While states and cities affect progress in the fight against climate change, meeting the scale and urgency of the crisis requires a holistic nation-wide strategy that includes collaboration with international efforts. In other words, effective federal policy is essential and the executive branch has profound effects on our progress — or lack thereof — mitigating and adapting to climate change.
The President is the head of the Executive branch and this office is bestowed with many key powers. Among them is the implementation and enforcement of laws written by Congress. The President also chooses the Cabinet, the 15 heads of executive-level departments, including the Department of the Interior, under which falls the Environmental Protection Agency. He has the power to create regulations, a fundamental tool for curbing emissions, and the power to deregulate former regulations. The federal budget, also determined by the president, is a powerful tool which could be used in promoting sustainable engineering and energy practices.
During his last six years in office, Barack Obama flexed his executive powers to create numerous environmental regulations despite a Republican controlled Senate. While President Obama had a Democratic congressional majority his first two years in office, the immediacy of the 2008 economic crash distracted from the sweeping legislation to combat climate change that Obama had promised. When the Republicans took the Senate in 2010 leaving the Congress divided and paralyzed, Obama turned to executive orders to move the needle on climate change. He enacted rules to bring down emissions across the US economy and established more national monuments than any other president.
However, Obama’s reliance on executive power drew ire from his adversaries who argued sweeping regulations — like the Clean Power Plan, which expanded the 1970 Clean Air Act— exemplified an abuse of executive power. When the Republicans took the Presidency as well as the Senate in 2016, President Trump moved swiftly to deregulate Obama’s efforts. The very executive powers that allowed Obama to enact regulations helping to curb carbon emissions by nearly 10% between 2008 and 2015 allowed President Trump to strip those rules away.
In just three years, the Trump administration has already rolled back 70 environmental rules, with 30 more rollbacks in progress. This includes replacing the Clean Power Plan with a version that allows states to set their own rules, weakening fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for cars and trucks, and cancelling a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions . Ten Obama-era environmental rules that the Trump Administration attempted to reverse have been reinstated through lawsuits and other challenges. For example, the Trump Administration delayed publishing energy standards for household appliances but were forced to do so when environmental groups sued.
The Executive branch also plays a pivotal role in international diplomacy and has the potential to position the US as a leader in combatting climate change and moving towards resilience. For example, the Clinton Administration participated in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, the first international greenhouse gas reduction effort. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration effectively withdrew US four years later. Similarly, the US joined the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 during the Obama administration and withdrew just two years later — a decision made by President Trump that will take effect in November 2020.
With the 2020 election looming, politics more divisive than they have been in US history, and the climate balanced on a precarious tipping point, the future of the executive branch’s involvement in the climate crisis is uncertain but surely epochal.