Get used to the sound of that, my environment-oriented friends.
Is this end times for environmental progress or, more specifically, climate progress?
The bad news about climate change is, in a way, the good news:
The main forces determining emission levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide will be just as much out of President Trump’s hands as they were out of President Obama’s. The decline in the United States
has mainly been due to market forces shifting electricity generation from coal to abundant and cheaper natural gas, along with environmental regulations
built around the traditional basket of pollutants that even conservatives agreed were worth restricting.
(Efficiency and gas-mileage standards and other factors have helped, too, of course.)
At the same time, the unrelenting rise in greenhouse-gas emissions in developing countries is propelled by an unbending reality identified way back in 2005 by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, when he said, “The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge.”
At the same time, as well, other fundamental forces will continue to drive polluted China and smog-choked India to move away from unfettered coal combustion as a path to progress. An expanding middle class is already demanding
cleaner air and sustainable transportation choices — just as similar forces enabled pollution cleanups in the United States in the last century.
That’s why the Paris Agreement on climate change will continue to register progress on emissions and investments in clean energy or climate resilience,
but only within the limits of what nations already consider achievable (as others will be explaining in detail because the first post-Paris round of negotiations is under way right now in Marrakech).
Long ago, Jesse Ausubel, a veteran Rockefeller University analyst of global resource and environmental trends, asserted that, “in general, politicians are pulling on disconnected levers”
at the intersection of energy and environmental policy.
In climate arena, politicians mostly pull on “disconnected levers” (Ausubel @RockefellerUniv) //t.co/5RLHMB6CYh //t.co/CnxnP8aZVf
As I wrote in 2014, that doesn’t mean environmental agendas by politicians are
useless, and environmentalism remains vital as a result. But what approach is most workable, particularly under a Trump administration with Congress in Republican control?
Is it end times for 20th-century-style us-them environmentalism?
That’s up to the movement.
One response to a Trump presidency will be to double down with more pipeline blockades and other efforts to “keep it [carbon] in the ground.”
I’m not saying there’s no utility there. As I wrote on Monday,
the Dakota Access Pipeline actions have brought much-needed attention to some longstanding grievances of Native Americans, including the diversion of environmental risks from the neighborhoods of more empowered
constituencies onto Sioux lands and waterways. And revealing, and pressing, the banks financing the pipeline project is great.
But timing matters. Thinking ahead, for example, to the next congressional race, in 2018, I’d recommend avoiding the tactics used by those who tried to make the Standing Rock action as much about climate and carbon as Native American justice. With that in mind, I think it’s worth including a section I cut from my Monday post — a section I held off running at the time following
Mark Twain’s dictum about the value of “unsent letters.”
The section dealt with Bill McKibben’s message in an Op-Ed article in The Times explaining “Why Dakota is the New Keystone.”
I felt it was a mistake for McKibben (an old friend from decades spent in parallel, but divergent, tracks on climate change) and others to make this a green litmus test for Hillary Clinton:
In the final hours of an incredibly consequential presidential race in which every vote — centrist or liberal — will play an important role, I was discouraged to see him use this moment to criticize
Hillary Clinton’s campaign for “ugly silence” in not jumping to the ramparts on this.
Is there any logic to this at the end of an extraordinarily divisive campaign in which polls are
tightening? Let me know if you see it.
Is forcing that statement a victory?
Should this have been made an Election Day issue?
I guess we’ll find out.
We just found out.
Of course Clinton’s defeat was a devastating political death of a thousand cuts — many self inflicted, others not. But this strategy of the green left was surely in the mix because it negated real concerns
of working people facing economic uncertainty.
Obama recognized the importance of taking such concerns into account in hist great “South By South Lawn”
climate conversation with the scientist Katharine Hayhoe and the actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio:
I think it is important for those of us who care deeply about this — and Katharine is a wonderful example of the right way to do it — to not be dismissive of people’s concerns when it comes
to what will this mean for me and my family. Right?
So if you’re a working-class family, and dad has to drive 50 miles to get to his job, and he can’t afford to buy a Tesla or a Prius, and the most important thing to him economically to make sure he
can pay the bills at the end of the month is the price of gas, and when gas prices are low that means an extra 100 bucks in his pocket, or 200 bucks in his pocket, and that may make the difference about whether
or not he can buy enough food for his kids — if you just start lecturing him about climate change and what’s going to happen to the planet 50 years from now, it’s just not going to register.
Watch the video here.]
So what do environment-minded citizens, including journalists, do next?
