The Clean Power Plan: Trump’s Executive Order Defies Public Opinion

This blog post is written by Sophie Wenzlau, third year law student at UC Davis.

On March 28, President Trump issued an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to gut the federal Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan is a pair of federal rules that set carbon emission standards for new and existing fossil fuel-fired power plants—the largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States (31 percent of U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions). If implemented, the rules would reduce carbon emissions from the power sector 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. These rules, adopted less than two years ago, ground the nation’s commitment under the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To amend or withdraw these rules, EPA must follow the complex notice-and-comment rulemaking process required by federal administrative law.

The purpose of Trump’s executive order, designed to revitalize the American coal industry, is to “eliminate federal overreach, restore economic freedom, and allow our companies and workers to thrive, compete, and succeed on a level playing field.” However, as critics have noted, market forces have made it hard for coal to compete with cheap natural gas and proliferating renewables; Trump’s executive order is unlikely to change that trend.

Although the Trump administration has not yet withdrawn from the Paris agreement, the executive order effectively tells the global community that the U.S. will renege on the commitment it made in 2015. Without the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. would have a very hard time meeting its commitment under the Paris agreement. Ultimately, this executive order could dampen international will to address climate change. Only time will tell.

As YPCCC Director Anthony Leiserowitz has said, “America’s history of controversy over climate change and the legal and political challenges to the Clean Power Plan might suggest that the nation is divided over regulating carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.” But, perhaps surprisingly, the nation is not divided. Nearly seven out of ten Americans (69%) support setting strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies would likely increase. In other words, over two-thirds of Americans support a key policy objective of the Clean Power Plan.

In fact, a majority of Americans in each state—including the twenty-seven states that sued to invalidate the Clean Power Plan—support strict carbon dioxide limits for existing coal-fired power plants, including nearly two-thirds (64.4%) of people in states that sued to invalidate the Clean Power Plan and almost half (48%) of Trump voters.[1]

At its heart, President Trump’s order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan defies public opinion. The public prefers regulating coal-fired power plants—and Trump does not. This reflects a broader theme: the Trump administration’s climate policies are generally out-of-step with public opinion. For example, President Trump has expressed interest in withdrawing from the Paris agreement, although 69 percent of registered voters and 47 percent of Trump voters say the U.S. should participate.

We can only speculate as to why the Trump administration’s climate policy is so disconnected from public opinion. The administration may be unaware of the data about public opinion and mistakenly assume that Americans are starkly divided on climate issues. Alternatively, it may mistrust the data or disregard it for political reasons.

Despite this disconnect, history and statistics suggest that most Americans will not protest Trump’s order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. Most Americans are and have historically been more concerned about other issues: voters in the 2016 presidential election were more concerned about the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, health care, gun policy, immigration, social security, education, Supreme Court appointments, treatment of minorities, and trade policy than about the environment. Further, few Americans think that climate change will harm them personally, most do not talk about the issue regularly, nor do they hear it discussed in the media, and only 5.4 percent participated or considered participating in a campaign to address climate change last year.

But the status quo can and might change. Under the Obama administration, Americans grew accustomed to a White House that accepted the science of climate change and advocated for domestic and international action. This federal action may have chilled public advocacy. Today, in contrast, the Trump administration’s indifference and even hostility towards climate policy could stimulate new levels of public concern, media coverage, and citizen action.

Americans on both sides of the aisle are growing more concerned about climate change. According to a Gallup poll, U.S. concern about climate change increased among all party groups and reached an eight-year high in 2016. A recent YPCCC report, Global Warming’s Six Americas and the Election, 2016, notes that the percentage of Americans who identify as “alarmed” about climate change grew from 13 to 17 percent between 2014 and 2016. If President Trump continues to dismantle federal climate programs, this percentage could grow higher.

Ultimately, the administration’s disregard for public opinion about climate change may inspire concerned citizens to participate in public protests, like the nationwide “March for Science” next month, and lobby elected representatives to adopt climate legislation. President Trump’s order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan could, perhaps, be the spark that becomes a blaze of public opposition to his administration’s stance on climate issues.

[1] This data comes from Yale’s U.S. Climate Opinion Maps, which depict estimates of the percentage of American adults who hold particular beliefs, attitudes, and policy preferences about global warming.