As a coastal developer, Donald Trump has bulldozed ancient sand dunes and opposed offshore wind turbines (because they “ruined the view”) in Scotland, sought to build seawalls and fill in (smother) seagrass meadows and coral reefs in Florida, and built golf club luxury homes on a geologically unstable bluff in California where the eighteenth hole had earlier fallen into the sea.
Myron Ebell, the man Trump tapped to oversee the transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, is a well-known climate-change denier from the libertarian (and partly fossil fuel funded) Competitive Enterprise Institute. In the past he’s worked as the D.C. lobbyist for Chuck “Rent-a-Riot” Cushman, one of the more extreme leaders of the Wise Use movement of the 1990s. Ebell also promoted “safer cigarettes” (the “clean coal” of our lungs) with funding from Philip Morris.
When George W. Bush was elected in 2000 following a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, Ebell became a key player in the rightwing push to get Bush to renege on his pledge and withdraw the United States from the Kyoto climate accord. In a June 2002 email, Ebell proposed blaming the EPA for Bush’s promise, saying “the fall guy (or gal) should be as high up as possible.” He added, “Perhaps tomorrow, we will call for Whitman to be fired,” a reference to moderate Republican EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who would resign less than a year later. He also promised to go after others “pushing this rubbish” (climate action), including Vermont Republican turned Independent Senator Jim Jeffords, pledging to “get much more strident and noisy.”
In December, with Ebell’s input, Trump named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Another climate denier and fierce EPA opponent with a history of suing the agency over carbon pollution rules, Pruitt has received major campaign donations from oil and gas companies. One of his three-page letters of complaint to the EPA over air pollution caused by gas drilling turned out to have been written by lawyers for Devon Energy, a major oil and gas company. Pruitt has also fought the EPA over provisions of the Clean Water Act that protect wetlands and creeks on behalf of big ag polluters and developers.
In his election campaign, Trump called the EPA, created by President Richard Nixon in 1970, a “disgrace,” adding,
“We can leave a little bit [of environmental protection], but you can’t destroy business.” Pruitt’s job will be to make sure there is as little environmental protection as possible.
And by nominating ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State, along with the other billionaires and generals in his cabinet, Trump is effectively establishing the United States as a petro-oligarchy.
When I wrote The War Against the Greens twenty-three years ago, the environmental backlash was largely confined to the West’s Wise Use movement, made up of violent front groups who sought access to federally subsidized public lands for the mining, timber, and cattle industries. The Bundy bunch, with their recent armed confrontations on public lands in Nevada and Oregon, are heirs to the Wise Use movement’s legacy.
In the East, a network of rightwing think tanks and nonprofit law firms organized by the Heritage Foundation pushed a “property rights” agenda that claimed any environmental law that hurt a developer’s ability to build on a wetland or dump construction fill in a river was a “regulatory taking” that deserved government compensation. But, at the time, the East was still a bastion of moderate Republican environmentalists. It was only when the prime beneficiary of this backlash shifted from hard-rock mining to the fossil fuel industry during the oil-heavy Bush/Cheney administration that the anti-environmental rhetoric of Wise Use became mainstream in the Republican Party. Trump’s claims that climate change science is a Chinese-concocted “hoax” and “bullshit,” is very much in keeping with this new Republican orthodoxy.
Today, gutting environmental regulations and supporting the fossil fuel sector of the economy are the points of agreement between Trump and establishment Republicans. Their desire to eliminate environmental protections has become so ideological—and so visceral—that they are willing to ignore basic business analysis on energy by pledging to reopen noncompetitive coal mines. Despite the “Trump Digs Coal” signs at his rallies, there is shrinking domestic demand (and fewer jobs) for coal today. Meanwhile, the solar industry has surpassed both coal and the U.S. oil industry in total job numbers and new energy jobs.
Even before taking office, Trump pledged to roll back wetlands provisions of the Clean Water Act and open public lands and offshore waters to new oil drilling and mining. He has also pledged to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline that thousands of native people and their allies have been trying to block in North Dakota; the fact that Trump holds stock in the pipeline construction company just reflects the endless conflicts of interest he’ll likely retain as President.
So how do environmentalists and climate realists respond to the threat of a Trump presidency? Lessons from the past suggest some strategies that can be applied in new and creative ways.
Ride the Wave: In the wake of Trump’s election, people began to take a stand. Progressives have responded by making unprecedented charitable contributions to civil rights and civil liberties organizations, Planned Parenthood, and environmental groups. The Sierra Club got 11,000 new monthly sponsors in the first few days after the election.
