The below comment piece ran in the Business Post in mid-September, tallying the all-out war the Trump regime has waged not just on client science but on decades of cross-party consensus on basic environmental protection. US elections almost always feel consequential, but this time the stakes have probably never been higher.
THE EYES OF the world are fixed on Tuesday, November 3rd, with the future of the US as a democracy now on the ballot. However, a potentially even more ominous deadline looms the following day.
On November 4th, the US is scheduled to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the key intergovernmental accord negotiated in 2015 in a bid to prevent global temperatures from breaching dangerous and likely irreversible thresholds.
If president Trump hoped his withdrawal would lead to the complete collapse of the Agreement, he has been disappointed. Perhaps underlining the decline in US influence since he came to power, not a single country followed its lead.
This week, while being briefed in California on the epic wildfires raging through much of the western US which are being driven by climate-fuelled extreme drought, Trump stepped up his war on science by replying dismissively: “it’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”
This grotesquely anti-scientific statement mirrors repeated Trump pronouncements that the coronavirus would “just disappear.” In response, his Democratic rival, Joe Biden described Trump as a “climate arsonist,” adding that tackling it “requires action, not denial.”
As the world’s second largest polluter, the loss of US diplomatic clout on global climate action has come at the worst possible moment. While the Trump regime is increasingly isolated on the world stage, it has taken a wrecking ball to domestic environmental regulations in attempting to undo half a century of hard-won progress under both Republican and Democrat administrations.
Trump has made little secret of his wish to completely erase the legacy of the Obama administration, and has set about this in a variety of staggeringly petty ways. It is a clear sign of just how far the current president has drifted from any semblance of traditional Republicanism that much of the legacy he is currently destroying was actually put in place by ultra-conservative Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.
Trump eked out an improbable Electoral College victory in 2016 by narrowly winning three traditionally Blue, working class states. Chief among his promises was to revive the coal industry, but neither subsidies nor regulatory roll-back have slowed the coal industry’s continuing death spiral, undercut by cheap fracked gas and renewables.
Some of Obama’s most far-reaching reforms included new regulations on emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals, and Trump has set about eliminating these clear public health wins, despite the fact that the coal industry had already adopted to the new standards.
Between 2012 and 2018, it cost the US energy sector around $3 billion a year to comply with the new rules, but they have been hugely cost-effective, generating public health and productivity benefits of between $37-$90 billion.
While it may seem perverse that any president, even one as vengeful and capricious as Trump, would enact policies that reduced air quality and made the population sicker and less productive, the likely motivation may be racism.
African-Americans are three times more likely to die from air pollution than whites, while more than half of the nine million Americans living close to hazardous waste sites are people of colour.
This staggering racial divide has also been echoed in coronavirus deaths, where African-Americans are dying at almost three times the rate of whites. This is nearly identical to the ratio of US Blacks killed by the police. In the hands of the regime in Washington, air pollution has itself been weaponised against vulnerable minorities.
In an Orwellian twist, the deregulatory purge is being led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), headed by a Trump-appointed former coal lobbyist. Many of the regulations brought in to make offshore drilling safer after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 have since been scrapped, making similar future incidents all-but-inevitable.
Every branch of public administration has been put into the service of Trump and the Republicans who enable him. For instance, the US General Accounting Office’s recent report put the ‘social cost of carbon’ at $11 a ton – a drastic downgrade from the Obama era estimate of $82 a ton.
Weakening of fuel economy standards for cars will lead to an additional one billion tons of emissions from this sector, while also making US cars harder to sell abroad. And, while the Coronavirus pandemic has been a political headache for Trump, his EPA apparatchiks used it as cover to suspend yet more environmental regulations.
In their indecent haste to tear up the rule book, so many corners have been cut that some 87 per cent of legal challenges against the regime have been successful. Given a second term, Trump will aim to remove this barrier by completely politicising the judiciary.
It is no small irony that much of the western US is experiencing unprecedented drought conditions, with major wildfires burning from Alaska to California, while to the east, hurricanes are growing in intensity. Since 1980, there has been an astonishing four-fold increase in the annual number of extreme weather events hitting the US, a pattern certain to worsen as global warming intensifies.
If Joe Biden prevails in November, the US will remain in the Paris Agreement, while his genuinely ambitious $2 trillion climate plan could re-ignite global action. And, whatever about the coronavirus, veteran US news anchor Dan Rather this week put it plainly: “there will be no vaccine for the climate crisis”.
- John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism