By William S. Becker
As the culling process continues among democrat presidential hopefuls, voters would do well to compare each candidate’s environmental record against Donald Trump’s. Trump’s has been abhorrent. What would his opponents do differently?
We don’t yet know how big an issue environmental stewardship will be in next year’s election. Three of four Americans accept that global warming is a thing. It is our largest existential threat and it should be at the top of every candidate’s priority list. Less clear are the candidates’ views on environmental stewardship overall including environmental justice, the loss of biodiversity, the health of our air and water, and so on.
True to his habit of giving himself unearned credit while trying to cover up the uglier parts of his record, Trump boasted from the White House in July (the hottest month ever recorded) that “my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.”
Trump claimed that unlike himself, the Obama Administration of “waged a relentless war on American energy”. But as Forbes reported at the end of Obama’s term, “the huge irony of Obama’s presidency is that despite his reputation as an anti-energy president, he has presided over the largest expansion of energy production in U.S. history.”
More to the point, Trump’s energy policy is to push much more production of the fossil fuels responsible for climate change, and climate change degrades air and water quality. The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that air quality in much of the nation has worsened since 2015, and in 2018 more than 140 million Americans lived in counties where the air was unhealthy. “One alarming finding that indicates our changing climate is degrading air quality is that the nation recorded more days considered hazardous than ever before,” the ALA reports. It reached pollution levels “that are hazardous for anyone to breathe.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirms that the impacts of climate change, from heatwaves and floods to wildfires, increase air pollution and reduce water quality. “During heat waves, the air becomes stagnant and traps emitted pollutants, often resulting in increases in surface ozone,” NOAA says. “Flooding of industrial areas or agricultural chemical storage locations can cause chemicals to move into nearby watersheds, also degrading water quality and even contaminating some residential areas.”
Heat is here to stay. Americans can expect to suffer off-the-chart heat of 127 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 20 years, National Geographic says.
So Trump’s deliberate inaction on climate change is making our air and water worse.
As for other parts of his environmental record, Trump and his team have rolled back safety regulations on offshore drilling; smoothed the path for new oil and gas pipelines; permitted drilling in sensitive wildlife areas; increased logging on those lands; lifted constraints on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants; approved off-shore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic; repealed rules against methane pollution from oil and gas operations; weakened fuel economy standards for vehicles; relaxed protections for endangered species; cut NASA’s climate-monitoring program; deleted the words “climate change” from National Security Strategy, FEMA’s strategic plan, and government reports and websites; proposed major cuts to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs at EPA, the State Department and the Department of Energy; got rid of a policy to reduce toxic air emissions from industries; significantly downsized two national monuments; removed flood-risk standards that took sea-level rise into consideration; cancelled a rule meant to prevent whales and sea turtles from getting entangled in fishing nets; allowed the use of lead ammunition on federal lands; and loosened a rule that restricted coal companies from dumping wastes into streams. EPA’s criminal prosecutions against polluters dipped to a 30-year low.
A half-century ago, Americans awoke to the fact that natural resources are not limitless, ecosystems are fragile, diverse species and healthy soils are a legacy we must leave our children, and nature cannot always heal itself once we have abused it. That awakening produced many of today’s landmark environmental laws, which codify a national ethic of stewardship. Unfortunately, there have always been people and corporations who refuse to accept that lesson.
Trump is such a person, the spoiled and selfish product of gilded gluttony. He is a vainglorious anachronism, a throwback to the industrial times before our environmental awakening. Perhaps our next president should be someone who has experienced hardship and deprivation during his or her life, who appreciates that abundance is not a birthright, and who genuinely understands the need to protect the priceless value of our natural heritage.