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The Environment

Daniel C. Esty ’86 JD is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale’s environment and law schools. Esty recently offered the Yale Alumni Magazine his analysis about how the Trump administration will shape the next four years with regard to the environment. Read the full piece featuring faculty around the school here.

Donald Trump has suggested that he will withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, increase fossil fuel extraction, and trim EPA’s regulatory powers or eliminate EPA altogether. Whether he moves on all of these campaign promises remains to be seen. Reviving the coal industry in the face of current low natural gas and oil prices seems unlikely. He can tilt EPA away from more-vigorous regulations, but to eliminate the agency he needs a congressional vote, which the Democrats would surely filibuster. And withdrawing from the Paris Agreement requires three years’ notice.

But one thing is clear: after 50 years of believing that environmental protection depends on federal government–led regulation, people are awakening to the fact that twenty-first-century sustainability depends on a much broader array of forces—forces that are driving innovation in technology, corporate strategy, public engagement, and investment.

Presidents and prime ministers have little day-to-day control over their societies’ carbon footprints. Mayors, governors, and CEOs all have much greater impact on energy choices and environmental outcomes. The Paris Agreement’s commitment to “broader engagement” also means that all nations—not just a subset of developed countries—are now expected to take action. And 188 of them have produced climate change plans. Moreover, where the twentieth-century approach to clean energy relied on the government to pick winners and subsidize chosen companies and technologies, the Paris Agreement emphasizes private investment, leveraged by limited public funds.

Governments are no longer seen as the only—or even the best—route to environmental progress. A global phalanx of green consumers, linked by social media, now drives companies to make their products and services more sustainable. Sustainability-minded investors have begun to channel huge swaths of capital away from the polluting enterprises of the past and toward companies making breakthroughs in clean energy and pollution controls. And in our era of transparency and Big Data, an emerging framework of corporate sustainability performance metrics is making it easier to “scorecard” companies, which motivates them to bring a focus on energy and environment into their core business strategies.

Of course, the president still matters. Administration policies can provide incentives that spur innovation. But in the twenty-first century, the federal government is not the only actor on the sustainability stage. The drive for clean energy in particular, and sustainability more broadly, now comes from many directions.