Climate Change Policies of the Trump Administration and China’s Response

  • Haibin ZhangEmail author
Part of the Research Series on the Chinese Dream and China’s Development Path book series (RSCDCDP)


Trump’s domestic and foreign climate change policies have basically taken shape. He is using a wide array of presidential executive powers to gradually and systematically weaken or roll back Obama-era domestic and foreign policies on climate change. Trump’s disregard of climate change is reflected in his announcement of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. The Trump administration’s position on climate change is influenced by the U.S. domestic political factors and Trump’s personal political views, rather than the claimed burdens imposed by the Paris Agreement on the United States. This blatant indifference on the part of the U.S. has significant implications for China and China-U.S. relations. After the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, China faces mounting pressure from the international community to assume a leadership position on climate change. In response to Trump’s stance on climate change, China should raise its nationally determined contribution (NDC) targets, rebuild the collective leadership system in global climate action by replacing the Group of Two (G2) with the Climate 5 (C5), and urge the United States to maintain its engagement in global climate action.


Trump Climate change policy Global governance 

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th president of the United States. His famously ignorant comments about climate change during the election and the series of actions taken by him after assuming office to roll back climate change policies of previous administrations roused wide international concern. The Trump administration’s position on climate change has become one of the biggest uncertainties in international climate negotiations and global climate governance since the Paris Agreement went into effect in 2016. How far will Trump depart from the Obama administration’s climate change policy? What’s behind the Trump administration’s disregard of climate change? What impacts will Trump’s disregard of climate change have on China and China-U.S. relations? How will China respond? These issues are important and deserve serious consideration. This paper seeks to take an in-depth look into these issues.

4.1 Climate Change Policies of the Trump Administration

Since taking office, Trump has made big changes to Obama-era domestic and foreign climate change policies.
  1. 1.

    Domestic climate change policies of the Trump administration


Since being sworn in, Trump has taken steps to undo progress in tackling climate change domestically.

First, the Trump administration has worked to control the dissemination of climate change information and openly questioned climate change. Trump immediately revised the White House official website following his assumption of office on January 20, 2017, and removed all climate change related pages that were built under the Obama administration. These pages, stuffed with copious reports and facts about climate change and its impact, used to be an important source of information on this subject for the public in the United States and other countries. The burial of these pages is undoubtedly a step backward on public climate change awareness. Trump also ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to delete climate change references on its website. His climate change rhetoric in interviews and on Twitter has consistently reflect his belief that climate change has little to do with human action.

Second, he has filled key positions of his administration with climate change skeptics. Scott Pruitt, the current chief of the EPA and the former Attorney General of Oklahoma, is a well-known climate change skeptic. His campaign team was exposed in 2014 to accept hefty political donations from the fossil energy industry, and he himself joined lawsuits against Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

After taking office, he has repeatedly denied human action is a primary contributor to climate change in public. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy and the former governor of Texas, has also publicly aired his climate change skepticism. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, has close ties to the U.S. fossil fuel industry. Trump’s former chief adviser, Steve Bannon, is also a staunch skeptic of climate change and favored pulling the United States out from the Paris Agreement [1].

Third, on the front of institutional set-up, Trump took a hatchet to the EPA, demanding the EPA cut 3,200 positions, accounting for about 20% of the agency’s current workforce. He also ordered the disbandment the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases (IWG) convened by the Council of Economic Advisers and the Office of Management and Budget.

Fourth, the Trump administration has cut climate change funding drastically. On March 16, 2017, the White House released Trump’s first annual budget outline, which proposed deep cuts to public and foreign aid programs. The EPA’s budget shrunk by 31% from about $8.3 billion to $5.7 billion. It was the largest cut among all federal departments and agencies. The budget also proposed to slash $3.1 billion or about 18% from the U.S. Department of Energy’s research programs [2]. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is responsible for promoting solar power, faced a 69% cut. The Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on the research of carbon capture and storage technologies, faced a 54% cut. The Office of Nuclear Energy, which is seeking to extend the life of the United States’ existing nuclear reactors, was hit by a 31% cut. Funding for basic climate change research has also shrunk dramatically. NASA’s four climate science programs totaling $100 million were axed.

Fifth, Trump is moving in the opposite direction from Obama on energy and climate, as reflected in the U.S. First Energy Plan released immediately following his assumption of office as well as the annual budget outline and the Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth issued in March 2017. First, Trump calls for American energy independence. The Trump administration has taken steps to promote the development of domestic U.S. energy, remove regulations that fetter the operation of the energy industry, lower energy prices, reduce oil imports, continue the shale gas revolution, and revive the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, which were blocked by the Obama administration.

