Trump makes major change to US climate change narrative

coal fired power Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Coal fired power plants like this one faced restrictions under President Obama

"This is, I think, one of the most historic attacks on climate and environmental action that the US has ever seen," said Liz Perera from the Sierra Club.

Her words are certain to cheer Trump supporters everywhere.

Green "job-killing" regulations limiting energy production have long been a red rag for Donald Trump, as candidate and President.

His new energy independence executive order seeks to radically change the US narrative on climate change, its causes and its importance. The best way of fighting global warming according to the new outline is to create prosperity. Environmental regulation should be about air and water. CO2, in this light, is your friend.

Supporters believe that cutting back Obama climate regulations will create thousands of jobs in the newly liberated oil and gas industries.

His opponents agree the new order will be a job creator - but they'll be jobs for lawyers, not in the coal fields.

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Image caption President Trump plans may reduce regulations on coal but can't guarantee jobs

Front and centre is practical action on the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Obama project to cut fossil fuels from electricity production. Although it has long been tied up in the courts, the CPP will be left to fester there while the new administration comes up with a much weaker replacement.

"Undoing the rule will not be straightforward," said Prof Bruce Huber, from the Notre Dame law school.

"For the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reverse course, it will have to propose a new rule, with all the lengthy procedures that entails. When President George W Bush tried to reverse course on some of President Clinton's signature environmental regulations, those efforts took years and were not entirely successful."

In terms of coal, the new executive order will allow the Department of the Interior to lift a moratorium on the sale of new coal leases on federal lands. However, boosting coal as a source of energy, and jobs, will be very difficult.

Many coal plants have shut down not because of Obama's carbon restrictions but because of mercury pollution associated with burning the fuel. Thanks to fracking, cheap natural gas has soared as a source of power generation, and renewables are taking an every bigger share.

Former State department climate adviser Andrew Light now works for the World Resources Institute. Both of his grandfathers were coal miners.

"They were paid by the tonne for the coal they pulled out of the ground, but those jobs are gone, and technology has moved beyond that and I hope it's the case that voters in the coal states will recognise that their jobs aren't magically coming back because of this executive order," he told BBC News.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption EPA administrator Scott Pruitt says that CO2 is not a primary contributor to global warming

President Obama sought to put consideration of climate change at the heart of all government policy - but by revising the social cost of carbon measure and encouraging an immediate government review of all rules that inhibit energy production, President Trump is signalling a change in the widely held philosophy that CO2 is the enemy, the main driver of climate change.

While rolling back Obama era ideas like the role of climate change in national security, or how climate change should be considered in relation to the National Environmental Policy Act, the Trump plan does not directly attack the key finding on which much of America's carbon restrictions are based.

Back in 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide gas was a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

In response, the EPA ruled in 2009 that CO2 and other gases were responsible for contributing to climate change which results in a threat to the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

This "endangerment finding" compels the federal government to regulate emissions of CO2. And according to some environmentalists, this finding is the solid rock that Trump's plans will be dashed against.

"The law of the land is that CO2 endangers my public health and welfare," said Liz Perera from the Sierra Club.

"So they have to regulate it. What they are doing now is saying that all the Obama regulations were wrong but that means they are going to have to put something forward in their place and by the law it has to be adequate or we can sue them every step of the way."

Other experts believe that the ultimate goal of this executive order will be to overturn the Supreme Court ruling on CO2 as a pollutant.

They believe that the declaration of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt that CO2 was not a "primary contributor" to climate change is instructive of the direction of travel.

"It is fundamental," said Andrew Light. "I believe that Scott Pruitt wants to go after the endangerment finding. Their argument is that climate change exists, but it is not the case that humans are causing it.

"It is the endangerment finding that draws that tight connection between the fact that humans are making it and the fact that global warming is happening. Once you destabilise that point then you can go for the endangerment finding. That would be the biggest win they could get."

But Liz Perera, for one, believes that won't happen.

"We have the economics on our side, we have the market on our side, we have the public on our side, and we have the law on our side - that this is endangering public health and welfare. They can't change any of those things."

But in many ways, extended court battles are exactly what President Trump and the fossil fuel lobby are looking for.

"Delay is what they want," one green source told me. "Delay is winning."

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