There’s plenty to do, much of which is continuing lines of effort that are already under way — as with communities and organizations and media identifying a host of problems, from Volkswagen’s cheating to continuing leakage of methane from “super-emitter” sources in our oil and gas infrastructure.
I’ll be trying to do what I’ve done for a very long time — hold people in power accountable for actions or inactions that can result in harm or betterment. There are green glimmers amid the most polarizing sound bites of the Trump campaign. One came in his responses
to the questions posed by the Science Debate organization:
“Perhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels.”
That’s a statement I plan to hold him accountable on. I wrote on it in my piece on Trump’s choice to run the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency — Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Last night, I sent Ebell a note asking for his new contact information. I’ll be getting in touch as soon as he’s up and running.
Here’s another answer Trump’s team provided to the Science Debate folks:
[T]he federal government should encourage innovation in the areas of space exploration and investment in research and development across the broad landscape of academia. Though there are increasing demands to curtail
spending and to balance the federal budget, we must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer and more prosperous.
I’ll be keeping track on that front, as well, given the critical role invigorated basic research will have in accelerating a transition from the fuels of convenience to clean-energy choices that can work not only here, but everywhere.
Postscripts | First, keep in mind that I’ve restricted my comments here to environmental policies. I’m as troubled as anyone else seeking a welcoming, equitable, informed and enterprising America in what Trump’s rhetoric has fueled and could do going forward if not modulated.
– Here’s the latest Warm Regards podcast, focused on the implications of the election, laying out heartfelt concerns of a climate researcher (Jacquelyn Gill of the University of Maine), a deeply concerned
meteorologist (Eric Holthaus) and yours truly:
– Gary W. Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan long focused on energy and climate, noted another important factor that will limit Trump’s options and offer environmentalists
a powerful prod:
It should be noted that carbon emissions were identified as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act (that was passed by Congress under the Nixon Administration and amended under Clinton). This finding was confirmed
by the Supreme Court. All three branches of the federal government therefore agree that the Administration, through the E.P.A. must, by law, do as much as it can to reduce emissions to reduce damages
and minimize human health risks. This is what the Obama Administration has been doing. Were the Trump Administration to ignore this legal imperative, it would be sued by the E.D.F., the Nature Conservancy, the
Union of Concerned Scientists, and/or…. for being derelict in meeting their statutory obligations.
– Read Brad Plumer’s analysis at Vox for some more on both the concern side and the hope side — ignoring the awful headline,
which doesn’t reflect what he wrote. (this was the hopeful tweet):
That said, the climate fight is *not* yet lost altogether. There are reasons for hope, too. https://t.co/Feop2e7wJo
– Also read Jonathan Chait of New York University in New York Magazine:
We should meet this disaster with resolve, not despair. https://t.co/BvKm1DKL1i https://t.co/pVYtJwuRAl
– Tom Yulsman of the University of Colorado, Boulder, journalism program, posted this:
Dear President Elect Trump: Climate change is no hoax https://t.co/1wLiTv1Lsm Raining near North Pole> @yulsman
– David Roberts at Vox worries that “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees.”
– Here’s a good piece by Joe Romm at Climate Progress noting that the trend away from coal is relentless, while the
prospects for cabinet appointments and science funding are dire. The tweet has an early version of Trump’s “first 100 days” vision:
Will Trump go down in history as the man who pulled the plug on a livable climate? Good Romm @climateprogress post… https://t.co/eajWOwuT2n
Robert Stavins, a Harvard economist focused on energy and climate, wrote a short piece for The Times listing the many steps Trump can take to undo Obama’s administrative steps, but noted a glaring inconsistency in Trump’s own pledges:
On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump promised to “bring back” the coal industry by cutting environmental regulations. That may not be so easy. The decline of that industry and related employment has been caused by technological changes in mining,
and competition from low-priced natural gas for electricity generation, not by environmental regulations. At the same time, Mr. Trump has pledged to promote fracking for oil and gas, but that would make natural
gas even more economically attractive, and accelerate the elimination of coal-sector jobs.
Moving from sound bites to concrete steps may be Trump’s biggest challenge.
But Paul Voosen at Science Magazine’s news side does a good job summarizing what Trump can do here:
Sobering Paul @voooos roundup of ways #potusTrump could undermine climate action from #UNFCCC to cabinet level. https://t.co/Kt4XFdLznN
And now David Roberts and Brad Plumer have posted a super-sobering list of areas in which Republicans, both in
Congress and the White House, can muck things up — particularly if Senate Democrats can’t retain filibuster power:
We interrupt your “it won’t be so bad” & “now’s the time for hugz” pieces to bring you news of a policy catastrophe: https://t.co/8yUvKqKrfQ