real talk about how trump will impact the environment

A chilling look at the President-elect's potential to change our environmental and climate policies.

by Douglas Main
14 November 2016, 5:40pm

People who care about the environment and climate change are pretty nervous about President-elect Donald Trump and how his administration might change policy in this area.

As with other questions about President-elect Trump, it's hard to say what he'll do. The man has a penchant for unpredictability, and unlike any previous president, he has never held public office, or served in the military, in which capacity decisions are typically made that provide clues for the future.

But what he's said and people he's already appointed can give us some clues. Let's just say they aren't reassuring.

Trump infamously tweeted that "the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." He vowed in the GOP debates to "get rid of [the EPA] in almost every form... we are going to have little tidbits left but we are going to take a tremendous amount out." He's also said he would take apart the Clean Power Plan, Obama's rule that aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Of course, Trump said a lot of outlandish things during his campaign, and tends toward hyperbole that he may bactrack upon. Already, in a 60 Minutes interview aired Nov. 13 he walked back certain statements, suggesting he may not pursue an investigation into the Clintons ("I don't want to hurt them, they're good people") and that he won't try to overturn gay marriage. Some of his promises even supporters don't believe: 58 percent of Republicans don't think Trump will succeed in getting Mexico to pay for a border wall, for example. And every presidential candidate makes promises that they have no intention of keeping, or simply cannot carry through.

In some cases, however, it appears Trump is already preparing to take actions that follow up on these comments, actions bound to upset environmentalists, scientists, and much of the world at large. During the campaign he vowed to "cancel" the United States's involvement in the Paris Agreement, wherein nearly 200 countries have vowed to limit warming of the atmosphere to below two degrees Celsius, by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. This accord, which the U.S. signed, went into force Nov. 4.

However, Reuters reported that a source within Trump's transition team was considering ways of withdrawing the country from the agreement. Normally that would take four years, but the source said the team wants to exit the agreement more quickly. The source was apparently angry about the situation, saying that "it was reckless for the Paris agreement to enter into force before the election" in the first place.

The United States is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, so an American withdrawal would be a huge blow. But would it be fatal?

"That target is already extremely difficult to achieve, but it could be done with very hard, very diligent work by every single country," Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor of geosciences and international affairs, told The New York Times. Pledged American cuts make up an estimated one-fifth of the expected carbon emission reductions under the plan from 2016 to 2030.

Some experts worry, however, that if the United States pulls out, it might embolden other countries to relinquish their end of the bargain.

Many are ready to fight this kind of move. "We don't have the luxury of remaining silent because decisions about whether the US is in or outside of the Paris climate agreement may affect all of us —they literally affect the kind of world that we're going to leave behind for future generations," climate researcher Benjamin Santer, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, told the Verge.

As for Obama's Clean Power Plan, which Trump says he wants dismantled, that piece of legislation has been challenged by 28 states and many companies, and is expected to end up in front of the Supreme Court soon. As explained by legal expert Nathan Richardson, Trump could work toward scuttling the rule by not actively defending it in court, his administration could send it back to the EPA to be re-written and effectively neutered, and he has several other mechanisms open to him to wreak havoc on this front.

Such fears are worsened by Trump's choice of Myron Ebell, of the business-backed Competitive Enterprise Institute, to lead the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency. Ebell is a well-known and divisive figure in the climate world, and a self-professed "skeptic" who doesn't think global warming is a big problem. He told Vanity Fair in 2007, "There has been a little bit of warming ... but it's been very modest and well within the range for natural variability, and whether it's caused by human beings or not, it's nothing to worry about."

Trump has also named energy-sector lobbyist Mike McKenna to head his energy transition team, who's expected to support expanded fossil-fuel development, according to the Los Angeles Times. During the campaign Trump said he would ease permitting on pipeline and drilling projects, and that looks likely to happen.

Trump has also vowed to bring back coal jobs and expand mining in federal lands. Both would have negative impacts on the environment, though it seems unlikely for the coal industry to come back in a huge way; coal is more expensive than natural gas, and market forces are a big reason why that sector has declined, says Steven Cohen, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, and expanding its use would lead to more pulmonary disease and deaths.

Cohen added that it's important to distinguish between climate issues and more general environmental laws, such as those that protect clean air and water, limit the use of toxic substances, and protect public lands. These are all strongly supported by the public. "People like to breathe," Cohen says. Any effort to roll back these laws would likely meet fierce resistance.

There's some precedent for this. President Reagan, in his first term, appointed right wing figures Anne Gorsuch Burford and James Watt to respectively head the EPA and Interior department. These two downsized their departments and scaled back environmental protections; a backlash followed that led to each stepping down in 1983. Cohen says this kind of thing could happen again if Trump's cabinet picks run afoul of the public.

Thus, there may be some reason for hope. Trump portrays himself as a dealmaker, and pursuing many of these initiatives would use up political capital that may prevent him from doing other things he wants to do, Cohen says. (Like, you know, building a wall—which would, for the record, be detrimental to wildlife.)

Cohen also notes that strong environmental protections don't prevent economic growth. In fact, they often aid it. One can hope Trump could be convinced of this; as he should know, the cleaning up of the Hudson River, brought about by the Clean Water Act and similar legislation, cleared the way for development along Manhattan's west side—e.g. Trump Place. (Before, people didn't build near the water because of pollution, Cohen says.)

How might Trump be stopped? Many of the worst potential moves could be blocked by Senate Democrats, who could stop bills by filibustering, Cohen says. And environmental groups will certainly try to delay or prevent rule-changes in the courts. But there remain numerous actions that would be difficult to stop.

Many environmentalists are privately or not-so-privately terrified. "This could be devastating for our climate and our future," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told The Guardian. "But Trump must choose wisely or we guarantee him the hardest fight of his political life." Others don't care to speculate publicly, and/or are hoping for the best.

Cohen sums up what many are thinking. "I'm trying to stay reasonably optimistic," he says, "although nothing the President-elect has said should make me feel that way."


Text Douglas Main
Photography Ben Reierson

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