the average fuel economy of cars and trucks from 46.7 miles per gallon by 2025 to 40 mpg.
  • Replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce power sector emissions by 32% from 2005 to 2030, with the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which aims to reduce emissions by 0.7-1.5% within the same period.
  • Opened up public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, to oil and gas extraction.

During President Obama’s second term, from 2013 to 2016, per capita carbon emissions decreased by 0.9 metric tons. Since Trump took office in 2017, they have decreased by 0.3 metric tons as the rate of decrease has slowed.

The full effects of the Trump administration’s actions on climate change will not be felt for years to come, however. An independent analysis by Rhodium Group found the Trump administration’s climate policy rollbacks could contribute to an excess 1.8 billion gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2035.

Market Rejects Coal Despite Trump’s Promises

Despite campaign promises to bring back coal, Trump was not successful in leading a resurgence in the industry. The energy market dictated otherwise.

US coal-fired power output was 966,000 gigawatt-hours in 2019, the lowest level since 1976. That’s good news for the climate. Anthracite coal emits 228.6 pounds of CO2 per British thermal unit, nearly double the emissions of natural gas.

What’s behind this decline? In part, the price of alternatives to coal. The lower end of the average price per megawatt-hour of coal is $34, more expensive than natural gas, solar, and wind energy, according to a report by investment bank Lazard.

One Lazard banker told CBS News, “There are some scenarios, in some parts of the US, where it is cheaper to build and operate wind and solar than keep a coal plant running. You have seen coal plants shutting down because of this.”

In the past four years, state and local government policy — as well as changing market incentives — have helped mitigate the Trump administration’s hostile stance on reducing carbon emissions.

State and Local Government Action

State of California

  • Successfully cut emissions to 1990 levels in 2018
  • Committed to increasing electricity use from renewable sources to 50% of total consumption by 2026. It is now 36%.
  • Will require all new cars and trucks sold in the state to have net-zero emissions by 2035

City of Chattanooga, TN

  • Cut emissions by 25% in the past decade
  • Cut city government energy use by 30% by improving efficiency of buildings

City of South Miami, FL

  • Committed to 100% renewable energy by 2040
  • Required all new homes to be built with solar panels

“We’ve seen state and local governments taking a leadership role to fill in the void left by the federal government on environmental policy, especially related to climate change”, says Glicksman.

To cap it off, COVID-19 reduced global emissions in the first few months of 2020.

All this adds up to some progress despite pushback at the federal level.

Still, the missed opportunity to act is, in itself, a setback for climate advocates. “The United States and the world lost valuable time in the fight to avoid the worst consequences of climate change”, says Glicksman. To avoid blowing past the temperature targets set in the Paris accords, the US must act quickly.

What to Expect from the Biden Administration

In a landmark report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated the world must hit net zero emissions by 2050 to reduce global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Limiting warming to that threshold would reduce but not eliminate climate change impacts like extreme heat, ice cap melting, and sea level rise.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he supports a target of net-zero by 2050 as part of what pundits have called “the most aggressive plan to tackle climate change of any major party nominee.”

But there are limits to what he can accomplish without the aid of other branches of government. If the Democratic party fails to take control of the Senate, it could be difficult to pass ambitious legislation like the Green New Deal. And a conservative Supreme Court could curtail the power of federal agencies to impose environmental regulations.

“My concern … is not that the Biden administration is not going to work hard enough, but that its efforts will be thwarted,” says Glickman.

But just as Trump could torpedo environmental regulations with executive action, Biden could institute many policy changes to cut emissions through the power of the executive branch. He has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office.

After four years of damaging federal climate policy, there’s no time to waste.

Contact Your Reps

Let your elected representatives know where you stand on climate change. This tool from Datamade and the Participatory Budgeting Project can identify who your representatives are and provide contact information so you can speak your mind.

Communicating directly with your local, state, and federal representatives is one of the most effective ways to influence how government works. But one person can’t do it alone. Share this link with family and friends and urge them to make their views known.

Problem Addressed: Climate Change

Written by Ciara McLaren

Published on December 6, 2020

Feature image: Vivint Solar on Unsplash

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Professor Robert L. Glicksman, phone interview with Ciara McLaren, Nov 27, 2020

Jaclyn Diaz, “U.S. Faces Global Criticism For Ditching Paris Climate Deal”, NPR, Nov 4, 2020,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

Tonya Mosley and Alison Hagan, “Sunrise Movement Climate Activists Call On Biden To ‘Keep His Promises’”, WBUR, Nov 20, 2020,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka, and Kenra Pierre-Louis, “The Trump Administration Is Reversing More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List”, New York Times, Nov 10, 2020,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

David Shepardson, “Trump finalizes rollback of Obama-era vehicle fuel efficiency standards”, Reuters, March 31, 2020,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

Umair Irfan, “Trump’s EPA just replaced Obama’s signature climate policy with a much weaker rule”, Vox, Jun 19, 2020,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

“Monthly Energy Review”, Nov 2020, US Energy Information Administration,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

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Irina Ivanova, “It’s now cheaper to build a new wind farm than to keep a coal plant running”, CBS News, Nov 16, 2018,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

“Climate pollutants fall below 1990 levels for first time”, California Air Resources Board, Jul 11, 2018,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

Corinne Le Quéré, Robert B. Jackson, Matthew W. Jones, Adam J. P. Smith, Sam Abernethy, Robbie M. Andrew, Anthony J. De-Gol, David R. Willis, Yuli Shan, Josep G. Canadell, Pierre Friedlingstein, Felix Creutzig and Glen P. Peters, “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement”, Nature Climate Change, May 19, 2020,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

“Global Warming of 1.5ºC”, IPCC, 2018,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

“Climate Reregulation In a Biden Administration”, Columbia University Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Aug 2020,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

Jennifer Ludden, “Biden Will Face Major Limits To His Ambitious Climate Plans”, Nov 8, 2020, NPR,, accessed Nov 27, 2020

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