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A second Trump term could slow the shift from fossil fuels as climate threats grow

A man uses an umbrella at a campaign rally for former President Donald Trump on June 9 in Las Vegas, where temperatures climbed above 100 degrees.
Ian Maule
AFP via Getty
A man uses an umbrella at a campaign rally for former President Donald Trump on June 9 in Las Vegas, where temperatures climbed above 100 degrees.

When Donald Trump held a town hall recently in Phoenix, 11 people were treated for heat exhaustion amid record 113-degree temperatures. Some lay on stretchers, hooked to IV bags. That didn’t stop Trump from railing as he often does against wind turbines and electric vehicles — technologies experts say would curb climate pollution and prevent the kind of extreme heat that laid out his supporters.

For years, Trump has cast doubt on the scientific consensus that the Earth is getting hotter mainly because of burning fossil fuels. Recently, he dismissed the threat of rising sea levels. And Trump told fossil fuel executives they should raise $1 billion for his presidential campaign because he would roll back environmental regulations and unleash oil and gas drilling.

Meanwhile, conservative activists, including former Trump administration officials, have formed an ambitious presidential transition operation called Project 2025. It calls for abolishing federal programs that address climate change and repealing Biden administration-backed laws that give billions in funding and tax incentives for corporations and communities to adopt renewable energy.

“For companies with technologies that rely on government tax credits, yes, they should be very worried,” says Diana Furchtgott-Roth, director of the Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that produced Project 2025’s governing agenda, “Mandate for Leadership.”

Armed with such an agenda, a second Trump term could slow the country’s shift away from fossil fuels. But it probably won’t entirely halt the transition to renewable energy, industry analysts and researchers say. That’s because the costs for a lot of those technologies are falling fast, they say. Companies are seeing financial benefits in cutting emissions. And states led by Democrats and Republicans alike are reaping economic benefits from new factories and power plants.

Still, any delay in reducing climate pollution poses risks, because the world needs to move much faster than it is now to rein in the worsening effects of global warming, scientists say. Last year was the hottest on record, and the next decade will probably be even hotter, research shows. And that warming brings heat waves, storms and wildfires that displace, sicken and kill thousands of people worldwide, including Americans.

“The potential widespread harm that can emerge as a result of another decade of confusion and disorganization — it's hard to articulate the magnitude of those costs to society,” says Solomon Hsiang, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In response to questions for this story, the Trump campaign provided a statement by senior advisor Brian Hughes saying Trump would make the country energy independent. “President Trump is committed to unleashing American energy sources like coal, oil, and gas to ensure affordability for families and security in the world by making us a more self-sufficient nation,” Hughes said.

A woman is treated for heat exhaustion as supporters lined up for a Trump town hall in Phoenix, Arizona, on June 6.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty
AFP via Getty
A woman is treated for heat exhaustion as supporters lined up for a Trump town hall in Phoenix, Arizona, on June 6.

Conservatives prepare for a second Trump term

Since Trump left office in 2021, conservative activists have worked to create a political apparatus for his return to the White House.

The idea behind Project 2025 and similar initiatives is to “gear up and be prepared, both in terms of personnel but also policy vision,” says Quill Robinson, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank, and a senior advisor at a conservative environmental group called ConservAmerica.

Project 2025 is a nearly 1,000-page document that calls for remaking nearly the entire federal government, with a central goal of expanding presidential power. From abolishing the Education Department to overhauling the Justice Department to limit its independence, the plan represents a sweeping effort “to rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left.”

Although it’s garnered the most attention, Project 2025 is one of several conservative policy proposals Trump is expected to choose from if he’s reelected.

The plan minimizes threats from global warming, and its policy proposals are designed to bring about a “whole-of-government unwinding” of the Biden administration’s climate strategy.

“The people who put that [plan] together believe that America has given up its energy dominance, brought about primarily by hydrocarbons, fossil fuels,” says Brigham McCown, director of the Initiative on American Energy Security at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. “And so they want to see a return to that.”