On June 29, 2017, Trump announced a series of energy initiatives, including revisiting the current U.S. nuclear energy policy and supporting the construction of U.S. coal plants overseas. The Trump administration pledged to increase investment to ensure the share of nuclear power in the electric power sector. The Trump administration also said it would invest $120 million in the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. The nuclear waste site was axed by Obama [3].

Second, the Trump administration seeks to drive economic and job growth by promoting the development of the energy sector. Trump is on a mission to rebuild roads, schools, bridges, and other public projects with money from the energy sector, promote the application of clean coal technologies, and revitalize the coal industry to drive job growth. According to the policy, the Trump administration will raise more than $36 billion in federal revenue by selling off energy resources and infrastructure and stepping up the development of oil and gas resources over the next 10 years; it will also provide federal funding to oil and gas drilling and the sale of oil and gas drilling leases will generate $1.8 billion in federal revenue by 2027. In the meantime, it also proposed diverting 37% of the federal revenues from oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama [4].

Third, to avoid “inappropriately burdening the U.S. economy”, Trump has scrapped the Climate Action Plan, a landmark policy of his predecessor; ordered the Clean Power Plan issued under the Obama Administration be reviewed, revised or rescinded; called for the establishment of an inter-agency working group to reassess the social costs of carbon emissions; directed the White House Council on Environmental Quality to rescind its guidance document regarding the consideration of climate change impacts in environmental reviews performed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); dismantled four climate change-related executive orders and presidential memoranda signed by Obama, including one that addressed climate change and national security.
  1. 2.

    The Trump Administration’s stance in international talks on climate change


The Trump administration’s stance on climate change on the international stage is reflected in the following actions:

First, it ceded the global leadership of the United States on climate change. The Obama-era Climate Action Plan and Clean Power Plan repeatedly position the United States as a global climate leader. Since Trump took office, the federal government has stopped using this rhetoric.

Second, the Trump administration has drastically slashed international climate assistance. Trump proposed discontinuing funding for any international climate change, climate change research and partnership programs of the EPA and directed the State Department stop funding the Global Climate Change Initiative and the UN’s climate process, including the Green Climate Fund.

Third, it has blocked international talks and processes on climate change within G7, G20 and other multilateral frameworks outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). During the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting in March 2017, the United States and Saudi Arabia opposed financing the fight against climate change. At the meeting of G7 Energy Ministers in April 2017, due to opposition from the United States, G7 countries failed to reach a common stance on climate and clean energy. Trump was also blamed by other G7 leaders for failure to reach a climate change agreement at the G7 summit that ended on May 27, 2017.

Fourth, despite strong opposition at home and abroad, Trump announced on June 1, 2017 that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement and that, as of the day, the United States would cease the implementation of the agreement and the “draconian financial and economic burdens” the agreement imposes on the U.S., including discontinuing financing programs under the agreement. Following his win in the election, Trump wavered on his previously stated position, saying he has an “open mind” about the agreement [5], and repeatedly put off a decision on whether to quit the accord. Despite being on the fence briefly, Trump eventually chose to back out of the agreement. In his exit statement, four keywords are worth pondering. First, economy. Trump claimed that compliance with the agreement has subject the U.S. economy to harsh restrictions. Second, fairness. Trump believes that the agreement is very unfair because it punishes the United States while imposing no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters. Third, environmental impact. Trump stressed that even if the agreement were implemented in full, it would only produce a 0.2°C reduction in global temperature by the year 2100 and thus the exit of the United States would have little impact on global warming. Fourth, sovereignty. Trump accused the agreement of posing serious obstacles for the United States to tap its energy reserves and intruded on the United States’ sovereignty.

On August 4, 2017, the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that the United States had submitted an official letter on the same day to the United Nations on its move to exit the Paris Agreement. A report on the Wall Street Journal on September 17, 2017 attracted wide international attention. The report quoted a senior EU energy official saying the Trump administration stated on September 16 that the United States would not pull out from the Paris Agreement and re-establish a new international mechanism to address climate change but they would try to review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement. However, the White House later dismissed the claim, stating that there had been no change in the position of the United States on the agreement.

As can be seen above, Trump’s domestic and foreign climate change policies have basically taken shape. He is using a wide array of presidential executive powers to gradually and systematically weaken or roll back Obama-era domestic and foreign policies on climate change. Trump’s disregard of climate change is reflected in his announcement of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. However, it should be noted that, under the U.S. system of separation of powers, the powers concerning the U.S. climate change policy are divided and vested in the Congress, the executive branch, and the Supreme Court. Furthermore, rising climate change awareness and concern within the borders of the United States will pose a serious challenge for the Trump administration. In short, there is a gap between what the Trump administration wants to do in the area of climate change and what it can actually accomplish. There is massive uncertainty regarding how Trump’s climate change policy will shape the future.

