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The Trump Administration and environmental policy: Reagan redux?


Since assuming office, President Trump has initiated a broad rollback of President Obama’s environmental policies. Political commentators have already drawn comparisons between the Reagan and Trump Administrations’ approaches to the environment given their shared explicit attacks on environmental policy. In this paper, I probe this historical resonance through a comparison of Trump’s and Reagan’s environmental records, and find continuities in their ideologies and actions. Despite the Reagan Administration’s efforts, environmental laws and institutions were not dismantled during the 1980s due to the countervailing forces of congress, the public, and environmental advocacy groups. But, while environmental laws and institutions may have been resilient in the past, contemporary political conditions call into question this resilience. Partisan polarization in both congress and the public and changes in the Republican Party will likely preclude an environmental backlash similar to that experienced by Reagan. Instead, environmental advocacy groups and the courts will function as the primary bulwarks against environmental policy retrenchment. Despite their efforts, the Trump Administration is likely to have significant impacts on environmental policy through executive action.

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  1. According to the Washington Post’s running tracker of Trump’s efforts to undo Obama-era laws and regulations, as of December 14, 2017, Trump had tried to overturn 62 environmental rules and laws. This number is more than double that of his efforts in other policy sectors, including labor and finance (27), civil rights (16), health care (16), worker and consumer safety (15), government reform (13), immigration (12), and education (7) (Eilperin and Cameron 2017).

  2. Given space constraints, I am only able to compare the environmental records of Trump and Reagan, but a comparison with George W. Bush would yield similar results. For an analysis of George W. Bush’s environmental policy and comparison with that of other presidents, see Daynes and Sussman (2010).

  3. Wherum was a political appointee in the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA under the George W. Bush Administration. Bush nominated Wehrum to hold the position permanently, but his nomination was blocked by the Senate due to concerns about his enforcement of the Clean Air Act. As of December 15, 2017, Beck, Baptist, and Wherum have been confirmed, Wheeler is awaiting confirmation, and Dourson withdrew his nomination after Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Richard Burr (R-NC) announced they would not vote for his confirmation.

  4. For its analysis, the Times created a database of all civil environmental enforcement cases initiated in the first nine months of the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations using data from the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database, as well as E.P.A. and Justice Department news releases, the federal register, court documents, and other public sources (How The Times Compared E.P.A. Enforcement Across Three Administrations 2017).

  5. In another manuscript, currently in progress, I trace the development of American political party environmental ideology over a broader time period, from 1856 to 2016.

  6. I exclude agriculture from my analysis due to space constraints and because it has always been treated as a distinct policy domain in party platforms.

  7. Arrieta-Kenna frames this in the inverse way—the public comments were efficacious in preventing Secretary Zinke from recommending elimination of some national monuments, as was initially proposed.

  8. The immediate reason for Watt’s resignation was not related to his policies, but rather a comment he made about the representativeness of a coal mining advisory commission: “We have every kind of mixture you can have, I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent” (Weisman 1983).

  9. Republicans controlled both the Senate and House in the 97th congress (1981–1983) and the Senate in the 98th (1983–1985) and 99th (1985–1987) congresses, but lost their majority in the 100th congress (1987–1989).

  10. The researchers cast a relatively wide net in their analysis, using the label “climate denier” to denote any member of congress who “has questioned or denied the scientific consensus behind human-caused climate change; answered climate questions with the ‘I’m not a scientist’ dodge; claimed the climate is always changing (as a way to dodge the implications of human-caused warming); failed to acknowledge that climate change is a serious threat; or questioned the extent to which human beings contribute to global climate change” (Moser and Koronowski 2017). Their analysis also revealed that these members of congress received a total of $82,882,725 in campaign donations from the coal, oil, and gas industries.

  11. Helvarg argues that the Republican congress under George W. Bush similarly failed to provide a check on the Bush Administration’s environmental rollback (Helvarg 2005).

  12. Issues outranking environment included (in order of importance): the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, health care, gun policy, immigration, social security, education, Supreme Court appointments, treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, and trade policy (Pew 2016).


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Correspondence to Jessica Hejny.

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Hejny, J. The Trump Administration and environmental policy: Reagan redux?. J Environ Stud Sci 8, 197–211 (2018).

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  • Environmental policy
  • Trump Administration
  • Partisanship and environment