Despite Biden’s focus on limiting climate change, the U.S. has produced and exported a record amount of oil under his administration. Furchtgott-Roth of the Heritage Foundation says that with different policies, the country could produce even more.

Project 2025 says the next conservative administration needs to “stop the war on oil and natural gas” and support an “all of the above'' energy policy. The plan’s recommendations include:

  • Preventing federal regulators from considering the economic impact of carbon emissions;
  • Abolishing the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Loan Programs Office, which funds cutting-edge energy and manufacturing projects;
  • Eliminating energy efficiency standards for appliances;
  • Ending subsidies for electric vehicles;
  • Withdrawing the country from initiatives for sustainable food production;
  • And rescinding climate policies from foreign aid programs.

The plan also calls for repealing Biden’s signature climate initiatives: the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The laws signed by Biden put more than $500 billion toward climate action and are packed with funding for the manufacture and use of technologies that cut planet-heating emissions. They represent the biggest public investments in “clean energy and transportation” in U.S. history, according to analysts at the Rhodium Group, with the potential to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 42% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

Furchtgott-Roth says the incentives are a wasteful handout to corporations. “I think we should roll back these energy subsidies, let the chips fall where they may, and allow people to choose the least-expensive electricity options that meet their needs,” she says.

The goal, Furchtgott-Roth says, is for “America to be independent, use its sources of domestic energy and continue with the path to cleaner air.”

Trump reshaped the Supreme Court in his first term to create a 6 to 3 conservative supermajority, arguably Trump’s most potent climate legacy.
Mandl Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Trump reshaped the Supreme Court in his first term to create a 6 to 3 conservative supermajority, arguably Trump’s most potent climate legacy.

Looking back at the first term to gauge a second Trump administration

Even with road maps like Project 2025 at his fingertips, it’s hard to know what Trump would do in a second term.

He’s “unpredictable,” says Robinson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While Trump has mocked recent clean-energy spending as a “green new scam,” Robinson says investments the country is making in manufacturing through the Inflation Reduction Act seem like they’d appeal to Trump.

“If there’s a deal to be made and there are jobs at stake, from a populist standpoint, he’s for it,” says McCown of the Hudson Institute.

Ultimately, McCown says a second Trump administration would be shaped by whomever Trump surrounds himself with. Trump has “certain ideas,” McCown says, “but when it comes to the policies, the implementation, the actual strategy, a lot of that, I think, is going to be left to their cabinet officials to do and to other people. Because he's a 30,000-foot guy.”

During Trump's first term, his administration rolled back dozens of environmental protections, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change; tried to weaken regulations on power plant emissions; opened part of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development; and eased a rule that was designed to reduce polluted wastewater from coal plants.

If Trump’s reelected, environmental groups will almost certainly file lawsuits challenging the administration’s actions. Some of those cases could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which Trump reshaped in his first term to create a 6 to 3 conservative supermajority.

While the conservative justices diverge on some rulings, their decisions regarding the environment have curtailed the federal government’s authority to protect it, making the Supreme Court arguably Trump’s most potent climate legacy.

In 2022, the Supreme Court limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. And last year, it curtailed the EPA’s authority over wetlands, which improve water quality and reduce flood risks. Now, allies of the fossil fuel industry are pressing the court to side with oil and gas companies in a climate lawsuit that could cost them billions of dollars.

Trump has said that if he’s reelected, he’d try to block lawsuits that attempt to hold the oil and gas industry responsible for some of the damages from global warming.

Workers install solar panels on AltaSea's research and development facility at the Port of Los Angeles in California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images / Getty Images North America
Getty Images North America
Workers install solar panels on AltaSea's research and development facility at the Port of Los Angeles in California.

The election’s about the ‘pace of change’

Despite all that, Trump would be hard pressed to steer U.S. energy markets in a completely different direction, or to change how companies approach climate change.

For starters, U.S. oil and gas production is influenced by global prices: Companies drill more when prices are high and less when they’re low. U.S. presidents have very little sway over those corporate decisions and, ultimately, fuel prices.

