The Trump administration formally proposed on Tuesday to roll back yet another of President Barack Obama’s efforts to position the United States as a global leader in the fight against climate change. The move, though widely anticipated, was deeply disheartening. In March Mr. Trump ordered Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which was aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Mr. Pruitt, a climate denier closely tied to the fossil fuel industry, was only too happy to oblige — boasting to an audience of Kentucky coal miners on Monday that the plan was dead and that “the war on coal is over.”
All this is infuriating on several levels.
It repeated the same false narrative that congressional Republicans have been peddling for years and that Mr. Trump’s minions are peddling now — that environmental regulations are job killers, that restraining greenhouse gas emissions will damage the economy, that the way forward lies in digging more coal and punching more holes in the ground in the search for oil.
It reaffirmed the administration’s blind loyalty to dirtier energy sources, ignoring the pleas of corporate leaders who know that economic momentum and new investment lie with cleaner sources of energy, and fear that without innovation their costs will rise and their competitive edge over foreign countries will be lost.
It repudiated the rock-solid scientific consensus that without swift action the consequences of climate change — widespread species extinction, more devastating droughts, more Harveys and Irmas and wildfires like those now raging in Northern California — will become more likely.
It offered, on a human level, more empty promises to the frightened miners who keep showing up to hear Mr. Pruitt say that coal is coming back, when any comeback is unlikely not because of regulation but because of powerful market forces favoring natural gas and renewables.
And it gave us another reminder that Mr. Trump is hellbent on abdicating the leadership on climate change Mr. Obama worked so hard to achieve — first with a suite of regulatory measures and then by making an emissions-reduction pledge at the 2015 Paris climate summit meeting strong enough to induce 194 other nations to sign on to what had all the makings of a historic global agreement.
Under that agreement, nations submitted voluntary pledges to curb their emissions in the near term and to ratchet up their efforts in the future; the idea was to limit the rise in global warming to well below two degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. To that end, Mr. Obama promised that the United States, which accounts for one-fifth of the world’s emissions, would lower its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The administration later published a report sketching out various technological pathways to cutting emissions 80 percent or more by 2050.
Then along came Mr. Trump, who in March ordered the destruction or delay of nearly every building block that supported Mr. Obama’s pledge — rules aimed at increasing fuel efficiency of cars and trucks; rules aimed at limiting emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from oil and gas wells; rules aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of appliances; and most important of all, the Clean Power Plan. Not long afterward, Mr. Trump commanded his secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, to reverse Mr. Obama’s efforts to limit oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters and on sensitive federal lands, a task to which Mr. Zinke has fallen with great enthusiasm and which, if successful, will further increase the carbon emissions the world is trying to limit.
Given all these orders, Mr. Trump’s decision in June to withdraw from the Paris agreement, though deeply demoralizing to the entire world, seemed in practical terms almost superfluous.
Some experts say that all is not lost, that it is still possible for the United States to hit its Paris targets. Aggressive state and local policies as well as market forces and technological improvements have already reduced emissions about 12 percent below 2005 levels. These include a huge switch to gas from coal, which once supplied more than half the country’s electricity and now supplies only a third; the steadily dropping cost of wind and solar energy; and more efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances. Further progress along these lines, without any federal help, could yield a total emissions reduction of 15 to 19 percent. One particularly bright note is that many states, including California and New York, are already moving ahead of the targets set by the Clean Power Plan.
Those same experts, however, also concede that federal help is crucial, both in limiting emissions from existing sources and in promoting alternative fuels and new technologies. This administration shows no interest in either. Mr. Pruitt, in fact, used the occasion of his triumphant dismissal of the Clean Power Plan to say he would love to get rid of the federal subsidies that have been and remain vital to the development of wind and solar power, while saying nary a word about the lavish subsidies for the oil industry.
Like some of Mr. Trump’s other rollbacks, the power plant decision will be fought in court by some states and by environmental groups. The E.P.A. is required by law to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in some fashion, but so far Mr. Pruitt has not proposed a substitute plan. The betting is that if he does, it won’t amount to much, surely not the closing of any coal-fired plants. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s measures lie in tatters, along with Mr. Trump’s claims to leadership.