State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Trump Cannot Stop the Transition to Environmental Sustainability

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen on the Huffington Post.

With the EPA administrator dining on Trump steaks with chemical polluters, hiring a coal lobbyist as his deputy, and working ceaselessly to dismantle our environmental safety net, it’s easy to get discouraged. With Germany’s transition to renewable energy stalled by a switch from nuclear power to coal power, it can be hard to see how we can develop a renewable resource based, sustainable economy. Change is difficult, and a shift in our view of how the world works will not be a direct, linear process. Nevertheless, I remain confident that the transition to a renewable resource based economy has begun.

Despite EPA Administrator Pruitt’s best efforts, the courts are tossing out many of his efforts to deregulate, because the laws requiring the regulations are still in place. Pruitt knows that this congress will not be amending or withdrawing any environmental statutes. If the law requires regulation, EPA must regulate. EPA’s chief has plenty of administrative discretion and he will be running the weakest enforcement effort in EPA’s nearly half century of existence, but he’s not the only sheriff in town. I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten the power he held when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. State governments, which retain a measure of sovereignty under our federal system, have the power to challenge the federal government in court. And this federal government, led by a president who seems to think that insulting judges is correct behavior, is already discovering how much power the judicial branch has in our system of checks and balances. Trump may think that environmental regulation kills jobs, but most people think poisoned air, water and soil kills people―and so environmental regulation is strongly supported by nearly all Americans.

The complexity of the transition to a sustainable economy should not be understated, but signs of progress are everywhere. Last week, both General Motors and Ford announced dramatic expansions of their plans for electric vehicles. According to a Reuters report on October 2:

“Detroit automaker General Motors Co outlined plans on Monday to add 20 new battery electric and fuel cell vehicles to its global lineup by 2023, financed by robust profits from sales of gasoline-fueled trucks and sport utility vehicles in the United States and China. “General Motors believes in an all-electric future,” GM global product development chief Mark Reuss said during a briefing at the company’s suburban Detroit technical centre. Future generations of GM electric vehicles “will be profitable,” Reuss said, but added it was not clear when GM could make all its new vehicle offerings zero-emission electric cars.”

The auto manufacturers know that the transition has begun, but neither they nor anyone else knows how long it will take. Ford’s announcement noted that it was removing funding budgeted for the development of the internal combustion engine and directing it toward electric vehicles. And according to a Reuters report on October 3:

“By 2022, Ford plans to cut spending on future internal combustion engines by a third, or about $500 million, putting that money instead into expanded electric and hybrid vehicle development, on top of $4.5 billion previously announced. Ford had already promised 13 new electric or hybrid vehicles within the next five years.”

Due to America’s reliance on personal transportation, the electric vehicle is a prerequisite for a renewable resource based economy. California is now considering joining China in setting a target date to phase out the internal combustion engine. Though in New York City most of our transport is by mass transit, much of the rest of the country relies heavily on automobiles that they own and drive. As long as electricity comes from fossil fuels, electric cars do little to address greenhouse gas pollution. But as we shift to renewable energy and smart grids, the electric car becomes a key element of efforts to mitigate climate change by enhancing the use and storage of renewable energy. Auto batteries can be a source of electricity during times of high electric need and can be recharged when the grid is underutilized. As solar, geothermal, and wind technology advances, their price will continue to come down, and before too much longer they will drive fossil fuels from the marketplace.

The transition from our throw-away, toxic and finite resource-based economy has been slow because people like the modern conveniences and lifestyle it delivers. It is seductive and very few people are willing to give it up. The only way we will move to a sustainable economy is if we ensure that the lifestyle based on renewable resources is at least as attractive as the way we live today. That is why the electric car is so important. People like the mobility and freedom of personal transit. If we can replace the internal combustion engine with an electric motor that is as reliable and less expensive to buy and maintain, we can move toward sustainability without sacrificing anything.

While we still need to figure out how to regulate the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world, the sharing economy provides a way for people to consume as much as before, but far more efficiently than under a system dominated by ownership. Next month, Columbia University Press will publish my new book, The Sustainable City. In addition to a discussion of the importance of cities for building sustainable water, energy and waste systems, I also discuss the trend toward more sustainable urban lifestyles. It is not that consumption is being reduced, since GDP continues to grow, but consumption is changing. People don’t own physical movies, music and even books, but download them from web sites. People may not own bikes and cars, but they use them to get around. Consumption is not an end but a means. Coupled with this new attitude toward consumption, many people have a greater understanding of the importance of poison-free food, water and air and of the need for exercise and healthy diets.

