Trump's Second Term as President Would Plunge EPA into 'Alternate Universe'

A second term for Donald Trump would plunge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into an "alternate universe," an EPA veteran who worked under the Trump administration told Newsweek.

Trump has not formally announced that he will run for president in 2024, but he has hinted at this intention several times.

During his time in office, Trump was publicly skeptical of climate change efforts. The Trump administration rolled back nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations. This is something President Joe Biden—who plans to join other world leaders for climate change negotiations in Egypt later this week—is still working to undo.

The idea of Trump getting a second term is causing concern among climate scientists.

Composite of Donald Trump and Climate Change
In this combination image, Bidwell Bar Bridge is surrounded by fire in Lake Oroville during the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020, Donald Trump speaks at a Save America Rally to support on September 17, 2022 in Youngstown, Ohio and wreckage of a car teeters on a buckled roadway in the wake of Hurricane Ian on September 30, 2022 in Matlacha, Florida. Getty

"A second term for Trump would truly step the EPA into an alternate universe," Dan Costa, a former director of the Air, Climate and Energy Research Program at the EPA, told Newsweek.

"I would expect as in his past term that any impediment to unbridled profit would be obliterated. Addressing climate change is not simply a decision or series of decisions, but one that must be rooted in leadership from the top and the Congress. Congress is obviously split and who knows what's coming next session depending on the election?"

The Trump Administration said it "took strong action to protect the environment," in a White House release published in 2020.

"Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. EPA took numerous, substantive actions to clean up the air, increase access to clean drinking water, address legacy pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Mandy Gunasekara, a former chief of staff at the EPA during the Trump administration, told Newsweek.

"We achieved this while cutting red tape and regulatory costs, which proved a boon for the economy. Our focus was on fulfilling EPA's core mission and helping American communities and businesses grow. I imagine if we get a chance to do this again, we will follow the same, proven course."

Gunasekara said there were a few actions of note.

"We finalized four actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, including the first ever standard for aircraft. We initiated a serious review and improvement to the lead and copper rule for the first time in 30 years. We revamped efforts to improve domestic recycling, setting a 50% national recycling rate," she said.

Under Trump, the EPA deleted the highest number of superfund hazardous waste sites from a national priority list since the 2001 fiscal year, a total of 82 in four years which is equal to what the Obama administration did during eight years in office, she said, and it also released a federal strategy for tackling marine litter.

But environmentalists were not swayed and believe a second term would see more of the same on climate, if not worse.

In a second term, Trump would cancel "all U.S obligations on slowing climate change," Todd Belt, director of the George Washington University Political Management program, previously told Newsweek. Belt said Trump would also open natural gas and oil exploration, along with clean coal.

Gunasekara told Newsweek that such concerns over a second Trump term are "political rhetoric meant to gin up fear that has no place in environmental policy."

"We instituted balance and pragmatism which allowed for environmental improvements without wrecking the economy or forcing expensive, unreliable energy on American families," Gunasekara said. "Actions taken by the Biden Administration stand to undercut many of our improvements including their efforts to gut U.S. oil and gas, which makes us more reliant on dirtier foreign energy."

Newsweek has contacted Trump's office for comment.

Trump's Major EPA Upheaval

Costa, who had a 32-year career at the EPA, worked on its air, climate and energy research program during the Trump era. Costa recalled that "Trump folks simply did not care."

"There wasn't a difference of opinion in what levels for standards or policies which are always arguable. Rather, it was simply not caring one way or the other the implications or impacts of policies beyond removing any perceived obstacle to profit and power. [...] I would expect that back in spades once Trump gets his perceived mandate and vindication for 2020," he said.

When Trump assumed office in 2017, climate data was removed from the EPA website and every reference to the words "climate change" was wiped. Trump regularly proposed deep cuts in the EPA's annual budget but the cuts were resisted in Congress.

During his presidency, Trump reversed all of President Barack Obama's climate policies, including the EPA's Clean Power Plan. He also issued an extensive executive order on "Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth" which eliminated any external treaties imposed on the U.S. which would restrict energy production.

Trump's order said this was to "promote clean and safe development of [the United States'] vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation."

