State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Trump’s Nonexistent Environmental Platform

It makes little sense to predict Donald Trump’s words or deeds, since his “from the gut” style of policy analysis leaves nearly everything to chance, or what he ate for dinner. True, he has adopted standard right wing rhetoric on regulation and climate change and promises to rip up the Paris Agreement should he become president, but what is his view of environmental protection? In May, the Washington Post‘s Annie Gowen examined his record as a developer and observed that:

“Over the years, Donald Trump — the “Celebrity Apprentice” star, real estate mogul and impossible-to-ignore presidential candidate — has developed 11 luxury golf courses around the world, leaving a trail of happy golfers but angry residents and environmentalists in his wake.”

It appears that Trump does not think about the environment in terms of its importance as a threatened global resource or understand the full dimensions of the issue. But in this sense, his views of environmental issues are similar to his views of other policy issues. As a real estate developer, celebrity, and TV personality, his expertise is in building his brand and getting noticed. Governing and governance are not in his wheelhouse. His TV show, The Apprentice, typically ended with someone getting fired for not meeting Donald’s exacting management standards. This approach might indicate his ignorance of effective management, but there is little evidence that he manages his organizations the way he “managed” on TV. The Apprentice was a TV show; it wasn’t a Harvard Business School management case study. It was entertainment, and on that show Donald Trump was an entertainer.

There will be a great deal of discussion over the next five months of his spontaneous pronouncements on policy issues. But don’t expect to hear much about the environment or sustainability. A search of his campaign website indicates that he pays little attention to environmental policy or sustainability management. It is absent from his section on “issues“ and from his sound bite section on his “positions“. His lack of attention to these issues alone would provide concern about a Trump presidency. But I am worried about something more fundamental, which is that we will not really know what he will actually do as president, because many of the positions he takes do not seem to be deeply held. Forget about careful thought and analysis. At times it seems as if he is simply trying policy positions on for size. They are often not issues he has actually thought about very much.

Trump likes to articulate dramatic positions because they gain him attention. Getting attention is his area of expertise. A nuclear Japan, a wall with Mexico or tearing up the Paris climate agreement — these are positions that guarantee media coverage. He won the Republican nomination by dominating the news cycle. During the campaign, the New York Times estimated that he had already received over $2 billion of free media. His campaign is not about issues, but about his persona and his ability to gain attention.

It is certainly possible to guess his policy preferences. As a developer who likes to build things, we can expect massive investment in infrastructure. That is something America really needs and a President Trump might well rebuild our decaying water supply system. Of course, to do that he would need to get the financing through our anti-deficit, anti-tax congress. As a real estate developer who does not like the government to regulate his activities, EPA could find itself even more resource starved than it is today. But who knows?

A Trump presidency would be like making a bet in one of his now defunct casinos. In casino gambling, the house always wins. The problem with a Trump White House is we won’t know who owns the house. The argument for taking such a “huge” chance on the most powerful public office in the world is that the country is in such terrible condition that it’s worth the risk. But is America the mess that President Obama’s critics argue? The economy President Obama inherited from George W. Bush was in free fall and now it is growing. Our environment is cleaner today than when Obama took office and we have managed to reduce greenhouse gases while growing the economy. Yes, we have great challenges and a fully functioning federal government would be helpful in meeting those challenges, but it is difficult to argue that America is a failing nation. Moreover, history will judge President Obama as a successful president. So why risk the nation’s wellbeing on an untested amateur?

The environmental argument against Trump is not based on his policy positions, but in his lack of attention or understanding of those issues. His one “major” environmental policy address during his campaign for the Republican nomination was actually a speech about energy, not environment, that he delivered in North Dakota in late May. According to New York Times reporters Ashley Parker and Coral Davenport:

“Donald J. Trump traveled Thursday to the heart of America’s oil and gas boom, where he called for more fossil fuel drilling and fewer environmental regulations while vowing to “cancel the Paris climate agreement,” the 2015 accord committing nearly every nation to taking action to curb climate change. Laying out his positions on energy and the environment at an oil industry conference in North Dakota, he vowed to rescind President Obama’s signature climate change rules and revive construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring petroleum from Canada’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.”

What was most striking about his address was its lack of command of the complexity of global energy economics and his call for energy independence, a 20th century policy idea made irrelevant by the 21st century’s global economy. Parker and Davenport reported that:

“…experts remain skeptical of Mr. Trump’s command of the complexities of the global energy economy. And he made claims, such as a promise to restore jobs lost in coal mining, that essentially defy free-market forces.”

Dismissing the urgency of the climate crisis, Trump declared that under his presidency: “We’re going to deal with real environmental challenges, not the phony ones we’ve been hearing about.” But he didn’t spend any time discussing those other challenges. As a real estate developer he knows the value of clean air and water and the negative impact of toxics on land values. Perhaps those are the real environmental challenges he was referring to.

Every American president comes to the job as an untested amateur. There is no training program for future presidents that can possibly prepare someone for the challenges of that office. Look at how the American presidency ages its incumbents. Look at “before” and “after” photos of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama will soon give us another example of how rough those eight years can be. There are examples of presidents, such as Harry Truman, who rose to the occasion, and presidents such as John F. Kennedy who grew on the job. So it is difficult to predict presidential performance.

But there is something about the Trump candidacy that tells us we are in uncharted territory. While no president can possibly be prepared for the job, he brings lack of preparation to a new level. As for environment and sustainability, a search for his environmental platform after months of campaigning finds very little. Many of his policy pronouncements — from the Mexican wall to renegotiating our national debt — are beyond infeasible, they are absurd. But in assessing his environmental platform, or any of his policy positions, the problem is not what he says, but what he omits. His campaign is not about issues, but about his bearing and attitude. There is no point in assessing his environmental platform, because there is nothing to assess. I guess policy positions are for political candidates, not “celebridates” who simply want to make America great again.

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