Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The United States is Killing the Climate, Not Trump

By Keelin KellyPublished November 27, 2018

Image of President Trump
Is Trump destroying the climate, or are we?

Everyone is ostracizing President Trump for implementing every bad environmental policy that has ever existed. However, although I am the first to criticize our lovely president’s actions, he was not the one that started the United States’ attack on the climate--even if he is escalating it.

Unfortunately, the United States has a long history of disregarding the climate. If the earth could give letter grades to countries, the United States would have failed kindergarten and been expelled for being so terrible. Granted, countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom would not be far behind. However, there are a few damning reasons that place the United States first in harming the climate.

The United States is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, only trailing China, and our net-emissions far exceed any other country on the planet. The attitudes and actions that caused this obsession with greenhouse gases did not come with The Trump Administration but with decades of disregard for our climate. 1979’s World Climate Conference in Geneva signified the first world acknowledgement of climate change. Back then, the United States was ahead of the environmental game. By 1979, The United States already had important legislation such as The National Environmental Policy Act (1969), The Environmental Protection Agency (1970), and The Clean Air Act (1970).  President Nixon may have resigned, but at least he cared about the environment!

Fast forward to 1988, and the United States was having its hottest year on record, and there were rampant wildfires and drought throughout the United States. That same year, President Ronald Reagan signed The Montreal Protocol, committing the United States to help heal the ozone layer. The United States then joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, signifying that developed countries must commit to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Upon signing, President George H.W. Bush declared that “The American way of life is not up for negotiation”. By way of life, President Bush must have meant emitting 6,511 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, as we did in 2016.

Following the Reagan Administration’s signing of the Montreal Protocol, the majority of the Clinton Administration did little to address the growing issue of climate change. President Bill Clinton knew that any climate change policy would not pass Congress, and therefore did not pursue any significant federal climate policy. However, President Clinton did sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, marking the first global commitment to greenhouse gas reduction. Unfortunately, his successor--George W. Bush--quickly withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol after taking office, citing economic reasons. The Kyoto Protocol was a binding treaty, committing countries across the world to reducing emissions. With the withdrawal of the world’s largest net emitter, the Kyoto was rendered significantly less effective, and set the course for climate denialism in the United States.

Where are we now? Despite the more progressive attempts by the Obama Administration to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the Trump Administration is doing their best to dismantle President Obama’s climate legacy. The Trump administration is loosening methane rules, rolling back fuel efficiency standards, placing further emphasis on coal, and continually avoiding direct acknowledgement of climate change. Internationally, Trump devastatingly withdrew from the 2016 Paris Accords. While the Trump Administration is indubitably escalating climate change, the blame cannot be placed squarely on President Trump’s shoulders. Decades of stagnation in Congress, a line of ambivalent presidents, and a country-wide reliance on coal has caused this issue, not one man sitting in the oval office. The United States’ climate denialism may be accelerated by President Trump, but Americans’ over-consumption and disregard for the climate is what placed us in the dire situation we are in today.