The U.S. Withdrawal From the Paris Agreement

EPA upheaval is not the only thing concerning climate experts. Michael B. Gerrard, director at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, told Newsweek that having done so in 2017, Trump would presumably withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement once again if he were voted in a second time.

"Another Trump presidency would destroy whatever credibility the U.S. has left in the international climate negotiations," Gerrard said. "The U.S. would have a status in the climate talks like the obstructionist countries Saudi Arabia or Russia."

Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement—a legally binding treaty struck in 2015 committing to reduce the impact of climate change—shortly after entering office.

This was ostensibly over concerns over the cost of switching to cleaner energy technologies to address climate change. In a June 2017 White House press statement, Trump said that "compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025."

But this did not sway environmentalists and other political leaders who strongly opposed the United States' withdrawal.

The U.S. pullout from the Paris accord angered other world leaders, including then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who expressed her disappointment at the move in a phone call to Trump, and Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who told Newsweek at the time that it was the most backward decision the U.S. had ever made.

Trump speaks in Sioux City, Iowa
A photo shows former U.S. President Donald Trump speaking during a campaign event at Sioux Gateway Airport on November 3, 2022 in Sioux City, Iowa. The former president has hinted at his intentions to take back the White House in 2024. Stephen Maturen/Getty

Fossil Fuels

Gerrard noted Trump's track record for promoting fossil fuels during his time in office.

"We're historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases," he said. "We need to drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Trump favors extracting as much as possible, and burning with few constraints. He sends exactly the wrong signals to the markets and to consumers."

As an example, the EPA under Trump's administration loosened methane regulations for the oil and gas industry in 2020, despite many businesses being in favor of them at the time. Former EPA Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler said the new rules would save $100 million a year from 2021 to 2030, Reuters reported.

Emissions declined during Trump's term in office. But this was a much slower decline when compared to Obama's time in office, data from Our World in Data shows.

During Obama's eight years in office, there was an 11 percent reduction in emissions from burning fossil fuels and cement production. When Trump came to power in 2017, the decline continued but slowed down. In three years, CO2 emissions declined by 0.5 percent while coal use declined only by three percent.

Biden is working to undo many of Trump's relaxed rules on fossil fuels. But Gerrard said it remains a struggle.

"The Trump presidency saw many of the best federal employees fleeing their jobs in horror or disgust. The Biden administration is now struggling to rebuild the federal workforce that is needed to issue the permits, advance new technologies, and otherwise do the essential work of building a clean energy economy. Even the threat of his return is making that harder," Gerrard said.

Fuel Efficiency Standards

In 2020, Trump weakened the fuel efficiency standards that required automakers to meet ambitious gas and emissions requirements. It was considered one of the nation's most important policies in the fight against climate change.

The standards, originally set up by Obama in 2012, were changed so that automakers only had to make 1.5 percent increases in efficiency through 2026. This was a decrease from the previous 5 percent set out by Obama. The Trump administration said at the time that this would save automakers billions in compliance costs.

The move landed the Trump administration in a battle with California, which pushed back on the changes.

"[During the Trump era] we saw efforts at the federal level to weaken or roll back environmental regulations that were taking meaningful steps to address the climate problem, like the administration's revocation of California's waiver to set greenhouse gas emission standards for cars," Julia Stein, environmental law expert at the UCLA School of Law, and deputy director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change & the Environment, told Newsweek.

"That example was particularly notable because it was unprecedented in the 50-plus year history of the Clean Air Act. It's well-recognized that California has the authority to set its own standards in this space, and that the federal government is supposed to defer to California's determination unless some truly extraordinary circumstances exist, none of which applied."

Stein said that this is just one example, but it illustrates the "damage that can be done by a presidential administration hostile to climate efforts."

"There wasn't just inaction at the federal level, but true animosity toward states and local governments that were trying to forge ahead on climate change, which was very problematic: In a universe where the federal government isn't responding adequately to the crisis, all we have to fall back on are subnational efforts."

"In a second Trump presidency, I think it's fair to expect that we would see more of the same on climate. That would mean real setbacks in efforts to reduce emissions, hostility toward state actors who are advancing the ball (regulation of diesel truck emissions, for example, could be a battleground), and real-time health harms to thousands of Americans.

"It would also likely mean a failure of U.S. leadership on climate internationally at a time when we can't afford to take a step back," Stein said.