“There's no magic spigot to turn on overnight,” says McCown of the Hudson Institute.

It’s also unlikely that Congress would repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, say analysts like David Brown, director of the energy transition practice at Wood Mackenzie, a research firm. Republicans’ unsuccessful push to overturn President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act underscores how hard it is to undo legislation. And a big chunk of the money in the Inflation Reduction Act is flowing to red states.

In a recent survey, 62% of registered voters said they’d prefer to vote for a politician who supports action on global warming, and 63% said developing sources of clean energy should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress. The polling was done this spring by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

“I don't see [Trump] spending his political capital on pulling the rug out from under new EV manufacturing in states like South Carolina and Georgia and Tennessee,” Robinson says. “That just doesn't politically make sense.”

Energy analysts say companies making those kinds of investments are committed to reducing emissions. Many move slower than activists would like, and some have delayed plans to reassess their strategies. But they’re under pressure to take action from their customers and investors, who are feeling the impacts of climate change in their own lives.

“Climate change is not abstract anymore,” says Geoff Gisler, who oversees legal work at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And the connection between how we get our energy and the consequences of climate change, I think it's a very real, tangible thing to folks.”

Many corporations have also concluded that transitioning away from fossil fuels is good for their bottom lines, because there are “demonstrated savings” from renewable energy, Brown says.

John Ketchum, chief executive of NextEra Energy, said in an interview with Bloomberg News in June that he expects renewable energy will be used to meet the bulk of rising U.S. power demand in the coming decades, partly because natural gas plants are more expensive. NextEra owns one of America’s largest utilities, which used natural gas to generate about three-quarters of its electricity last year. But NextEra’s investments have also placed it among the world’s biggest renewable energy companies.

Meanwhile, actions Trump might take to aid fossil fuel companies could help other parts of the energy industry, as well. For example, Republicans want to overhaul environmental permitting to make it easier to build things like oil and gas pipelines. Easing regulations could also speed construction of wind and solar projects.

This election is about the “pace of change” in the energy industry, and how fast the country can cut emissions in the coming decades, says Brown of Wood Mackenzie.

If Trump is reelected, Wood Mackenzie expects the U.S. would move more slowly in reducing carbon pollution, but it wouldn’t stop. “It does not mean that you stop electrification or you stop retiring coal plants or electric vehicles are a thing of the past starting with the next administration, if it's a Trump administration,” Brown says.

A rancher reconnects a fence after tending to cattle as the Aero Fire burns in Calaveras County, Calif., in June 2024. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Noah Berger/AP / FR34727 AP
FR34727 AP
A rancher reconnects a fence after tending to cattle as the Aero Fire burns in Calaveras County, Calif., in June 2024. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Limiting warming will take decades

Yet a potential slowdown in U.S. climate action would come at a time of worsening disasters fueled by global warming.

This year will be among the five hottest. As the Earth warms, heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe, taking a big toll on people’s health. Scientists say that trend will continue as long as humans keep releasing greenhouse gasses, largely from using fossil fuels. The kind of sweltering heat that sickened Trump supporters in Phoenix is a hallmark of human-caused climate change.

The United Nations says the world needs to cut or offset all carbon pollution by midcentury to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to temperatures in the late 1800s. Beyond that point, scientists say the impacts of climate change could get even more dangerous for people and critical ecosystems than what’s already happened.

To meet such a huge challenge, countries need to act now to lay the groundwork for a massive buildout of clean energy in the coming decades, says Brown of Wood Mackenzie.

“What happens in the next five years really matters from a long-term perspective in terms of reaching climate goals,” he says.

Waiting will increase global warming’s costs on society, says Hsiang of the University of California, Berkeley. Some are obvious: Lives and property lost to floods and wildfires. Others are often overlooked because they aren’t as striking, Hsiang says. Like the rise in violence that researchers have observed in extreme heat, or children learning less when temperatures soar.

"It's like a million small things that when they add up and accumulate, they lead to just a totally different world,” Hsiang says. “It's not just like some disaster that we muscle through and then afterward, we're okay on the other side.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.