4.2 Causes of the Trump Administration’s Disregard of Climate Change

For most people, speeding up the transition to a green and low-carbon development path is a major and irreversible global development trend. Therefore, it is natural for people to question why the Trump administration moves in the opposite direction of this trend by adopting a climate change denial policy. There are five reasons behind Trump’s disregard of climate change.

First, the Trump administration has close ties with fossil fuel interests. Interest group politics is one of the most prominent dimensions of American politics. The Trump administration and Republicans at large have inextricable connections to interests groups in the fossil fuel industry. For example, it is reported that many officials of the Trump administration, including Trump himself, Vice President Mike Pence and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, have close ties to Koch Industries, a large petrochemical company.

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will release the United States from emissions restrictions under the agreement and benefit the Koch Industries, which has made hefty campaign contributions to the Republican and Trump’s campaign team [6]. On May 25, 2017, when Trump was sitting on the fence, twenty-two top GOP senators sent a letter to Trump, urging him to make good on his campaign promise and pull out of the Paris Agreement. According to a survey, the twenty-two senators received more than 10 million US dollars in campaign donations from coal, oil and gas companies from 2012 to 2016 [7].

Second, the U.S. politics and society are severely polarized, characterized by strong out-group animosity [8]. The Charlottesville riot on August 21, 2017 is just the latest incident that testifies to alarming racial tensions and social divisions in the United States. As a Republican, Trump naturally leans toward the position of the Republican Party on political issues because no matter whether Trump modifies his climate change policy, his political base will not change much. In the meantime, eyeing the next presidential election, Trump needs to make good on his campaign promises so that his own constituency will continue to support him in the next presidential race.

Third, Trump has always been a climate change skeptic, and refused to acknowledge the cornerstone of global climate governance—the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle. Although the conclusion that climate change is occurring and is caused largely by human is the basic consensus on climate change in the U.S. scientific community, Trump has never officially acknowledged this conclusion. In his statement announcing the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, Trump claimed that the agreement is unfair to the United States and compared China and India’s mitigation obligations with the United States’, taking no notice of the common but differentiated responsibility principle. It will be difficult to change Trump’s stubborn and unyielding position on climate change and international affairs.

Fourth, “America First” is the overriding theme of Trump’s foreign policy, which departs significantly from his predecessor’s foreign policy. Obama believes that the Paris Agreement enhances America’s climate security, speeds up the transition of the country to a low-carbon economy, promotes the renewable energy industry, strengthens American competitiveness, and creates jobs [9], whereas Trump believes that the agreement weakens the U.S. conventional energy industry, creates job losses and hurts the U.S. economy [10]. Obama stressed that the Paris Agreement helps the United States maintain its global leadership while Trump insists that the agreement undermines U.S. sovereignty. As a climate skeptic, Trump puts overwhelming weight on mitigation’s economic costs and belittles its ecological and economic benefits, which is consistent with his nationalistic and isolationist America First world view.

Fifth, Trump’s move to destroy Obama’s legacy is driven by his animosity towards Obama [11]. The acrimony between Trump and Obama started during the 2016 presidential election and has deteriorated since then. New York University historian Naftali said that it is not uncommon for the incumbent president to have a bad relationship with the former president, but an animosity as deep and clear as the one between Trump and Obama is rare in American history [11]. Since taking office, Trump has been dead-set on dismantling everything Obama has done.

The U.S. accession to the Paris Agreement is the crown jewel of Obama’s legacy, [12] which naturally makes it the primary target of Trump.

In short, the Trump administration’s position on climate change is influenced by the U.S. domestic political factors and Trump’s personal political views, rather than the claimed abuse and burdens imposed by the Paris Agreement on the United States.

4.3 Impacts of the Trump Administration’s Climate Change Policies on China

The Trump administration’s move to roll back Obama-era climate change policies has profound impacts on China and China-U.S. relations.

First, it will exacerbate ecological vulnerability and climate risk in China.

China is one of the countries that are most susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change. The United States plays a pivotal role in global climate governance. The U.S.’ pessimistic climate change policy and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will cause a setback for global efforts to combat climate change—it will make the consequences of global warming more disastrous, and as a result, China’s ecological vulnerability and climate risk will increase markedly.

Second, it will increase emissions reduction burden and cost of China.

