These are hard and exhausting times. Impeachment issues and the president’s continual bombardment of lies and insults that call for correction are wearing us out, remaining front and center both in the media and our minds. As a result of our fatigue and alarm, and because media is abrogating its duty to report essential news outside of Trump’s tantrums, it’s not surprising that disastrous decisions by the president, and their consequences, have gone unnoticed.
None of the actions and policy changes of the current administration is more urgently in need of increased awareness and resistance than those that relate to the environmental degradation and destruction posing serious threats to our health and safety.
Among the most egregious decisions of the Trump administration is the recent “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposal promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency. This terribly dangerous idea would require scientists to disclose all their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the EPA would consider their academic studies as valid. Scientific and medical research would be severely limited, leading to Draconian public health regulations and environmental crises. EPA officials call the plan a step toward transparency, but it is clearly designed to limit important scientific information that should drive policy related to clean air and water, among other health-related environmental impacts.
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump pledged to roll back government regulations as part of his pro-business “America First Energy Plan.” Once in the White House he immediately signed executive orders approving two controversial oil pipelines and a federal review of the Clean Water Rule and Clean Power Plan. Shortly thereafter, the Clean Water Rule was repealed.
The administration is allowing drilling in national parks and other treasured venues and opening up more federal land for energy development, while the Department of the Interior plans to allow drilling in nearly all U.S. waters, opening up the largest expansion of offshore oil and gas leasing ever proposed. This year, the administration completed plans for allowing the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be made available for oil and gas drilling as well.
One need only look at who Trump turned to or appointed to head key agencies that deal with energy and environmental policy. For example, three of four members of a transition team mandated to come up with proposals guiding Native American policies had links to the oil industry, and his first head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, had challenged EPA regulations in court more than a dozen times. Pruitt also hired a disgraced banker with no experience with environmental issues to head the federal Superfund program, responsible for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated land.
Other departmental gems include Andrew Wheeler, who replaced Pruitt. He was a coal industry lobbyist and a critic of limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Then there’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry, tasked with developing more efficient energy sources and improving energy education, who was previously advocated the dissolution of the Department of Energy. At Interior, Ryan Zinke didn’t last long. He was followed by an attorney and oil industry lobbyist, who put his personal energy into deregulation and increased fossil-fuel sales on public lands. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific agency that warns of dangerous weather, monitors atmospheric changes, oceans and more, Trump’s guy was a lawyer and businessman who had advocated against NOAA.
In August, Trump instructed Sonny Perdue, his agricultural secretary, to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rain forest, from logging restrictions and mining projects. The president had already told the Department of the Interior to review more than two dozen national monuments, with a view toward reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument and other sacred lands.
National Geographic has been tracking how the administration’s decisions influence air, water and wildlife. Here are just some of the ways environmental policies have changed since Trump became president: The U.S. has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, loosened regulations on toxic air pollution, rolled back the Clean Power Act, revoked flood standards accounting for sea-level rise, green-lighted seismic air guns for oil and gas drilling that disorient marine mammals and kill plankton, and weakened the Endangered Species Act.
A recent New York Times analysis counts more than 80 environmental rules and regulations “on the way out under Mr. Trump.” So far 53 rollbacks have been completed and 32 are in progress. The Trump strategy, The Times points out, relies on a “one-two punch” in which rules are first delayed, then overridden by final substantive changes. It packs a big punch any way you look at it.
Not long ago I visited Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., where the philosopher, writer and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau lived for two years in a solitary cabin in the mid-19th century. Often credited with starting the environmental movement, he articulated a philosophy based on environmental and social responsibility, resource efficiency and living simply. He believed fervently that we must keep the wild intact. “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” he asked.
It’s a question we should all contemplate in the run up to November 2020.