Environmental Forecast Under Trump: Partly Cloudy

The future does not look green, but the next president may not do as much damage as many fear. Environmental activist Alon Tal weighs in on what to expect in the Trump era.

 In this May 5, 2016 photo,coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va.
Steve Helber / AP

As his term in office drew to its close at the end of the 1980s, Republican President Ronald Reagan wanted to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Reagan, who was elected in part because of his promise to decrease government regulation, which many saw as a limiting the spirit of free enterprise, claimed that environmental regulation constituted an obstacle to American industry. Then, much to his surprise, he discovered that the measure was subjecting him to a lot of criticism, was not leading to the glory he had expected, and that it could become a blot on his legacy. If he were to implement it, he realized, he would always be remembered as the president who shut down the EPA. So he changed his mind.

His U-turn also occurred thanks to an effective campaign environmentalists conducted against him. They accused him of being about to go back to poisoning American citizens’ air and water, a very fraught topic at that period in light of a number of infamous incidents in which a clear link was shown between air and war pollution and serious illnesses like cancer, especially among children.

“It turned out that despite the oil companies’ economic interests, even the rightist public has a commitment to the environment,” says Prof. Alon Tal, who did his doctorate at Harvard University during the Reagan era. At that time he also worked as an advisor to the EPA and has first-hand knowledge of the events. Subsequently Tal returned to Israel, established the organization for the protection of Israel’s environment and public health and after that, EcoPeace (Middle East), which is also known as Friends of the Earth. Currently he is the chair of the department of public policy at Tel Aviv University.

“Everyone wants his children to breathe clean air and not to develop asthma, or at least to open a faucet and not get cancer later on,” he says. “This is apparently not an issue that is necessarily identified with the Democratic Party, as people usually think.” Add to this another fact that may come as a surprise to many: The president who founded the EPA in 1970 was Richard Nixon, a Republican.

Reagan’s thwarted attempt leaves Tal and some of his colleagues optimistic about the future of the environment in the Donald Trump era. Tal explains that the American EPA has about 15,000 employees (50 times more than the Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry), spread out in offices in each of the 50 states. It will be difficult for President-elect Donald Trump, as well as his pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, to fire so many government workers. “There’s also the fact that on issues of air and water pollution, he doesn’t have many options. He is obligated to leave the situation at least the way it is,” says Tal. The reason for this lies in two veteran and established laws – the 1963 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act. It would take complicated and lengthy bureaucratic procedures to revoke them.

Ivanka Trump, daughter of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, arrives at Trump Tower in New York, on Nov. 18, 2016.
John Taggart/Bloomberg

The Tillerson paradox

However, not everyone believes the future will be green. First of all, because of Trump’s loathing for environmental issues and, secondly, because of the identities of the individuals he has picked as EPA head and secretary of state. Pruitt, who is slated to head the EPA, currently serves as the attorney general of the state of Oklahoma and is considered a “climate change denier.” In an article he published in May of last year in the magazine National Review, Pruitt wrote that scientists continue to disagree about the extent of global warming and its connection to human activity. He noted that the discussion is far from closed.

Michael Brune, executive director of the veteran Sierra Club environmental organization, said recently that appointing Pruitt to head the EPA “is like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.” Brune was referring to the fact that as attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the federal EPA no less than five times, on each occasion on the side of polluting industries. This energetic activity earned him the sobriquet “a fossil fuel industry puppet.” The best-known story in this context occurred in 2011 and was revealed in 2014 by The New York Times. Pruitt wrote a harsh letter to the EPA in which he charged that the agency was exaggerating the air pollution figures of a number of natural gas drilling companies in Oklahoma (that is, he claimed that they were polluting less than what was indicated in the EPA data). The letter was on state government stationary but was in fact written by the lawyers of one of the largest energy companies in the state, Devon Energy. A lobbyist for the company emailed the text to Pruitt, who did a cut-and-paste job.

The secretary of state–designate, Rex Tillerson, is even more interesting. For 11 years now he has served as chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, where he worked for 41 years. Exxon is involved in one of largest deceptions connected to global warming. In 2015 the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site Inside Climate News published an extensive investigation proving that as far back as 1997 Exxon knew that its main product – coal energy – would cause warming of the atmosphere. Top executives of the company at the time hid information from the public and funded costly campaigns denying this fact.

Alon Tal
Tomer Appelbaum

This is a tragedy of global dimensions, since had the Exxon people revealed the findings of their own studies at the time, two decades before Al Gore began to travel the world with his slide show, it is possible that the world would have acted to moderate the warming sooner and might have succeeded in slowing its destructive pace. It is with reason that Ken Kimmell, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, compared putting Tillerson at the head of the State Department to appointing “the CEO of a tobacco company to serve as surgeon general.” The people at the environmental organization 350.org have gone so far as to declare Tillerson as deserving of a government investigation, not a government role.

