Law professors deliberate possibility of climate control’s fate under the Trump Administration

Four Wake Forest Law professors recently expressed concern for encroaching environmental factors that continue to cause irreversible damage to air, water and wildlife as part of a panel organized by Wake Forest University’s Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability (CEES).

According to the panelists, last year the average global temperature climbed 1.5 degrees celsius, making 2016 the hottest year on record.  As the nation adjusts to the Trump Administration, the panelists outlined the potential bleak future of environmental policies.

“These are the most consequential issues facing global leaders,” said Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University. “All of the other issues cannot fix themselves if we don’t get ahold of climate change and environmental sustainability.”

Catanoso served as the moderator for the panel, “Energy, Environment and Climate Policy Under the Trump Administration,” held Jan. 17. 2017. Students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the Winston-Salem community filled the Porter Byrum Welcome Center to hear from Professor Dick Snyder, assistant dean for International Affairs; Professor Sid Shapiro, Frank U. Fletcher Chair of Administrative Law; Adjunct Professor Don Jodrey, senior policy adviser to the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and Professor John Knox, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

The panelists spoke candidly about their apprehension surrounding environmental policy during a conservative presidency.  Over the past eight years, the Obama administration made advances toward a cleaner environment through EPA initiatives.

“The Bush administration wasn’t interested in protecting the environment,” Professor Shapiro said. “Through really good appointments, Obama put environmental policies in the forefront.”

In December 2015, 196 nations adopted the Paris Agreement, a legally binding global climate deal. Until the Paris Agreement, it had been 20 years global leaders had not resolved to address the rising average temperature for 20 years prior.

“Paris was a turn for the better in a series of long and unproductive discussions of how to address climate change,” Professor Knox said. “Why were countries able to negotiate and agree to something so quickly? The Paris Agreement doesn’t require people to do much more than they already do. Most of the major emitters are already taking steps to address climate change.”

The Paris Agreement is designed to limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees celsius. Governments agreed to meet every five years for re-evaluation of their goals. Leaders are also required to track and report progress and advancements, according to the European Commission website.

“The fact that the Trump Administration wouldn’t support these things does not mean the end of the U.S.,” Dean Snyder said. “What’s sad is that there is definitely a ‘trickle-down attitude’ to the extent that the Trump Administration is going back after the rules are in place.”

While President Trump has threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the panelists remained skeptical of this decision.

“President-Elect Trump can withdraw under the agreement, but the terms require that you wait three years,” Professor Knox said. “So, the Trump Administration couldn’t submit withdrawal from the Paris Agreement until Nov. 4, 2019. After it’s been processed, it would be 2020 and time for a new president.”

Instead of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement completely, Professor Knox predicts the United States will comply to procedural duties, meetings and check-ins, but refrain from making significant steps in climate control.

“What’s happened over the years, particularly when Republicans dominated Congress, they’ve cut agency budgets,” Professor Shapiro said. “Agencies are pressed to get things done because there aren’t employees to work on things. I predict (the Trump Administration) will pick four or five key rules they want to repeal over the next four years.”

President-elect Trump has alluded to overturning environmental initiatives. While Executive Orders are effective, imposing rules on agencies is more difficult.

“The Paris commitments don’t do nearly enough,” Professor Knox said. “They essentially need to be doubled in strength. The idea that the U.S. is going to be coasting for a while is problematic because we need to be speeding up.”