I live in Chicago. Our summers are too hot. Our winters suck. You never know what week in the fall the leaves will actually fall. And you can be picking Easter eggs out of snow banks in the spring.
What’s all this fuss about climate change? It’s just the weather out of control again. Isn’t it?
Our understanding of weather patterns has grown immensely in the last 50 years. Satellite technology has given us new insights into the fragile ozone layer surrounding the earth. Research centers around the world have taken the data, mapped it along historical timelines and determined that carbon dioxide emissions, primarily generated by cars, trucks, factories and power plants, are wreaking havoc on the greenhouse gases that protect our planet.
On television, we see the evidence in ice cliffs falling into the sea off Greenland, New York subways flooding during Hurricane Sandy, and deadly tornados ripping through the Midwest. But that’s what television does, puts the face of disaster right in our living rooms.
There are voices in the alt-right news ecosystem with a different view. They believe all of this talk about climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to keep America from exploiting our coal, oil and natural gas resources.
Unfortunately, one of them is our president.
Rolling Back Obama’s Eco-Legacy
In a bizarre ceremony Tuesday at the headquarters of The Environmental Protection Agency, President Trump issued another executive order rolling back a host of EPA regulations issued under his the Obama administration. All were aimed at meeting America’s pledge to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 26% by 2025 under the Paris Climate Accord. But Trump said nothing about the pact itself, or the environment, or his own views on global warming. His message was jobs, jobs, jobs.
David Roberts, the environment reporter for Vox, eviscerated the speech as ”a sprawling mess . . . comically plutocratic . . . seared with a thick sheen of populist rhetoric . . . a scattershot and utterly unmotivated policy, rooted in deep scientific ignorance, enriching a small set of fossil fuel executives on the basis of no coherent policy rationale.” Don’t sugarcoat it, Dave, what do you really think?
Coal Takes Center Stage
When the Paris Accords were signed in 2016 – by 194 nations – President Obama faced a hostile Congress, so he used the EPA’s regulatory authority to create what he called a Clean Power Plan. The coal industry, which over the last five years has been steadily losing market share to cheaper natural gas prices, would bear the brunt of it.
The EPA orders prevented mines from dumping sludge in nearby rivers and waterways, required expensive retro-fits in dozens of coal-fired power plants and made construction of new ones all but impossible. Obama put a moratorium on new coal leases on federal land and ordered oil and gas companies to plug the methane leaks in their field operations.
Together, all of these would have met our Paris commitment, he said, while smarter conservation efforts and surging renewable energy sources kept the economy humming. But the new president was having none of it.
“My administration is ending the war on coal,” he said. “We’re going to have clean coal. Really clean coal. Together we will create millions of good American jobs, also so many energy jobs, and really lead to unbelievable prosperity.”
Trump made the announcement in a room filled with coal miners, then held the executive order high in the air. “You know what this is? You know what this says?” he beamed. “You’re going back to work.”
Except . . .
Except that’s not what it says at all. It is an executive order that directs his EPA to write new regulations undoing Obama’s old regulations through one of the most politically-charged rulemaking procedures in Washington.
It took the Obama administration two years to get the Clean Power Plan regulations approved. It will take that long and more – with many stops along the way in the federal courts – for Trump’s replacement to get through, predicts Mark Batteau, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan.
“The only people who are going to get jobs out of this are lawyers,” he says.
A Little Bit of History
The EPA was created by Richard Nixon in the hippie-dippie Seventies when Earth Day was an occasion to send Boy Scout troops out to pick up beer cans along the highway.
A year before it came into existence, Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.” On signing the act, Nixon declared that 1970 would be the year “when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment.”
The dirty job of doing that would fall to the EPA. Its task was to handle all the things none of the other federal departments wanted to take on: air pollution, water quality, garbage dumps, smokestack emissions, pesticides, industrial waste, poisonous chemical leaks, endangered species, and recycling programs.
Over the next four decades, Congress would add to the list in an array of bills with high-minded titles like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Superfund clean-up. But funds to enforce them were rarely attached.
