Climate change, the Vineyard environment, and the president


Supporters of Donald Trump wanted a president who could “shake up the system.” Given the president-elect’s proposed cabinet choices and advisors, we can expect several changes in environmental policy in the coming years. Their decisions and actions may well have a negative impact on the Vineyard.

The vast majority of the mainstream scientific community has concluded that human activity has led to increased carbon emissions, along with other so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to air and water pollution and global warming. These scientists have sometimes received death threats to themselves and their families, and they have been hauled before hostile congressional and state legislative committees to defend their methodologies and results.

Their conclusions have, however, unequivocally demonstrated that greenhouse gases have surged since research seriously began in the 1940s. They argue that if we do not take steps to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, the average mean temperature will rise, and with that will come higher sea levels, increasing severe storms, and widespread drought.

Deniers reject the idea that environmental change is a result of human activity, causing things like automobile exhaust and industrial air pollution. They argue that environmental regulations hurt business because polluting industries have to purchase expensive equipment to reduce pollution. They contend that control of the environment ought to remain with the states, not the federal government. And they say that even if the climate has changed over the past 50 years, it is because the earth periodically goes through a natural cyclical development.

As a presidential candidate and president-elect, Mr. Trump consistently expressed his belief that climate change and global warming were a hoax, “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive,” and “a big scam for a lot of people to make a lot of money.” Referring throughout the campaign to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he said, “We are going to get rid of it in every form.”

He has named well-known climate change deniers to important positions, especially Myron Ebell, who will lead the transition at the EPA, and Scott Pruitt, who will head it. Mr. Trump also nominated former Texas Governor Rick Perry to serve as his secretary of energy. A climate change skeptic, Governor Perry has long been close to the oil, natural gas, and chemical industries in his state. He has advocated closing down the Energy Department. The previous two energy secretaries have been physicists: One was awarded the Nobel Prize, and the other taught at MIT.

Mr. Trump’s nominee to become secretary of the interior, Representative Ryan Zinke from Montana, says climate change is “not a proven science.” Mr. Trump also has tapped ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to become secretary of state. Exxon is one of the largest, most successful fossil fuel industries in the world, with billions of dollars tied up in deals with Russia and across six continents, involving some 50 nations. Mr. Tillerson, interestingly, has acknowledged global warming, and advocated a carbon tax to reduce its impact. Environmentalists have charged that he did so only for marketing purposes, knowing full well that Congress would never pass such a tax.

Massachusetts, along with New York, has sued Exxon for covering up the impact of fossil fuel use on climate change, facts that its investors and the public should know. In an effort to halt the inquiry, the company sued the Massachusetts and New York Attorneys General, Maura Healey and Eric Schneiderman, this past June, calling their suits “a fishing expedition.”

As attorney general of Oklahoma since 2011, Mr. Pruitt, incoming head of the EPA, has called himself the “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He has accepted substantial contributions from the fossil fuel industry, and has filed several lawsuits against the EPA to end its drive to reduce carbon emissions. He wanted to stop it from implementing clean water regulations affecting streams and farm ponds, and to prevent smog regulations from going into effect. He has so far failed.

He also opposed the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, finalized a year ago, which Mr. Trump opposes. The plan requires each state to meet its antipollution goals under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by nearly 200 countries to curb global warming.

Many states were already working on achieving these goals when 28 states challenged the president’s authority to implement the plan. This past February, the Supreme Court stopped Obama’s attempt to carry out the plan even before any court heard arguments in the suit. The case is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Massachusetts and my home state of Maryland have intervened on behalf of the EPA, and Boston and Baltimore have filed friends of the court briefs in support of the plan.

Back in 2008, Massachusetts legislators passed the Global Warming Solutions Act to place the commonwealth in line to reduce heat-trapping emissions produced by greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020. This would return the state to the levels reached in 1990. The commonwealth three years ago was already well on its way to meeting this goal: It had already reduced greenhouse gases by 19.7 percent.

The Trump transition team in December shook employees at the Department of Energy when they were asked to respond to a 74-point inquiry. The questionnaire asked who at the department attended climate change conferences, and what they said about the conferences in their e-mails. According to John O’Grady, president of a national EPA employee union, “This is something like a witch-hunt, it’s just absolutely ridiculous,” and an unidentified EPA worker called the action “an ominous sign.” The EPA declined to submit any names to the transition team, which now says the questionnaire was sent in error.

If the Trump administration reduces or terminates environmental regulations, increased pollution on the Vineyard could be devastating to the land and its economy. Emission standards on cars and trucks, and energy-efficient refrigerators and washing machines may all go down the drain. Residents and visitors may face severe coastal erosion when increasingly intense storms throughout the year hit the Island. Summers may grow hotter and winters colder, or alternatively, we could see warmer than normal winters and cooler summers. The accompanying disruption in both agricultural production and the fishing industry, and higher energy use will directly affect the Vineyard.

It is all, so to speak, up in the air. The states can and must act: Our federal system allows them to act whenever and wherever the national government lacks the authority to implement change.

The commonwealth continues to develop pollution reduction ideas under the Clean Power Plan, and the Island’s environmental organizations will continue to conserve land and promote clean air and water. Governor Charlie Baker recently called climate change “a serious threat.” Twenty years ago, five local environmental organizations formed the Conservation Partnership to maintain the character of the Vineyard. They also have a stake in the cleanliness of its waters and air. Massachusetts can reduce climate change within its borders by implementing its own environmental regulations.

Environmental stability affects Democrats and Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. After all, in 1970 President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act extension and the Clean Water Act amendments in 1972. Fifteen years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocols, calling them “a magnificent achievement.” This international treaty was dedicated to slowing the depletion of the ozone layer. Scientists have argued that a growing ozone hole has led to increasing rates of radiation, and correspondingly higher rates of skin cancer and other diseases. Studies have shown that in fact the ozone hole has slowly been shrinking, indicating that the goal is reachable.

Absent White House leadership, the American people must develop a consensus on how best to preserve the environment. Massachusetts has taken the lead. Other states have started to follow it. All the states must do so.

Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University. His book, “American Constitutional History: A Brief Introduction,” was published earlier this year.