Canada must carry through on environment policies
Especially as U.S. wavers on global commitments
The new administration of United States President Donald Trump is now engaged in a very public rejection of former president Barack Obama’s ambitious plans to address climate change. Trump is proposing to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan for the electricity sector, roll back vehicle fuel economy standards, and is moving forward with the approval of carbon intensive energy infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline.
In Canada, these developments are leading to demands from some sectors that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to pull back on its climate change plans, particularly the introduction of a national carbon pricing system. There are several powerful reasons why Trudeau should reject these pressures.
First, denying the existence of climate change, or its linkages to human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, will not make the physical reality a changing climate and its increasingly visible consequences for the United States and the rest of the world go away. The U.S. has already experienced extreme weather events and their effects, consistent with the projected impacts of climate change. Extensive flooding of coastal areas, for example, accompanied hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Secondly, undoing key elements of Obama’s climate change strategy may be much more difficult than Trump anticipates. Key elements of Obama’s plan are grounded in long-standing provisions of the U.S. federal Clean Air Act. These provisions require that the administration act on pollutants that are found to “endanger” the public health and welfare of human current and future generations. An “endangerment” finding regarding greenhouse gases, and requirements for action were embedded in the settlement of litigation between the administration of former president George W. Bush and twelve states, several cities, and non-governmental organizations.
Altering these arrangements would require amendments to the Clean Air Act. The Republicans may have the majority in the House of Representatives needed to pass such amendments. The U.S. Senate is a different story. There the Republicans are short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.
In the electricity sector, a key focus of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the movement away from coal is being driven by powerful economic and technological forces far beyond the measures adopted by Trump’s predecessor. The availability of cheap natural gas and increasingly cost competitive renewable energy sources, are playing at least as important a role in the declining use of coal in the U.S. On vehicle fuel economy, it is far from clear that all major automobile manufacturers would abandon the Obama administration’s requirements even if Trump weakens them.
Action on climate change seems likely to continue at the global level. Climate change policies are deeply embedded with the EU and many of its leading member states, particularly Germany. Those structures would take many years to undo, even if right-wing Trump sympathizers achieve some level of success in current European elections. Outside of Europe, other nations, who are increasingly conscious of the impacts of climate change, seem ready to move into the leadership vacuum being left by the United States. China has specifically signalled its interest in playing such a role.
Finally, recent public opinion polling has shown Canadians to be rejecting the environmental policies of the Trump administration by overwhelming margins. At the same time, support for the introduction of a national price on carbon remains solid, especially among the progressive voters who handed Trudeau his majority in 2015.
All of this suggests that the most prudent course of action for Trudeau, both economically and politically, is to carry through on his commitments to take action on climate change. Indeed, if Canada is to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and in the longer term prevent “dangerous” climate change, these efforts need to be intensified and expanded.