Donald Trump, our new president, has vowed to dismantle many of the environmental policies passed under President Barack Obama. But for the next four years, when it comes to climate policy, the place to watch isn't the White House — it's the courtroom.
For the past eight years, Obama has positioned himself as a global leader in the fight against climate change. At home, he's passed regulations to lower emissions of greenhouse gases from cars and plants, he's boosted renewable energy, and set new records for protecting public land. On the international level, Obama has spearheaded global climate deals like the Paris accord, signing bilateral agreements with top polluters like China to reduce CO2 emissions.
But all that is now in peril. Trump's pick for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is Scott Pruitt, a man who's questioned the scientific evidence of human-made climate change. His transition team has sent an intimidating questionnaire to the Department of Energy asking for the names of employees who worked on climate policy (the Energy Department refused and Trump's later disavowed the questionnaire). He has picked Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. And he has vowed to dismantle one of Obama's signature environmental policies in his first 100 days in office.
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Environmental groups are already gearing up to fight any anti-climate action, and attorneys general from several states have vowed to bring the Trump administration to court. That's where much of the fight over climate change and the environment is going to happen, likely for years to come. It's hard to predict what the outcomes will be. Trump is set to nominate a new Supreme Court justice, as well as fill in more than 100 judicial vacancies all over the US.
The courts will "really decide the extent to which the Obama legacy is maintained or rolled back," says Maria Belenky, director of policy and research at Climate Advisers. "The courts are the area of last resorts for a lot of environmental groups and a lot of states that have supported the Obama administration's agenda."
The Clean Power Plan, or CPP, is the core of Obama's plan to reduce CO2 emissions to curb climate change. But dismantling it won't be as easy, legal experts say; in fact, the CPP is already the subject of a heated legal battle at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and litigation is only likely to continue. Two dozen states and industry groups have sued the EPA, arguing that the agency overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act. The DC Circuit court heard arguments in September but hasn't made a decision yet. And whatever the Trump's administration is going to do, more legal battles are likely to follow.
Trump's EPA could ask the DC Circuit for a so-called "voluntary remand," a motion that would essentially halt the case while the EPA reviews the complaints, according to Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. The EPA could then take its time to review the case, basically stalling the enforcement of the CPP's carbon-cutting requirements. But a group of attorneys general from several states — liberal and conservative ones — wrote a letter to Trump in December vowing to bring the administration to court if that were to happen.
"Be assured that we would vigorously oppose in court any attempt to remand the Clean Power Plan back to EPA so late in the litigation, and prior to a decision from the Court on the merits of the claims," the letter read.