President Donald Trump just signed an executive order to halt the federal government’s efforts to fight climate change. That means that, with the stroke of a pen, Trump is putting the health and well-being of the future generations in danger — in the US and around the world — for an executive order that won’t change energy markets much and probably won’t bring back many jobs.
The so-called Energy Independence executive order targets the Clean Power Plan, or CPP, a core climate change policy passed under President Barack Obama that aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. It also undoes several of Obama’s executive orders and memorandums to fight global warming, including a temporary moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal lands.
“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said before signing the executive order, surrounded by a group of miners. “With today’s executive action, I’m taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations.”
The Clean Power Plan ordered fossil fuel-fired power plants, which are the largest concentrated source of CO2 emissions in the US, to cut carbon pollution by about 30 percent by 2030. By reducing carbon pollution, 2,700 to 6,600 people would avoid premature deaths, and there would be 140,000 to 150,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The regulations would also lead to an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion per year in 2030 in climate and health benefits.
“The rollback of the Clean Power Plan not only imperils the planet's future climate but will have life-and-death consequences for millions of Americans here and now,” Ken Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement. “Shamefully, the brunt of the harm from this foolish retreat from science and reason will be borne by our children.”
Allowing more coal extraction on federal land and canceling, or even delaying, the implementation of the CPP will endanger future generations. That’s not just because rising sea levels will flood our coasts, where 40 percent of the US population lives. Climate change will have serious health consequences — especially on children, the elderly, and poor people. Warming temperatures help boost outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, as mosquitoes expand their range. Heat waves will become more common and more deadly. And more extreme weather events, like hurricanes and tornadoes, will bring death and destruction.
And it’s not just in the US. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is projected to cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year from heat stress, malnutrition, malaria, and other infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Drought and famine are already ravaging several African nations.
“This is a public health crisis of the first order,” David Doniger, the director of the Climate & Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells The Verge. “The Trump administration wants to wreck American health care. This is also a way to harm Americans’ health.”
Today’s executive order doesn’t dismantle the CPP just yet — the policy was finalized under Obama, and can’t be eliminated with the stroke of a pen. Rather, it instructs the EPA to begin the process of reviewing and reversing the CPP, which could take years. The administration has to publish a proposal saying what’s changing and why, open a period of public comment, and then respond to those comments. “Basically, the CPP will be on the books for a while, while the EPA muddles through the process to undo it,” Maria Belenky, director of policy and research at Climate Advisers, writes in an email to The Verge. “Now, that said, there will obviously be no enforcement.”
The Trump administration will find opposition from environmental groups, which have vowed to fight back in the courts. The Natural Resources Defense Council is already ready to sue, says Doniger. Litigation in the courts will delay the complete dismantling of the CPP, but it will also delay its much-needed enforcement. The order itself may be a bunch of hot air, as cheap natural gas — which pollutes less than coal — and cheaper renewable energy are increasingly competitive, Doniger says. If it’s cheaper to use greener fuel, relaxing regulations on coal may be meaningless. So despite what Trump says, experts are saying that coal jobs aren’t coming back. But “the climate problem is extremely serious and we need to move even faster,” Doniger says.
Unfortunately, today’s executive order goes in the wrong direction. “The new headline should be ‘Trump to Future Generations: Drop Dead,’” Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, writes in an email to The Verge. “These orders aim both to maximize future greenhouse gas emissions, and to halt efforts to prepare for the climate change that is coming. His budget also aims to cut off support for scientific research to find causes and solutions. This is a true trifecta of ways to endanger our grandchildren.”