President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of gutting US environmental regulations. On week one of his presidency, it’s clear he plans to follow through.
Among the moves Trump made by Wednesday evening: The new administration pushed forward the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, promoted a return to the dirty fossil-fuel era with a proposed “America First Energy Plan,” removed references to climate change from the White House website, proposed massive cuts to climate change programs, and instituted an “unprecedented” media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Is this the work of America’s new environmentalist in chief?
That’s apparently how the President sees it.
“I’m a very big person when it comes to the environment,” Trump told business leaders on Monday. “I’ve received awards on the environment.”
To better understand the first claim, I called up a few environmentalists.
“You have to laugh,” said Tim Donaghy, a senior researcher at Greenpeace USA. “I guess you laugh or you cry.”
“It’s shocking. It’s appalling,” said Bob Deans, director of strategic engagement at the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. “We heard him say in front of campaign rallies that climate change is a hoax. It’s not a hoax. It’s the essential environmental challenge of our time, and it’s a threat to our children’s future.”
“Good! I’m glad he is (saying he’s an environmentalist), and I look forward to some positive changes,” said Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, who has worked to curb his city’s carbon pollution.
He added, “I say that somewhat sarcastically.”
The environmental movement seems less interested in what Trump is saying than what he’s doing.
To that end, here are five ways Trump might actually earn the title of 2017 environmentalist.
1. Lead the global transition away from fossil fuels
There’s some inflexible math behind climate change, and one of the most important numbers to know is this: zero. To avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming – super droughts, drowned coastal cities, climate refugees, mass extinction in the natural world and stronger storms – world leaders, as part of the Paris Climate agreement, agreed to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero. And they said we’d do it this century.
That basically means no fossil fuels, and drastic changes to the way we use land – far less tropical deforestation, for instance – as well as possible technological efforts to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
A zero-carbon energy policy looks nothing like what Trump has proposed.
“We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own,” the White House’s “America First Energy Plan” reads, citing a figure some academics say mischaracterizes the value of the reserves. “The Trump administration is also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry. …”
Oil, gas and coal are, of course, fossil fuels, with coal being the dirtiest of them. And the world can’t burn much more of those if we want to have any reasonable hope of meeting the terms of the Paris Agreement. Only 5% of US coal reserves can be burned by 2050 if we hope to meet that goal, according to an analysis published in 2015 in the journal Nature. (That figure assumes we don’t develop technology to capture and store carbon pollution on a large scale. Even if we do, only 8% of US coal can be burned, meaning almost all of it stays in the ground.)
“If Trump wants to be an environmentalist, he’d need to say no to dirty fossil fuel projects like Dakota Access and Keystone XL and drive forward a clean energy revolution in this country and around the world,” said Jamie Henn, co-founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org.
2. Harness the real job-creator: clean energy
Trump is all about jobs. But by focusing attention on bringing back fossil fuel jobs, he’s missing an opportunity to create more numerous and lasting jobs in the clean energy sector, according to environmentalists.
Strikingly, there are more US jobs in solar energy alone than in either oil-and-gas extraction or coal mining, according to a 2016 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, or IRENA. “Jobs in the solar industry grew 12 times as fast as overall job creation in the US economy,” the report says. The country’s 209,000 solar industry jobs in 2015 outnumber those in oil and gas extraction – 187,200 – and coal mining – 67,929.
The group estimates renewable energy industries employed 769,000 in the United States in 2015.
Comparing jobs numbers across industries can be somewhat difficult. There are farther-reaching estimates for the total number of clean-energy or “green” jobs in the United States, for instance. But it’s clear to environmentalists that clean-energy researchers, wind farm technicians and solar panel manufacturers will outlast fossil fuel jobs.
“If jobs and energy independence are really what this administration cares about, wind, solar and other renewable energy resources are the future,” said Doug Hayes, staff attorney for the Sierra Club.
3. Take some pointers from – China?
The world’s two biggest annual climate polluters – the United States and China – pushed forward the Paris Agreement on climate. But as the United States seems interested in “anchoring our future in the dirty fuels of the past,” said Deans, from the NRDC, China is emerging as the political and technological leader on climate change.
“The world has looked to the United States for climate and energy leadership,” Deans said. “If we’re going to go backward” in the United States, then “that leadership is going to come from, likely, China.”
Climate and energy news has looked quite different in China in recent weeks than in the United States. China has canceled the construction of more than 100 planned coal-fired power plants. The country plans to introduce a nationwide carbon market this year – which is the sort of policy tool that, along with carbon taxes, many economists see as a holy grail for climate regulation. And China announced it will invest about $360 billion on renewable energy projects by 2020. “Today, we are facing climate change, and we know this is caused by our use of energy,” Nur Bekri, China’s energy minister, said this month, according to The New York Times. “That is why the Chinese government attaches great importance to the development of clean energy.”
“The Paris Agreement is a hard-won achievement which is in keeping with the underlying trend of global development,” China President Xi Jinping, said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”
Trump has threatened to pull the United States out of that process. Even if he doesn’t, some environmentalists fear he will work to undermine the Paris Agreement’s goal of a carbon neutral world.
“Withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement would be bad for the environment,” said Sam Adams, US director of the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on policy and research. “There would be collateral costs to the United States standing against the world. … Other nations, like China, have just in the last days been stepping up – announcing new investments in their own domestic climate action and clean energy sectors.”
4. Recognize the costs of coal and carbon
Trump is a business guy, but environmentalists – and environmental economists – say he fails to understand the expensive consequences of burning fossil fuels and allowing climate change to run amok.
(For the record: 97% of climate scientists agree the world is warming and humans are to blame because of pollution. Humanity’s role in climate change is not up for scientific debate, despite what Trump and some of his Cabinet picks say.)
There are two points environmentalists have been making here: First is that coal, in particular, is a dirty, deadly fuel. The Clean Air Task force, a nonprofit dedicated to improving air quality, estimated in 2010 that pollution from coal power plants contributes to 13,200 premature deaths, 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks in the United States per year. The World Health Organization says outdoor air pollution is linked to 3 million deaths per year worldwide. Coal, along with gasoline and other fossil fuel pollution, contribute significantly.
Second is that the costs of doing nothing about climate change are significant.
“Within the next 15 years, higher sea levels combined with storm surge will likely increase the average annual cost of coastal storms along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico by $2 billion to $3.5 billion,” found a 2014 report from the Risky Business Project, led by Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson and Tom Steyer. “Adding in potential changes in hurricane activity, the likely increase in average annual losses grows to up to $7.3 billion, bringing the total annual price tag for hurricanes and other coastal storms to $35 billion.”
5. Make US infrastructure climate-friendly
Finally, both US political parties are talking about infrastructure.
But what does that infrastructure look like? It matters to environmentalists, who want to see infrastructure spending include energy-saving projects like public transportation, bus routes, bike lanes, building weatherization and updates to the smart electricity grid to support renewable energy development. What we build now has consequences for years, if not decades, into the future. And environmentalists want to see the United States position itself to use less dirty fossil fuel energy, to boost its efficiency and to create clean-energy jobs.
“For more than a century – back to Teddy Roosevelt – the idea of leaving our children a livable world has been a bipartisan goal,” said Deans, from NRDC. “It’s an American value. It’s only recently, since 2010, I would say, that we have seen one party doing everything it can to unwind generations of bipartisan progress.”
“What Donald Trump could do,” he added, “would be to build on that legacy of bipartisan stewardship and not try to tear it apart.”
Environmentalists aren’t holding their breath for for that to happen.
They’re planning ways to push back.