However, beginning in 2006 when Tillerson was appointed CEO of the company, Exxon admitted publicly that fossil fuels cause emissions, which lead to global warming. In Tillerson’s day the company adopted a policy of reducing pollution and recently even gave public support to the Paris climate agreement, which the countries of the world signed with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing the pace of global warming.

Tal is saddened by this Tillerson paradox – on the one hand he heads a company that hid critical information from the public, and on the other hand he supports climate activity in contrast to his colleague designated to head the EPA. Says Tal: “It’s a huge pity that with regard to the issue of climate change we have to pin our hopes on the CEO of Exxon. This is a really sad situation, but it is the situation.”

And what does their boss-to-be think? Not clear. During the election campaign Trump tweeted that global warming is a Chinese conspiracy aimed at making American industry uncompetitive. He also promised he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, would not transfer aid monies to climate victims in developing countries (as stipulated in the Paris agreement) and would make it difficult to fund clean energy. However, recently in the course of an interview to The New York Times he said he was looking closely into the climate issue and he has an open mind about it.

Scott Pruitt
Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP

Further along in the interview, when asked about his opinion of the connection between global warming and human activity he replied: “I think right now well, I think there is some connectivity. There is some, something. It depends on how much.” Though this reply is confused and opaque, it does hit two important notes – it doesn’t include climate change denial and it admits that nevertheless there does exist a connection between global warming and humans. In any case, one can take comfort in the fact that in order to pull out of the Paris agreement, it is necessary to give notice four years in advance.

Added to Trump’s lack of coherence is the fact that in 2009 he, together with his adult children, signed a petition calling upon President Barack Obama’s administration to make a greater effort to minimize climate change.

Moreover, there have been inconclusive reports that Trump’s daughter Ivanka will have an office in the White House and her official role will be unpaid advisor, as is usually the case for the First Lady. Ivanka has declared that there are two issues in which she is interested in being involved: one is young families and the other, to the surprise of many, is climate change. Since the elections she has already met with Gore and even brought her father into the meeting. In an interview he gave after the meeting, Gore said he is impressed by her reasonable climate policy and admires the fact that she is very involved in the issue. He also described the meeting with her and her father as an intelligent exchange of views.

Father and daughter also held another interesting meeting on the issue with actor Leonardo DiCaprio. In that meeting, the actor presented the President-elect and his daughter with the extensive study carried out by economists, environmentalists and people at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, his environmental fund, about the many ways in which it is possible to create jobs in construction, commerce and infrastructures while transitioning to renewable energy and high environmental standards. DiCaprio also gave them a copy of the documentary film he produced, “Before the Flood,” which is about climate change and its effect on planet Earth.

A file photo of Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson addressing the World Gas Conference in Paris, June 2, 2015.
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP

Hogtied by Obama

What is clear is that even if the situation isn’t going to get any worse, as the optimists are expecting, it definitely isn’t going to get any better. Outgoing President Obama hogtied Trump at the last minute with a number of national parks and withdrawal of some drilling permits. For example, in November the president banned gold mining in the area of Yellowstone National Park and last month prohibited by law oil and gas drilling in large swaths of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. All this might to some extent cramp the lust for mining and drilling evinced by Trump’s friends but it will not improve the existing situation.

In one of the most brilliant moments during his election campaign, Trump marched with coal miners from Pennsylvania and Ohio to protest against what they called Obama’s abandonment and neglect. This came in the wake of one of the major laws Obama passed during his term in office, almost as major as Obamacare. This was the Clean Power Act, which obligates the individual states to reduce polluting emissions by transitioning to clean energy. Like the nature reserves Obama declared at the last minute, this too put a serious spoke in Trump’s wheel – the President-elect doesn’t have solar or wind-generation energy production at the top of his list. Pruitt, incidentally, was one of the 28 attorney generals who filed a suit against this law. It will be interesting to see what a person who filed a suit against that law will do when he heads the agency that now has to enforce it.

The two states in which Trump marched with the miners gave him the majority of votes in the Electoral College and now the question arises as to whether he will be able to stand by his promise to re-open the coal mines. Tal is resolute in his view. “He is lying,” he says categorically. “This isn’t new — he is accustomed to lying and we are accustomed to him lying. But the reason he is lying in this case is that they aren’t mining any more coal in the United States, because it is more expensive than mining natural gas. The hydraulic fracking method pays off a lot better. This is a worldwide economic trend and even in China they are shutting down coal mines.”

Tal sums up Trump’s approaching term in office thus: “It is true that we have reasons to cling to a hope that he will not destroy all of the environmental achievements in the United States and the world. Along with that, humanity needs a lot more than hope alone.”