President Trump’s June 1 decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change overshadows several steps Washington has already taken concerning recent environmental reforms.
The Paris accord is a voluntary and nonbinding agreement. The president acknowledged this, but in the same breath claimed that it placed “draconian and financial economic burdens” on the country. If he believed these burdens existed, he could have simply changed the goals concerning the reduction of polluting emissions. Any signatory nation may change its targets and financial contributions whenever it wishes.
Meantime, the administration, working with its Republican counterparts in Congress, has already taken steps to undo several environmental rules and regulations. A few examples: The president, through executive orders, has directed the government to accelerate construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines; reversed a decision to prohibit oil and gas drilling in millions of acres in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans; ordered the Interior Department to review new national monuments put in place by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama; required the EPA to review regulations concerning gas emissions from power plants and to reconsider coal leases on federal lands, including those overseen by the National Park Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System; and demanded various agencies revisit the water protection on over rivers, streams, and wetlands.
The EPA, under administrator Scott Pruitt, has limited the rules concerning methane emissions from oil and gas wells; suspended the Clean Power Plan to curb carbon emissions; delayed power-plant compliance in eliminating heavy metals like lead and arsenic from wastewater; reconsidered the smog reduction rule issued by the Obama administration; refused to ban Lorsban, a pesticide said to be harmful to human health; and lifted requirements that lower fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles.
Congress passed and the president signed a bill that reverses the protection of 6.5 million acres in a remote section of Alaska, and eliminated a rule that protects streams from certain materials that mountaintop mining companies can dump in waterways.
All in the name of “America First”? Perhaps the president still believes, as he said during last year’s campaign, that climate change is “a hoax,” perpetrated by “the Chinese.” Perhaps he believes the United States will do what it can on its own. Or perhaps, as he also indicated, “I’m willing to immediately work with Democratic leaders to either negotiate our way back into Paris, under the terms that are fair to the United States and its workers, or to negotiate a new deal that protects our country and its taxpayers.”
It does not appear, however, that protection of the environment or slowing global warming are Trump priorities. How could he conclude that he wants to negotiate with “Democratic leaders” when the agreement has nothing to do with them? Again, if he thought the goals the Obama administration had set out were unfair to the United States and its workers, he could simply have restated them at any time.
Former secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon, who has been working at Harvard this spring, stated on June 7 that he hoped the U.S. would “return to the climate change process,” but his hope is unlikely to prevail. Any progress dealing with climate change and global warming has now fallen to the states and the cities. Since June 1, 12 states and Puerto Rico have agreed to join the United States Climate Alliance, which was created out of frustration with President Trump’s action. The alliance, which includes the commonwealth of Massachusetts, collectively contributes about one-third of the nation’s gross domestic product, and comprises approximately one-third of the nation’s population. The governors of these states have pledged to abide by the Paris agreement to reduce carbon emissions by between 26 and 28 percent from 2005 levels.
In announcing that Massachusetts was joining the coalition, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker noted that “our administration looks forward to continued bipartisan collaboration with other states to protect the environment, grow the economy, and deliver a brighter future to the next generation.” Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, the only other Republican-led state to join, stated that “if our national government isn’t willing to lead in this area, the states are prepared to step up and lead.”
Six other states, along with the District of Columbia, are also considering joining the alliance.
There is also the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, to which Massachusetts is also a signatory. It is a Northeast consortium of nine states from Maryland to Maine that attempts to forestall climate change through market-based initiatives. Innovations in solar, wind, and even nuclear energy may well be on the map in this respect.
China has announced that it wants to take the lead in the production of energy-saving technology, and is already the world’s largest producer of solar panels. Perhaps the RGGI will keep America in the game. The Trump administration seems to have little interest in promoting the development of clean industries, and is closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry, including coal, gas, and oil. Ironically, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, urged the president not to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
Meantime, a large group of states, cities, companies, and universities are working together to bring a proposal in line with the Paris accord to the United Nations. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is coordinating this effort. He has pledged to contribute $15 million from his charitable foundation to support the program.
Even without the leadership of the Trump administration, who could be opposed to all these activities at the state and local level, along with businesses and universities?
Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal resident of Aquinnah, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University.