State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Resisting Trump’s Relentless Attack on the Environment

As our air and water became visibly polluted in the middle of the 20th century and we discovered that our land was being poisoned by thousands of abandoned toxic waste sites, Americans demanded a clean environment. In response, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s we established a path-breaking system of law protecting and preserving our natural environment. There was a national bi-partisan consensus behind environmental protection. Nearly everyone understood why it was important and supported preserving what remained of the wilderness, protecting animals that faced extinction, and cleaning the air, water and land of poisons.

Some worried that all these environmental rules would destroy the American economy. Environmental law had the opposite effect. Until the United States Environmental Protection Agency was started in 1970, America’s gross domestic product (GDP) rose through most of the 20th century, as did the absolute amount of air, water and toxic pollution. Once the initial environmental regulations were finally implemented around 1980, we saw the GDP continue to grow, while the absolute load of pollution started to be reduced — reductions that continue today. How did we do it? Some say it was because we exported all our dirty industries to the developing world. Some of that happened, but the real answer is we spent money on technology that kept our air and water clean and we stopped allowing businesses to dump toxic chemicals wherever they could dig a hole. We have many more cars, people and electric power today than we had in 1970, but our cars have pollution control devices, as do many power plants. We treat our sewage before we release it back into our waterways. This cleaner environment was brought to you by the great American environmental consensus and a set of practical, business-sensitive regulations. The rules sparked technological innovation and made our nation healthier and wealthier.

Last week the New York Times Editorial Board commented on the attack on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). According to the Times:

The Interior Department announced a set of rules on Monday that…will weaken how the nation’s most important conservation law, the Endangered Species Act, is applied. The proposed changes would make it harder to shield fragile species not only from commercial development like logging and oil and gas drilling, but also from the multiple threats posed by climate change. Specifically, the rules would complicate the task of getting species listed as threatened or endangered in the first place, and would reduce the habitat judged necessary for their survival. These changes should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to this administration’s environmental and energy policies over the past two years. They are fully consistent with a broader pattern of regulatory moves aimed at reducing costs and burdens on business. They are in keeping as well with a host of other actions supporting President Trump’s policy of “energy dominance,” including but not limited to a pell-mell rush to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, the evisceration of two national monuments in Utah to make way for drilling and mining, and clawing back nine million acres in several oil-rich Western states…

The Times piece noted that the ESA passed the House of Representatives by a 355-4 margin. The Times’ editors are not certain that a bill like this could be enacted in today’s hyper-partisan environment. Perhaps, but a vote to repeal or replace it would have even less of a chance. Moreover, the support for the Endangered Species Act remains strong. In a careful study of public opinion on the Act published in the journal Conservation Letters a team of scholars (Jeremy T. Bruskotter, John A. Vucetich, Kristina M. Slagle, Ramiro Breardo, Ajay S. Singh and Robyn Wilson) studied public attitudes toward the Endangered Species Act. This study:

“…used data from a 2014 survey (n = 1,287) of U.S. residents and recent polls to assess how public support for the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) changed over time, and whether protecting controversial species affects support for the law. We assessed support for the ESA, trust in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and attitudes toward wolves across three regions with different experiences in conserving gray wolves through the ESA. We found: (a) 4 in 5 Americans support the ESA, whereas 1 in 10 oppose; (b) support for the ESA remained stable over the past two decades”

Public support on all environmental issues is similar to what these scholars report on endangered species. Support is rarely lower than 70 percent, opposition to environmental protection rarely exceeds 25 percent. The public really gets it. They don’t want arrogant, arbitrary bureaucrats telling them what to do, but they know we only have one planet and once a fragile ecosystem is destroyed, most of the damage is irreversible. And yet the Trump administration sees the natural environment as a resource to exploit. Dig it, mine it, pump it, turn it into condos and a golf course. The crew in charge seeks something macho and moronic they call “energy dominance.” So how can these policies and barbaric tendencies be resisted? How can the 80 percent prevail over 20 percent?

First, let’s remember despite efforts at voter suppression and the outsized role of money in politics, we remain a representative democracy. Yes, our norms are being shattered by the mean and small-minded man in the White House. This president who separates children from parents, attacks dead war heroes, and asks a foreign government to ban visits by members of Congress. It is a disheartening and sometimes scary display of mindlessness, still supported by about 40 percent of the country. But America retains a federal political system of shared sovereignty between the national government and the states. So, there are limits to the power of the federal government. And while political polarization leads to dysfunction, the other side of polarization is the mass mobilization of communities and the electorate. Donald Trump provides a visible symbol of anti-environmentalism certain to increase environmentalist voter turnout. Therefore, one element of fighting these backward environmental policies is registering people to vote and working on election day to turn out the vote. The motivation is there; all that’s needed is some organization.

Other steps include the ones that our state attorney generals are engaged in to prevent these Trumpian anti-environmental regulations from being implemented. The argument is simple. Regulations must be consistent with the law. If the law defines endangered species one way, the rule can’t propose another way. Not only are states suing, but environmental interest groups are also suing. These environmental groups need our money. Let’s do what we can to help.

The other tactic is to not play your entire game on Trump’s turf. States and cities can pass their own laws protecting their own natural resources. Companies can be enlisted to adhere to green principles. Customers can be asked to patronize companies who practice sustainability management. Communities can take steps to bring out volunteers to plant, clean-up, and do whatever is needed to protect the planet.

And finally, there is the strategy that I’ve personally pursued for nearly four decades. Research, write, educate, advise, and help build a generation of sustainability professionals. I’m far from alone, environmental sustainability education is booming all over America and all over the world. At Columbia University we have been doing this for decades, taken to a new level in the 21st century with a suite of multi-disciplinary sustainability education programs: the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy, the MA in Climate and Society, the MPA in Development Practice, the PhD and undergraduate programs in Sustainable Development, the MS in Sustainability Management and the MS in Sustainability Science. Those of us who work in universities must teach, learn and be open to new knowledge and be willing to change as we learn.

The environmental rules that Trump attacks will outlast him because we are all living creatures dependent on the planet for the air, water and food. The threats to the planet and the technology needed to respond to those threats are constantly evolving. We need to keep current with the changing planet and with the changing political, economic, social and technological world we are trying to maintain. By keeping informed and creatively exploring alternatives to federal anti-environmental policies, we can continue on the path of environmental progress.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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4 years ago

Yes Mr. Cohen, we do have the blessing of living in a representative Republic through which the citizenry authorizes legislators to develop and enact laws that protect our environment. These same legislators also allow the various departments within an administration (whether Democrat or Republican controlled) to devise, implement and if necessary change rules and regulations to enforce the legislative intent of the laws passed. The problem with your position is that you have no desire to balance the application of the ESA law with other priorities facing the nation and by extension, its people. I assert the previous administration abused its discretion and used the ESA to inappropriately punish business with the resulting impact (in concert with other restrictive policies) of creating a slow/no growth economy that threw people out of work, increased the rate of poverty and reduced the standard of living for millions. No one I know wants to go back to the way it was prior to enactment of the ESA with its pollution and myriad other related issues. However, we also need to consider the human condition. These changes being made represent nothing more than a re-balancing of priorities to address needs of the present and abuses of the past. The ESA is not being repealed and is still in force. Sorry this gores your ox, but that is the way our system works. Keep working to educate and advise but please make sure your work is free of bias and agenda. Using insulting and divisive rhetoric only serves to harden the opposition to the very thing you seek to do.