For anyone concerned about the environment, Donald Trump has loomed like a mythic destroyer.
The president-elect has called climate change a hoax; wants to “unleash” the nation’s oil, gas and coal reserves as the country moves surely to renewable energy like wind and solar; and promises to gut years of regulations that are, among other things, forcing power plants to reduce emissions.
There are reasons for grave concern. There also are reasons to believe that in some cases, Trump’s bark might turn out to be worse than his bite.
Inevitable court challenges and intense public pushback could curtail some of his efforts. Bipartisan congressional opposition to, for example, ending wind and solar tax credits could derail others. And his misunderstanding of what’s really pushing the greening of America could mean that deregulation does little to slow market forces leading the way.
Another factor is Trump’s willingness to walk back his own views. After staking out a clear position as a candidate, he told The New York Times last week that he has “an open mind” about withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreement, and that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change.
If that unpredictability means past playbooks have to be thrown out with a President Trump, some things are clear in the wake of his victory on Nov. 8.
- The reality of climate change was not repealed; it’s still happening and will get worse unless efforts to fight it continue.
- Energy innovation, which has been central to much of the nation’s green progress, will continue.
- Voters did not opt for dirtier air and water and a more dangerous climate.
- Republicans in Congress pining to eliminate as many environmental regulations as possible now control both houses and have a GOP president.
The issues at stake are especially important on Long Island. Our region is on the front line of climate change, threatened by rising sea levels. So states such as New York must continue to lead with sustained efforts to increase alternative energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Trump and his allies in Congress say the choice is between boosting the economy and protecting the environment. It isn’t. We can help both. And we must.
Here are some areas of contention:
Pulling out of the Paris agreement, the accord reached last year in which 195 nations agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, would take about four years because of conditions in the pact. But Trump could try to withdraw from the underlying agreement, signed by President George H.W. Bush and ratified by Congress, which set the framework for climate negotiations. That could take a year and might need congressional approval.
But international climate negotiators are talking about punishing a U.S. withdrawal by taxing American exports based on the carbon pollution created in making them. That could start a trade war. The Trump administration also could find that negotiations with countries whose help we need on other issues would become more difficult. And the public outcry, especially among millennials, would be fierce.
Trump’s claim that lifting restrictions on coal would help produce millions of jobs is contradicted by reality. Demand for coal has been declining for decades. Fracking has made natural gas cheaper and more plentiful, and coal plants have shed jobs through mechanization. In eight years, the share of American electricity produced by coal has dropped from 50 percent to about 30 percent. Trump probably could lift Obama’s moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, but miners there already have a glut of coal and aren’t clamoring for more leases.
This might be the most worrisome area in terms of real potential for environmental harm. Congress has been trying to roll back key environmental standards for years.
Changes could include lifting restrictions on power plant emissions, revising standards for fuel efficiency and pollution for cars and trucks, removing protections from many water bodies, and inhibiting the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce regulations by cutting its funding. One bill would allow new clean air standards, currently determined only by the science of how much smog and soot are safe to breathe, to be blocked if the cost of complying with them is deemed to be too high.
Environmentalists hope the Senate will be a firewall because it takes 60 votes to end a legislation-blocking filibuster, and Republicans will have at most 52 seats. But the GOP can act via the budget reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes. Even then, repealing and rewriting regulations require a public comment period, and often result in long legal battles.
The nation has made real progress that’s been good for the economy, the health of its people and the survival of Earth. Vehicles use less gasoline and emit less pollution, power plants have reduced greenhouse gas and mercury emissions, and many states are meeting benchmarks for reduced emissions ahead of schedule.
We cannot turn back from that now.