If there’s a silver lining to the toxic cloud hovering over the White House, it’s that our science-denying president hasn’t caused too much damage to the environment. Yet.
But nearly four months into the Trump administration, the risks to the nation’s air, land and water are large and looming, as is the threat to the country’s belated — and still insufficient — efforts to combat catastrophic global warming. If Trump supporters believe this is an over-regulated nation, they better prepare themselves and their descendants for unhealthier and more disrupted lives.
With help from Congress, President Trump rescinded an Obama administration rule that would have limited what coal mining operations could dump into waterways. The Senate wisely rejected a similar effort to eliminate a rule clamping down on methane releases from new wells on federal land. Trump also directed the Environmental Protection Agency to review President Obama’s marquee Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce emissions from power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. (The plan has also been stalled by the courts.) He ordered a review of tough future fuel-economy standards for motor vehicles, as well as a government-wide reconsideration of regulations that affect job creation or “impose costs that exceed benefits.” And he wants to plant more oil and gas rigs along the U.S. coastline, including California’s.
Each and all of those changes would be bad for the environment in the near term, and some would make it harder to throttle back carbon emissions that are already propelling global warming and climate change.
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Fortunately, most of Trump’s most worrisome threats have not yet been realized.
The primary line of defense against this greed-fueled approach to the environment will be in the regulatory review process, where the Trump administration will have to make the case that it has sound and valid reasons for undoing regulations that previous administrations found necessary. And after the regulatory review process? The courts.
Environmental groups and state officials — including in California — have already filed legal challenges over the government’s decisions to delay a ban on chlorpyrifos (an agricultural pesticide linked to learning disabilities in children) and to push back the effective dates of six new energy efficiency standards for such electronic devices as ceiling fans and commercial refrigeration units. Also being challenged is Trump’s decision to roll back the Obama administration’s ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. So the fight is on. And the environment needs to win it.
But even if Trump can clear legal hurdles to his burn-more-faster policies, he still has to deal with the market forces that have made his out-of-date focus on fossil fuels a bad bet. Trump keeps promising that his policies will revive the coal industry, but cleaner-burning and cheaper natural gas has already weakened the demand for coal, sending major coal companies into bankruptcy. And renewable hydro, wind and solar sources are expected to dominate domestic power production within 15 years.
Trump’s willingness to sacrifice environmental protections for corporate profits fits in with the strongly pro-growth, anti-regulatory philosophy that any other zealously pro-business Republican might have brought to the Oval Office. But Trump stands out by aligning himself with those who reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is propelling global warming and by flatly refusing to recognize that disaster awaits the world if we don’t correct our course on carbon emissions.
So what to do? Listening to reason isn’t Trump’s strong suit, so perhaps the better tack in trying to push him off this disastrous path would be to appeal to his business sense. The renewable energy industry is still in its relative infancy, and there are billions of dollars to be made by leading the world in that transition — and billions to be lost by not confronting rising seas. It’s the smart-money choice.
There’s also Trump’s legacy. As the dangers of climate change became undeniable, Obama rose to the challenge and helped set the nation and the world on a path toward a less perilous environmental future. Trump should accelerate that change by pushing for even bigger and better programs than Obama championed. Otherwise he could go down in history as the man who was too stubbornly ignorant to try to save the world from ecological disaster.
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