Some hook and bullet (fishing and hunting) oriented conservation groups are hoping to appeal to Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who are hunters (elephant, leopard) and advisers to their father. Donald Jr. has called for keeping public lands public (not selling them off to the states as many western industries would like) but sharing management with state and local officials. His dad agreed, sort of, telling Field & Stream magazine,
“This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land . . . . But I am for energy exploration, as long as we don’t do anything to damage the land. And right now we don’t need too much; there’s a lot of energy.”
But most environmental groups are taking Trump at his word and looking to build active resistance to the new President and his anti-environmental agenda. They’re hoping to form alliances with Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans, including Senator Susan Collins of Maine, to block bad bills. Of course, the likelihood of this working largely hinges on other actions they take.
Stay in the Streets: In April 1970, twenty million Americans demonstrated on the first Earth Day, the birth of the modern environmental movement. The FBI recorded the remarks of Senators Gaylord Nelson and Ed Muskie and other speakers to crowds in Denver, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., as part of a domestic war on dissent that we may see again. Yet it was due to these mass protests that most of our modern environmental laws and advances came into being; the nation’s air, water, wildlife, and habitat improved, as did its economic and public health.
As the environmental movement matured, street actions fell out of favor but never went away. Oil-drilling protests during the Reagan years led to the creation of major marine sanctuaries off California, Massachusetts, and Florida. And the late Judi Bari of Earth First!, a self-styled radical who led large “Redwood Summer” protests and civil disobedience, left a legacy of thousands of acres of protected old growth forest.
Over the last few years, major climate and drilling protests, combined with local actions and litigation, had real impacts, including President Obama’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and withdraw proposals for new drilling lease sales in the Arctic Ocean and off the Atlantic seaboard—plans certain to be revived under Trump.
Build Coalitions: The leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, in opposing an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, brought together much of Indian Country, including hundreds of tribal nations, along with climate activists, water quality advocates, resource economists, war veterans, and others. Their efforts led to a temporary victory in early December, when the Obama Administration denied an essential permit—a decision Trump has pledged to reverse. What they accomplished is a model for how future environmental victories could be won by focusing on the environment, the economy, and equity.
This lesson is not new. In the 1970s, key legislation like the Clean Air Act was passed only after United Steelworkers, public health groups including the American Lung Association, and environmental organizations joined together to overcome widespread industrial opposition to the law. They showed the power in linking public health to a healthy environment that can also generate jobs and support communities, both human and wild.
Today, the threat of carbon dependency could unite key parts of the economy—including the tech sector, clean energy, tourism, and recreation—in a newly emboldened environmental movement.
Go Local: Even before the election, California Governor Jerry Brown made it clear that his state would continue to pursue its aggressive climate action plan, including a large-scale transition to clean, renewable energy. California sets environmental quality standards that, whether for development projects, auto emissions, endangered species, or allowable discharges from commercial shipping ballast water, drive industry standards and deadlines because such a huge market (the world’s sixth largest economy) cannot be ignored.
So even if the Trump Administration tries to direct the market economy away from green energy, clean water, and safe food, municipal and state actions could prove an effective counter-strategy for environmental action. But Republicans have done better than Democrats in securing power at the state level, and GOP-led state legislatures have worked to suppress local environmental initiatives through “preemption.” For example, several states have passed laws preventing local governments from implementing bans on plastic bags, and Texas has barred local fracking bans. Nobody said the next few years are going to be easy.
Stay Popular: Environmentalism has, over the last fifty years, shifted from a social movement to a societal ethic. People like clean air and water and are upset when public water supplies are poisoned, as has happened in Toledo, Ohio, Flint, Michigan, and Charleston, West Virginia, in the last few years; or when harmful slimy green algal blooms cover their shoreline, as has happened in Florida this past year; or when fracking-induced earthquakes rattle Oklahoma. People don’t like extreme weather events, droughts, wildfires, and “sunny day flooding,” exacerbated by climate change.
But the public does like our national parks and public lands. It likes beaches free of oil spills and open spaces where you can take the family. And it likes the job creation that’s more dynamic in green energy than in coal and oil. None of these things were talked about in the 2016 election campaign, however. How the environmental movement is able to tap into this wellspring of public sympathy while mobilizing the youthful energy of a generation at risk will probably determine not only our political future but our entire future.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. His book The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea, is now out in paperback.