President Trump’s Climate Change Apathy Threatens the Global Community

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President Donald Trump isn’t exactly a champion of environmentalism. To this day, he has made no indication, either in word or action, that he supports the goals of environmentalists in any way.  During his campaign, he made great waves by claiming that  climate change was a “hoax” created by the Chinesean unabashed declaration of his disbelief in the scientifically-proven phenomenon. It became clear that Trump was not making idle threats about his opposition to climate change regulation once he assumed office, where he began to put into motion several relevant policy initiatives, including proposed budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed measures to roll back regulations on the coal industry in an attempt to revitalize it, and a still-looming threat to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement.  The president’s proposed climate change policies are particularly problematic because climate change is a global phenomenon that will have drastic consequences if it is not mitigated by a change in human activities, similar to the issue of stratospheric ozone depletion with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). And, like the mitigation of ozone depletion, any meaningful mitigation of climate change requires swiftly enacted, comprehensive measures on the part of the Federal Government. Every day that Trump continues to work on dismantling climate change policy, rather than fortifying it, impedes the progress, well-being, and ultimately, security of our nation.

What began as vapid anti-environmental rhetoric on the campaign trail quickly materialized into real policy initiatives once Trump took office in January. A few weeks into the new administration, the White House released its budget proposal for the 2018 fiscal year, which included a proposal to slash the EPA’s budget by 31%, down to $5.7 billion of its previous budget of $8.3 billion, which is the most (along with proposed cuts to the State Department) of any federal agency. The proposal specifically includes cuts to Superfund, which funds the cleanup of hazardous industrial waste throughout the country, to the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance Office, and to state grant programs. Most alarming about the proposed budget for the EPA, however, is its call for a $100 million cut in funding for climate change programs, which includes research programs as well as enforcement of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, an initiative for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Trump’s attack on climate change policy doesn’t end with the EPA either: his budget proposal includes cuts to climate change programs within other agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior.

In addition to his proposed budget cuts for the EPA, Trump’s fixation on the coal industry poses another problem for climate change policy. One of the recurring themes of Trump’s presidential campaign was his promise to revitalize the coal industry, bringing back thousands of coal mining jobs to towns devastated by the industry’s decline. As president, Trump appears to intend to make good on those promises, as he signed legislation that would repeal a regulation that protected streams from pollution related to coal mining. In addition, Trump promised to continue rollbacks on environmental regulations, specifically in terms of removing carbon dioxide emissions standards on coal-burning power plants, as a way to revitalize the industry and bring back mining jobs to thousands of blue collar workers. What Trump seems to have failed to realize, however, is that the decades-long decline of the coal industry is not due to environmental regulations. Moreover, these measures are not only detrimental to the environment, but also out of touch with current economic realities.  

In fact, the real reason for the coal industry’s decline is four-fold. First, increased demand for abundant, cheap natural gas has reduced the demand for coal as an energy source. Second, demand for electricity has been in decline, meaning the demand for electricity-producing fuels, like coal, have naturally declined. Third, the industry for renewable energy sources, particularly solar power and wind farms, has been growing,quickly falling in cost and approaching competitive prices with fossil fuels. Finally, coal mining has simply become a more efficient practice. Rather than extracting coal from deep inside the earth, as was common a century ago, coal mining practices today mainly entail extracting it from the surface. Aided with high-tech machinery that can mine coal with far greater efficiency than a team of human workers, modern coal mining simply doesn’t require the manpower that it used to, with the industry now being reduced mainly to engineers and workers who operate mining machinery. Therefore, even an increase in demand for coal wouldn’t bring back a significant number of blue collar jobs. What all of this means, in short, is that Trump’s goal of revitalizing the coal industry, and in particular his goal of removing carbon dioxide emissions restrictions as the means of doing so, do nothing to significantly help the economy, and only serve to exacerbate climate change.

As one would expect from Trump’s antithetical approach to domestic climate change policy, his stance on international climate change policy is similarly unsupportive. Trump has previously stated that he plans to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and most recently, the Trump administration refused to sign a statement of the G7 countries (an organized group of industrialized nations) endorsing the agreement.  The Paris Climate Agreement, if multilaterally supported, has the potential to be as successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as the Montreal Protocol was in stopping depletion of the ozone layer. However, the agreement is unlikely to achieve success without the unequivocal support of a major industrialized nation like the United States.  Consequently, Trump’s lack of support for the agreement is alarming given the necessity of the United States’ participation in it.  

Trump’s opposition to climate change policy is problematic because the warming of our planet is already progressing substantially: the global temperature has increased 0.85 degrees Celsius since 1880, and with that temperature increase has begun the resulting effects of melting sea ice, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather events.  In addition to causing the temperature to rise, increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have led to ocean acidification, a phenomenon that has disastrous effects for marine life, especially within coral reefs. Even with the immediate enactment of mitigation measures, mathematical models indicate that the effects of climate change will continue to worsen in the years to come, with an increase of approximately one degree Celsius by 2100.  Without mitigation, however, the models predict that the effects will heighten to astronomical level, with an increase of approximately four degrees Celsius by 2100, which would have devastating consequences for our planet. Given the urgency of the problem of climate change, our planet simply cannot afford to have the country with the second-highest carbon dioxide emissions in the world refuse to take action to reduce its emissions any longer.  

While the Trump administration remains steadfast in its intent to block the enactment of federal climate change regulation, the state and local levels of government must take the lead on climate change policy and implement their own adaptation and mitigation programs, following suit from the cities and states that have already done so. Many cities and states have begun to act to address climate change. New York City, for example, has implemented PlaNYC, a comprehensive plan that includes measures for climate change mitigation as well as adaptation for all aspects of city life, including transportation, infrastructure, and water usage. At the state level, nine northeastern states have collectively enacted the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the enactment of state and local level climate change policies can be accelerated by the grassroots lobbying of state and local officials.

Trump has made it very clear, both on the campaign trail and in the first two and a half months of his presidency, that he does not align himself with the values of environmentalism, and that he does not believe in the regulation or even the existence of climate change.  Furthermore, Trump has taken measures to dismantle what climate change regulations are in place at the Federal level, both domestically in terms of cutting funding for the EPA and removing restrictions on the coal industry, and internationally in terms of the Paris Climate Agreement.  However, given the demonstratively critical importance of taking action to mitigate and adapt to climate change, it is imprudent and myopic of the president to continue with his current climate change policy agenda. He should take heed of the warnings from the scientific community and the tangible effects of climate change by rethinking his policy agenda thereby enacting effective climate change regulation.  While Trump shows no signs of changing his mind on climate change policy, state and local governments must work to enact their own climate change policies so that the United States can effectively mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change in the absence of comprehensive federal legislation.

About the Author

Erin Wattley
Erin Wattley (FCRH ‘18) is from Vernon, NJ. She is an environmental studies major with a minor in Italian and hopes to also complete a minor in political science. Contact Erin at ewattley@fordham.edu.