Since the United States has pulled out from the Paris Agreement, it is unlikely that the country will achieve its nationally determined contribution (NDC) targets. The absence of the U.S. in global action on climate change means China and other countries need to set up their efforts in emissions reduction to ensure the goal of limiting warming to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels will be achieved. The multi-sector, multi-regional, dynamic global computable general equilibrium (CGE) model predicts that:
  1. (1)

    In the scenario of the NDC targets,1 if the U.S. reduces its emissions by 20, 13, and 0% below the 2005 levels by 2025, China will face a 0.8–1.1% decrease in the CO2 emissions range in the year 2030. In the scenario of the 2 °C targets, if the U.S. only reduces its emissions by 20, 13, and 0% below the 2005 levels by 2025, China will face a 1.5–1.7% decrease in the CO2 emissions range in the year 2030.

  2. (2)

    In the scenario of the NDC targets, if the U.S. only reduces its emissions by 20, 13, and 0% below the 2005 levels by 2025, the carbon price will rise by $1.1–4.6 per ton in China. In the scenario of the 2 °C target, if the U.S. only reduces its emissions by 20, 13, and 0% below the 2005 levels by 2025, the carbon price will rise by $4.4–14.6 per ton in China.

  3. (3)

    In the scenario of the NDC targets, if the U.S. only reduces its emissions by 20, 13, and 0% below the 2005 levels by 2025, China will suffer an additional GDP loss of $4.75–9.77 billion (per capita GDP loss of $3.6–14.8). In the scenario of the 2 °C targets, if the U.S. only reduces its emissions by 20, 13, and 0% below the 2005 levels by 2025, China will suffer an additional GDP loss of $22–71.1 billion (per capita GDP loss of $16.4–53.1) [13].


Third, the importance of climate cooperation to the China-U.S. relationship has considerably diminished.

Under the Obama administration, China-U.S. cooperation on climate change was one of the major issues shaping the evolution of the relations between the two countries and plays an important role in enhancing mutual trust of the two sides. But the issue of climate change did not come up at either the Xi-Tillerson meeting on 19 March, 2017, or the Xi–Trump meeting at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017. This divergence between the Obama and Trump Administrations suggests that climate change is no longer central to China-U.S. relations.

Fourth, it will further consolidate China’s dominant position in the field of renewable energy development.

In 2006, China and the United States were almost at the same level in terms of renewable energy development. The renewable energy power generation capacity in China and the United States was 148,446 MW and 107,917 MW, respectively. Since then, China has gradually taken the lead. By 2016, the renewable energy power generation capacity of China and the United States was 545,206 MW and 214,766 MW respectively [14]. It can be predicted that the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement will further increase China’s leading position in the field of renewable energy development to the United States. Some American scholars have been deeply worried about this trend [15].

Fifth, China faces mounting international pressure to redefine its role in global climate governance.

China may be pushed to the global climate leadership position due to the absence the U.S. leadership. America’s sudden renouncement of climate leadership departs strikingly from its joint efforts with China underlying the Paris Agreement, leading the world to pin its hopes on China. Many American scholars believe that Trump’s climate change policy opens opportunities for China to displace the U.S. as a leader on climate change. But leadership means responsibility, and global leadership means global responsibility. There is a growing voice in the international community to urge China to fill the leadership void. China sees itself as a developing country and believes in that contributions should be commensurate with capabilities. It has rejected the idea of redefining its role to a global leader on climate change. As such, it remains a tricky diplomatic challenge for China to respond to the call to step up to fill the leadership vacuum left behind by Washington.

4.4 China’s Response: Replacing G2 with C5

It has become obvious that the Trump administration’s position on climate change is one of the biggest uncertainties in international climate negotiations and global climate governance. With the absence of the U.S., there is an enormous uncertainty surrounding the future of the Paris Agreement and global climate governance. Where is global climate governance heading and what role should China play have become major issues which may reshape the global climate governance system. In this context, China is now facing unprecedented historical opportunities and strategic risks. If China rises to the challenge, its influence in international fora will grow substantially. If not, China may miss the precious window of opportunity or even be hurt both economically and geopolitically.

President Xi has explicitly stated China’s position on the Paris Agreement was in his speech entitled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind at the UN Office of Geneva in January 2017:” The Paris Agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance.

We must ensure this endeavor is not derailed. All parties should work together to implement the Paris Agreement. “China will continue to take action to address climate change and assume 100% of its obligations.” At present, the central task of global climate action is to rebuild the leadership of global climate governance. There are three possible strategies for China.
  • Strategy A: China should be committed to its NDC targets but should not make additional mitigation commitments. This strategy is less risky and less costly. However, if China fails to step up at the right time, it may miss a precious opportunity to raise its international influence. Overall, this is a more conservative solution.

