As the U.S. comes to terms with the reality of Donald Trump as the 45th president, countless communities find themselves consumed by fear. While many feel their personal safety is at stake, some fear for the safety of something much larger: the planet. Since Trump’s proclamation that climate change is a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” environmentalists across the nation have known that this businessman-turned-president would have little interest in protecting natural resources. Now that Trump has shockingly emerged victorious, advocates for environmental protection must ask themselves: what is the planet’s current situation? Where is the future of our environment headed? And is there anything we can do to defend it amidst a Trump Administration?
It must be noted, as New York Times writer Andrew Revkin pointed out, that much of the current environmental situation is out of Trump’s hands. In recent years, emission levels of carbon dioxide have actually decreased due to the use of abundant and cheap natural gas to generate electricity, rather than coal. In addition, the government has imposed regulations in past years that restrict pollutants—regulations to which even conservatives agreed. The fact remains, however, that climate change is not a hoax. Tim Yulsman of the journalism program at CU Boulder points to the North Pole to illustrate climate change’s tangible consequences. This year there has been record rainfall at the pole, to the point that inhabitants have been evacuated due to subsequent landslides. Moreover, the pole’s average temperature this year was a staggering 15 degrees above normal. Yet, regardless of who is in power, be it Trump or the most avid environmentalist, the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and thus climate change, is due to become a fundamental problem in every country. No nation wants to sacrifice their economy for environmental issues, especially a nation that will be run by businessman Trump.
Currently, the U.S. operates under the Paris Agreement as its primary environmental policy. The agreement, proposed in December of 2015 by the UN, commits governments to preventing global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to work even harder to keep the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. While the agreement is well-intentioned, the proposal is not as aggressive towards emissions as it could be. To make matters worse, Trump has threatened to “cancel” the agreement altogether within his first 100 days in office and to “stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to UN global warming programs.” This statement spurred many countries to finally sign the agreement out of fear, resulting in the agreement becoming international law on Nov. 4. Thus, if Trump really does try to follow through, he will be disinterested, if not powerless—it would take up to four years for the agreement to be rescinded.
Trump has been vague about his intended environmental policies, but he has made some nerve-wracking assertions. Obama worked heavily to reduce carbon emissions via executive orders such as the Clean Power Plan, and Trump wants to scrap them completely. (Clinton, on the other hand, planned to build on the existing legislation, including the Paris Agreement). Fortunately, as Environmental Program Professor Corina McKendry pointed out, executive orders are “hard to do and hard to un-do.” She conceded that there will be “roll-back on a lot of efforts to regulate emissions,” but at the end of the day, those in power “can’t weaken [policies] as much as they want to.” After all, most Americans are very aware of the need to increase sustainability for the good of the planet. Plain and simple, “People don’t want dirty air and dirty water,” said McKendry. Though the government can “limit enforcement [of regulations], limit the budget for enforcement,” people still ultimately care enough about the environment that they would push back should policies be removed.
In addition to dismantling current legislation, Trump has threatened to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) altogether. McKendry explained that this threat is overall rash, and that “he’s just going to limit it,” which is “consistent with the Republican platform.” As president, Trump also has the authority to appoint a new, anti-regulatory head of the EPA. “He’s likely [to put] a big anti-climate person in charge,” McKendry said. (In fact, Trump is appointing Myron Ebell, chairman of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a conservative, a climate skeptic, and, shockingly, a Colorado College alum.) Along with these plans, Trump would like to repeal funding for wind, solar, and nuclear energy, as well as for electric cars. He is interested in “[opening] up more public lands for oil and gas development, which he could do,” added McKendry. Last but not least, Trump has looked into restoring the coal industry, but McKendry thinks this initiative is “unlikely, due to decreasing demand internationally” for coal. According to Lux Research, Trump’s policies—or what we can make of them—have the potential to create an extra 3.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions compared to Clinton’s intended policies. If that weren’t enough cause for alarm, an FYE student of McKendry’s revealed the bigger issue: Trump’s environmental objectives can do the most damage of any policies he imposes, for “once we’ve crossed the threshold for climate change, we can never go back.”
It is easy at a time like this to throw our hands up in despair and wonder if there is anything we can do. Revkin recommends that, for starters, we need to hold Trump accountable. Trump himself actually admitted to the Science Debate organization, “Perhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels.” Additionally, back in 2009, Trump paid for an advertisement in the New York Times to publish an open letter to Congress and the Obama Administration to enact more aggressive policies towards climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. McKendry stated that Trump even signed the letter, which emphasized that preventative measures would aid economic growth and develop new jobs. Therefore, although Trump is full of threats, he has taken an appropriate stance on climate change at some points—we simply cannot let him forget it.
We also just need to remain calm. As McKendry stated, Trump cannot rescind Obama’s executive orders with a simple snap of his fingers. In fact, Wesleyan economist Gary Yohe pointed out that when the Clean Air Act was enacted, not only did the House and Senate identify carbon emissions as pollutants, but so did the Supreme Court. Hence, all three branches of government have agreed that the Trump Administration and EPA are obligated to minimize emissions and the health risks they impose. Coupled with the fact that wind power, solar power, and electric cars are getting cheaper, meaning Trump won’t necessarily be able to argue for reducing or repealing funds, we can possibly breathe a small sigh of relief.
Last but not least, in McKendry’s words, we must remember that “The federal government isn’t everything.” McKendry acknowledged that the government has never been a very effective advocate for climate change prevention, and while it is better to commit nationally to prevention, “cities and states have a lot of power.” She pointed to Edward de Bono’s concept of “thinking vertically,” meaning looking at levels of authority not just from top to bottom, but from bottom to top. “What is the change? What political scale has control over that issue?” she asked. Once these questions have been answered, we can find a place at which to intervene, whether at the state or city level. Writer Brad Plumer of Vox recognizes California and New York as just some states that are working to develop their own policies. Likewise, he reminds us that environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club will never stop fighting for environmental causes.
Should we surrender to imminent destruction of the planet under the Trump Administration? Certainly not. Yes, Trump’s plans are worrisome; yes, he can limit and potentially dismantle the regulations in place that fight climate change. But that doesn’t mean we are powerless. We will hold him accountable to his past words as much as we possibly can. We will keep developing sustainable practices in our day-to-day lives. We will work individually to minimize our carbon footprints, and we will work with organizations, nonprofits, cities, and states to make changes. Ultimately, what prevents or exacerbates climate change is the cooperation of individuals, rather than reliance on an executive to enact sweeping policies to protect the planet. We, as Coloradoans, outdoor recreationalists, and environmental activists, won’t stop advocating for the environment or sustainability just because Trump is now president.