This change in attitude and values is most pronounced among young people, but is also a long term trend. I think this concern for “wellness” started a generation ago when parenting became a verb. When I was growing up, “parent” was a pronoun, or even a status. By the time I became a father, however, a person “parented;” parenting was a set of actions you took to raise your children. Modern parents pay close attention to their child’s health and wellbeing. Parents monitor as many of their children’s activities as possible. We even saw the rise of “helicopter parents” who hovered over their kids to make sure they were OK.  While kids in the 1950s and 1960s were not ignored, when I left home for the day, my activities were unsupervised by adults. My friends and I hung out and played ball, we did not go on “play dates.” All that has changed, and many of us have become keenly aware of the dangers posed by the world around us; not just by evil or crazy people, but by drugs, cigarettes, junk food, and a polluted environment. The impact of the environment on a family’s health has become a prime area of concern for many parents.

That now includes global warming. Over the past two months, we have once again seen the danger posed by a world that has ignored the impact of climate change for far too long. In this region, Hurricane Sandy was a wakeup call. The research finding that due to climate change, storms would be more frequent and intense was brought home to us and made real. Hurricane Nate is now the fourth intense storm to hit U.S. territory in only six weeks. The danger posed by these storms has increased the consensus that we must act to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The destruction of infrastructure is painful, life threatening and a significant setback. But the reconstruction that will follow provides an opportunity to begin to build the systems needed to support a renewable resource based economy.

I have little confidence that the ideologues in our national government even understand the challenge posed by our sustainability crisis. If climate change, biodiversity, toxics, species extinction, and the health of our biosphere even appear on their radar screen, they are seen as unimportant issues raised by unimportant people. But Trump cannot stop the attention most of us are paying to environmental sustainability. It is coming from the most powerful social force that exists: parents caring for their children. Sustainability is one of the central issues of our time, and our species has no choice but address them. We will. Because as I often argue, the human species is ingenious―not suicidal.

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6 years ago

The recent auctions for solar and wind outside the US (eliminating the effect of subsidies) tell us that renewable electricity makes sense. Interestingly of all places you might know that at the Old river Control structure in Louisiana there is now a Hydro plant, because the Atchafalaya river is significantly lower than the Mississippi at that point. Also there is a beginning of development of run of the river hydro plants on the canalized Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. There were some 110 years ago, but the local coal snuffed them out

Ian Coleman
Ian Coleman
6 years ago

Okay, Mr. Cohen, which outcome would cause more harm to general population health? Maintaining current levels of air pollution in the United States, or precipitously doubling the cost of energy? My guess (and that is the right word) is that increasing energy costs would cause more damage.

Think what life was like in North America in 1900, before the gasoline engine was in wide use. Has the invention of the gasoline engine done more good or more damage to the health and well-being of North Americans? (A hint: horses dumped thousands of tons of manure on New York City streets every day in 1900.)

Elsewhere on the ‘net, as I’m sure you know, there are sites detailing a recent study by professors from M.I.T. which persuasively argues that “sustainable” sources of energy like wind and solar (which cannot be sustained for more than sixteen hours in a row) will always cost twice as much as their fossil fuel energy equivalents. The only way to force the transition away from fossil fuels is by draconian government fiat. So, in the United States, politicians will seek election on a platform of forcing up energy costs and drastically diminishing the general population standard of living? That’s possible but I can’t see many political scientists claiming it will happen.

And really, poisoned air and water? Where? I will take a wild guess and say that you think that second hand cigarette smoke harms non-smokers. If I’m wrong in this accusation I apologize, but people of that ilk have a neurotic sense that even trivial levels of air pollution are dangerous. And they’re not.

And, as long as I’m here, I was born in 1952, and every meal my Mom served us when we were growing up was rich in refined sugar, saturated fat and salt. And yet miraculously we all grew up to be healthy adults. Because there is no such thing as junk food. There is only too much food consumed.