  • Strategy B: China should go all out to fill the leadership void left by the US exit. Some pundits at home and abroad believe that now is the best time for China to redefine its role as a leader on climate change and China should seize the opportunity because it is fully equipped to assume the global climate leadership position. The advantage of this strategy is that it may shorten the time for China to move to the center stage of global governance, and raise its international influence to an unprecedented level. However, it overestimates China’s capabilities and underestimates the complexity of global climate governance. It may disrupt China’s development pace and increase the risk of strategic overstretch. Overall, this strategy depicts a more radical solution.

  • Strategy C: In addition to domestic climate action, China should also respond to the expectations of the international community in a positive way by promoting a collective leadership system for global climate governance. The advantage of this option is that it balances the benefits and risks of leading global climate action. It not only provides an opportunity for China to demonstrate its commitment to the global effort to fight climate change but also prevents China from over-stretching its resources. The downside is that it fails to fully tap China’s potential as a major global power. Overall, this strategy depicts a progressive approach.

We believe it would be wise for China to adopt Strategy C. Domestically, China should not make additional mitigation commitments besides its NDC commitments, but it should reach the high ends of its current NDC targets, that is, to peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and to lower the carbon intensity of per unit of GDP by 65% below 2005 levels before the year of 2030. Internationally, China should propose replacing the G2 mechanism with C5.

The Group of Two (G2) is made up by China and U.S. The two countries played a central role in advancing the Paris talks. With the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the G2 partnership has come to an end. Some Western media have suggested that a new G2 consisting of China and the EU should be formed to assume global leadership. However, this is a highly unlikely scenario. On the EU part, the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of the EU are declining. Furthermore, it remains mired in a host of crises and challenges, including the refugee crisis, the debt crisis, the financial crisis, the threat of terrorism and Brexit. The Brexit and its ongoing negotiations, in particular, will eat away the EU’s attention to climate change and weaken the EU’s position as a global leader. China, despite being a rising power, is still a developing country and lacks experience in agenda setting, global governance, and climate research. The potential China-EU partnership is further complicated by disagreements over the approach to climate governance. Therefore, the proposed new G2 cannot take on the mantle of leadership for global climate action.

In contrast, the C5 partnership is a better alternative. C5 is the abbreviation of “Climate 5”, consisting of China, the EU, India, Brazil and South Africa. C5 is necessary because:

First, it can fill the void left by Washington. As mentioned above, the U.S. withdrawal has complex implications for the Paris Agreement and global climate governance. It requires collaboration among other major global players, including the UK, France, and Italy on the part of Western countries, as well as India, Brazil, and South Africa as representatives of developing countries, to fill the U.S. void. India in particular as a major emitter should have a bigger voice in future climate talks.

Second, C5 can facilitate cooperation between developed and developing countries to build a global united front against climate change. This partnership features diversity, with India, Brazil, and South Africa representing their respective continents. These countries are also powerful regional leaders in international affairs, contending for new Permanent Member status in the UN Security Council reform. Their engagement will facilitate North–South climate cooperation by fostering unity among countries of the Global South.

Third, the C5 partnership can help reduce the disproportionately high expectation that the international community holds for China since the withdrawal of Washington. This expectation is clearly beyond China’s capabilities. Shared leadership will work better than single-nation leadership whether it’s from the perspective of China or the international community.

We suggest that China initiate a C5 partnership ministerial conference in due course.

Last but not least, it should be noted that the U.S. is not to be left out.

History shows that no global climate mechanism can work effectively with the U.S. The U.S. has caused substantial loss to other members, including China, by pulling out from the Paris Agreement, and it is in every country’s interest to bring the U.S. back. Therefore, it is in the interest of all parties to continue to exert pressure on the United States to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and find ways to bring the United States back. For now, China may keep the U.S. engaged in three ways. It can change the discourse, focusing more on energy efficiency and energy security and less on climate change within the G20 framework. It can pragmatically push for China-U.S. cooperation on nuclear energy, natural gas, and clean coal. And finally, it can also promote China-U.S. cooperation at the sub-national levels of provinces, states, and cities.


  1. 1.

    NDC targets are the emissions reduction targets promised by the parties to the Paris Agreement in their nationally determined contributions and there is a certain gap between the NDC targets and the 2 °C targets.



This study is conducted under the auspices of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)’s 2017 Emergency ProgramImplications of the United States’ Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Global Climate Governance and China’s Response.


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© Social Sciences Academic Press and Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of International StudiesPeking UniversityBeijingChina

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