After Donald Trump’s first month in Washington, he has made straight for some of his most controversial campaign promises – moving ahead with plans for his border wall, attempting to ban refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and escalating his war with the media. His tax returns are still secret, and his conflicts of interests largely have gone unaddressed.
So many alarming facts surround Trump’s presidency that one has to be selective when deciding what to worry about. But in one respect, Trump’s policies, if unchecked, could be truly catastrophic. Not stock market crash catastrophic or 9/11 catastrophic or even World War II catastrophic, but something that could permanently diminish the world in which humans live.
After more than three decades of delayed action, the climate system is rapidly approaching a threshold beyond which a cycle of devastating temperature increases will become irreversible. If this happens, many species will go extinct, oceans and severe drought will overtake major population centers, and famine, global instability, and world war will be serious possibilities. There are a number of actions the world can take to avoid this outcome, and – more than any other country – the U.S. has the power to make it happen. But our new president is doing just the opposite, with the potential to permanently tip the scales of human history.
Trump has placed U.S. foreign policy in the hands of Exxon’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson. His Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, and his nominee for Department of Energy secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, have historically been opposed to the work their departments do. Trume has green-lighted two massive oil pipelines, silenced federal scientists, and is requiring EPA research to undergo political review. He has called for the deletion of climate data from the EPA’s website and signed an executive order to speed up environmental reviews. And, most shocking of all, he’s vowed to “cut regulations by 75 percent,” ordering that for every new regulation proposed, two must be offered up for sacrifice.
A cursory glance at pre-regulation America – and at many industrializing countries today – shows how devastating a 75% decrease would be for all citizens. Regulations are what prevent our food, water, and air from being poisoned, our neighborhoods and parks from being degraded, our airplanes and stock markets from crashing. Prior to the creation of the EPA by President Richard Nixon and the near-unanimous passing of the Clean Water Acts in 1970, the effects of pollution were severe. In the 1970s, for instance, the blood lead levels of U.S. children were on average more than three times the Center for Disease Control’s acceptable maximum amount, mostly from lead in gasoline exhaust. By 2009, that figure had dropped to less than half the acceptable maximum because of environmental regulations. The regulatory revolution begun in the 1970s has made a long list of similar stories a basic part of American society. It’s therefore easy to understand why recent polls show that even most Republicans believe the EPA should either remain as is or be expanded.
But the present-day harm of Trump’s proposed deregulation will be a mere footnote when considered in light of its long-term impact on global emissions and climate cooperation. As more water vapor enters the atmosphere and sea ices melt, release greenhouse gases, and transform from heat-reflectors to heat-absorbers, the vicious cycle of global warming is quickly accelerating. Although the point of no return is uncertain, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that at current emissions levels, it is between five and 20 years away.
Scrapping environmental regulation will only shorten this timetable by increasing emissions and delaying the transition to clean energy. Through exemptions from seven major environmental laws and disproportionate federal subsidies, research investments, and political influence, the fossil fuel industry already has an unfair advantage over clean energy. A 2005 amendment to the Clean Water Acts, for instance, exempts hydraulic fracturing from regulations on poisons and toxins other industries must follow. Virtually no coal-based power plants are subject to the Clean Air Acts, with serious health effects for those living near coal plants. Rather than freeing up the marketplace for fair competition, Trump’s deregulation will simply expand this artificial advantage by allowing the fossil fuel industry to pass more of its costs onto society through health, safety, and environmental damage.
Trump’s claim that deregulation will help the economy is also dubious. A 2015 IMF study estimated that global post-tax subsidies to the fossil fuel industry were $5.3 trillion annually, mostly from a “failure to adequately charge for the cost of domestic environmental damage” through regulations and penalties. The study showed that eliminating these subsidies would lower CO2 emissions by 20%, cut premature air pollution deaths by more than half, and, even after accounting for higher consumer energy costs, raise global economic welfare by $1.8 trillion – 2.2% of global GDP.
A 2011 study by Harvard Medical School found that the hidden costs of U.S. coal use amount to about $345 billion per year. If coal companies, rather than the public, had to pay these costs, the price of coal-generated electricity would more than triple. A similar study by the International Center for Technology Assessment estimated the true price for a gallon of gasoline at $5 to $15. Of course, no one wants to see these kinds of prices on energy bills or at the gas pump, but hiding them doesn’t make them go away. What would make them go away is requiring energy corporations, rather than society at large, to pay these costs, allowing the free market to generate a quicker shift to clean energy.
In other words, deregulation isn’t a sacrifice of the environment on behalf of the economy; it’s an immolation of both for the sake of a dying industry. Already, clean energy is rapidly gaining market parity in many regions and has passed the fossil fuel industry in job creation. With all his talk about creating jobs, it’s fascinating that Trump never mentions the nation’s fastest growing job: wind turbine service technician. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2014 and 2024, this solid middle-class job will grow by 108%, more than twice that of any other occupation. Even states like Texas, where oil money and climate change denial saturate politics, have invested significantly in wind and solar. The direction the world is going is unequivocal. But an uneven playing field means these investments still lag behind our planet’s needs.
In the face of unparalleled catastrophe, realistic solutions are at our fingertips. Our president has chosen to exacerbate the problem and ignore the solutions. Within our little window of history, this may seem like par for the course. But on a grander scale – the scale of today’s children and their direct descendants – it is one of the most shocking phenomenon of our time.
So what does Trump’s opposition have to say about it? Surprisingly, very little. The environment gets a few signs at protests, a headline here and there. But with so much right in front of us – refugees being demonized, visas arbitrarily revoked, allies insulted, democratic precedents trampled – how can we think of the future?
Because if we don’t, we are hypocrites. We undermine the ideological basis for everything else we advocate.
As in most cases of injustice, we can expect a small elite to cling to its myopic self interests and successfully distract a sector of society with false claims. But given the liberal pretense to compassion and rationality, we should also expect a fierce and prominent call against Trump’s environmental agenda. How can liberals, who laud human dignity above all else, prioritize so many causes above the greatest humanitarian crisis of all time? How can they shout so passionately against misogyny, racism, and xenophobia while saying so little about the vast majority of humans – that is, future humans – whose world their society is ravaging? Why should so much energy be given to the relation of past oppression to present injustice when so little is spoken of the present’s exploitation of the future?
I’m not saying these other progressive concerns are unimportant or should not be defended. But insofar as they stem from a genuine sense of justice, as they are framed, rather than the mere advocacy for one group against another, as conservatives describe them, they ought to accompany serious resistance against Trump’s attack on the environment.
Much of Trump’s personality and behaviors are irrational and destabilizing. The dangers of his presidency are real. But wedded to liberal notions of equality and fairness, and necessary to an effective use of political capital, is an adaptable and well-nuanced sense of priority.
At times the zig and zag of contemporary history can seem dizzying, but from a distance it is a small tremor atop a much longer historical arc. If we use our present fear and outrage more wisely, we have a chance of bending the arc away from disaster.