Each took the EPA into new frontiers in environmental science. Just to set standards, it had to organize science labs, issue research grants and collaborate with college and university science departments. It set up a national network of testing stations to monitor air and water quality, and funnelled the raw data into arcane computer models that might, over time, yield real world solutions.
Writing the regulations was always a delicate balance between the nation’s economic and environmental interests. Scientists offered complicated explanations for the benefits of a particular EPA rule; the industries affected countered with arguments about jobs lost, or customers ill-served. Public interest groups weighed in during the comment period. Hearings were held. Then more comments, and congressmen who hold the purse strings of the EPA budget were always meddling in on behalf of constituents, or special interests.
Where the EPA invariably gets in trouble is the last mile of the process, enforcement. To stretch an already thin budget, the EPA over the years has forged partnerships with state environmental protection agencies, who handle much of the permitting and inspection duties. But when an air-conditioner repairman can’t use freon anymore, or a farmer gets a citation because his cow manure is flowing into Brown’s Creek, or a developer incredulously asks why he has to file an environmental impact statement, the blame falls on the EPA.
The Rare and Endangered Snail Darter
It was only three years after the EPA was created that it became embroiled in its first controversy. In 1973, a scientific researcher found a school of rare but endangered snail darters living in the shallows next to a dam under construction on the Little Tennessee River. The Endangered Species Act made saving the fish, no bigger than bait, a priority over all federally funded projects. The construction was halted. The Tennessee Valley took the case to court, and the Tellico Dam — already 99% complete — sat idle for five years until the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 reaffirmed the fish’s inalienable right to exist.
With half of the Tennessee Valley waiting on the 200 million new kilowatt hours of hydroelectric power the dam could deliver every year, Sen. Howard Baker took to the floor of the Senate to ask his colleagues for a new bill exempting the Tellico Dam from the act.
“I have nothing personal against the snail darter. He seems to be quite a nice little fish, as fish go,” he said, but “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom of the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else.” The bill sailed through, and the dam opened in 1979.
The Attack on the EPA
Once the photo op at EPA headquarters was over, President Trump moved on to his next event, a White House reception for senators and their wives to repair his frayed relations with Congress.
The hard work of dismantling the agency now lies in the hands of his new director, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who made a career out of suing the EPA – 11 times – over oil and gas regulations.
The knives have been out for the EPA since early in the Trump transition. In mid-March, Mick Mulvaney, the new director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, unveiled a Trump Budget Blueprint that will slice 31 percent from the EPA budget and lay off 20 percent of its staff. The total workforce will go from 15,376 to 12,176, half of whom are scientists, engineers and environmental researchers.
“You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it,” Mulvaney told reporters. “The president wants a smaller EPA. He thinks they overreach, and the budget reflects that.”
In fact, the EPA already is the smallest cabinet-level department in the government. Its annual budget of $8.1 billion compares to $580 billion for the Defense Department. But while the Trump Administration is planning to give the Pentagon another $54 billion, it is taking $2.4 billion away from the EPA.
Other Budget Cutbacks
The Environmental Protection Network, a group of former EPA employees and policy experts, has issued a 50-page analysis of the Trump Budget Blueprint for the EPA that details other cuts to long standing programs:
- * The Office of Science and Development will be slashed 48%.
- * Compliance and enforcement funding will be cut 23%.
- * Clean air, water and waste management programs will be cut 10% to 35%.
- * Grants supporting state environmental protection agencies will be slashed 45%.
- * Funds for long term, multi-state initiatives to clean up the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Keys, San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound and the South Florida ecosystem will be eliminated. In the case of the Great Lakes, which hold 21 percent of the world’s fresh water, this amounts to a loss of $300 million a year.
- * The Energy Star program encouraging energy-efficient appliances will be eliminated.
- * Periodic reports on the impact of climate change and 33 other indicators (temperature, sea level, Antarctic sea ice, flooding and drought) will be discontinued.
- * Overall funding to clean up hazardous waste at Superfund sites will drop from $1.1 billion to $762 million, a reduction of 30%.
And that just scratches the surface. Hundreds of other lesser-known EPA initiatives are being stripped to the bone in what amounts to a scorched earth approach to the environment.
Taking the Good with The Bad
It’s easy to grouse about the inconvenience of EPA regulations, but let’s not forget the good things that have come out of it.
Without the EPA, urban smog would not be down 84% in our major cities. Lead paint would still be used in home construction. Smart appliances with an Energy Star label would not be saving consumers $14 billion a year on their energy bills. And new cars would still be chugging along on 9 miles per gallon instead of the federally mandated 24.8.
There would be no rapid response team to oil spills in the Gulf or emergency plan for radiation leaks at nuclear plants. Thousands of acres of abandoned factories on brownfields filled with toxic industrial waste would not have been returned to public use. Flint, Michigan, might still be drinking poison water. And I’ll bet you dimes to donuts, without the EPA’s Great Lakes program, we’ll be seeing Asian Carp dive-bombing the boats off Navy Pier in a few years .
The Trump Perspective
President Trump is not one to get bogged down in the weeds of science, but he does have a few opinions on the environment – shaped by his ownership of golf courses around the world. Two ongoing disputes with local officials, in particular, show he can take either side of the climate change debate.
In Scotland, he’s fighting tooth and nail against wind turbines that spoil the view from the clubhouse of his Aberdeenshire golf course. He’s serious about it. He’s tweeted 60 times on the subject.
“When I look out of my window and I see these windmills, it offends me,” he told Britain’s Nigel Farage just after the election. “Let’s put them offshore. Why spoil the beautiful countryside.”
Meanwhile in Ireland, he’s all for building a seawall on the dunes in County Clare to protect his Trump International Golf Links & Hotel from rising sea levels caused by global warming – or so the club owners contended in their application for a construction permit.
The Trump Organization’s concern about the golf course in Doonbeg, which cost them $60 million dollars to develop, began in 2014 when an Atlantic storm washed away the 18th hole.
After repairing the damage, the club tried to remedy the problem by hauling massive boulders into a marshy spot next to the hotel. But the local county council halted the project. Let Caelainn Hogan, writing in The Guardian, take it from there.
“Trump’s wall was thwarted by the tiny, narrow-mouthed whorl snail, which lives in the dunes. The snail, around since the ice age but now endangered, is protected in Ireland and binding conditions in the original planning permission demand regular monitoring to ensure activities on the golf course do not endanger it.”
Trump’s new plan to protect the course is a 13-foot seawall weighing 200,000 tons that would run 1.7 miles along the dunes. But it too is hung up in the An Bord Peanala planning commission.
Local residents have organized against it on the grounds that erosion is a natural part of the dune’s dynamic eco-system. They are concerned the seawall will redirect the water into low lying farms just to the south. And besides, Doonbeg is no place for a golf course.
The heyday of coal has come and gone. In 1923, there were 863,000 miners climbing down the shafts to bring out the black gold that fueled an industrial revolution. Today, that number has dwindled to 65,400.
The coal-fired plants Obama wants to close supply about 33 percent of America’s electrical power. Natural gas is cheaper, and its 33 percent share is rising. Nuclear plants provide another 20 percent and hydroelectric dams six percent. But all the action is in the wind and solar arena. While coal is in decline, the solar power industry has added 374,000 new jobs to the economy, according to the Department of Energy. Twenty-five percent of those jobs came in the last year alone.
Even coal company executives don’t lay all the blame for coal’s decline on the EPA’s doorstep. More damaging to their bottom line have been weak exports to China, lower prices from domestic shale gas and the surprising growth of renewable energy sources.
On NPR, which is doing an excellent job of staying in touch with Trump voters in the hinterlands, a housewife in eastern Kentucky said everyone knows the coal mining jobs are never coming back, but she loves Trump because he stands up for them.
Another Trump political rally at EPA headquarters is not going to keep the climate from changing. If the planned budget cuts to EPA go through, we’ll have a lot less hard evidence about how – or how fast.
Sure, every federal agency can use a good scrubbing. But that’s no excuse to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s let the EPA researchers do their jobs. Somebody has to care about the environment – because the President sure doesn’t.
Unless, of course, some duffer takes a divot at Trump National and discovers a rich vein of black gold running under the 5th fairway.
Then, Johnny, grab a shovel.
All bets are off.