The independent news organization of Duke University

On Trump and trees

from the mountaintop

Novus ordo Trump. President Obama has been the champion of the American environmental movement for almost eight years now. The executive powers he’s used to carry out his environmental agenda have propelled environmental policy to the fore of American politics and given activists a powerful ally. Nonetheless, environmentalists will soon loose their big gun. In the post-Obama era they will have no choice but to relearn how to enact change from the bottom up—and that’s a good thing.

In 2010, President Obama’s signature cap and trade bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, died in Congress. Despite Democrats controlling the House and Senate, they failed to rally behind a bill that transitioned the nation into a green economy at taxpayer expense. When Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives later that year, President Obama’s path to environmental reform all but vanished. The political fallout after the Affordable Care Act limped out of Congress in March as well as Republicans’ general distaste for climate science slammed the door on environmental compromise.

Around this time the President decided that where Congress couldn’t act, he would. Having seen how environmental legislation dies in the political miasma of Congress, Obama bypassed the legislature altogether and implemented the Clean Power Plan using the EPA’s regulatory powers. The plan is designed to decrease U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 and environmentalists welcomed it with glee. Other examples of Obama flexing his executive muscle include restricting oil and natural gas extraction on federal lands, giving fuel efficiency standards a major update and using his powers under the Antiquities Act to preserve hundreds of thousands of square miles of delicate natural areas as National Monuments—all without Congressional help or approval.

Regrettably, President Obama’s environmental legacy is built on fair-weather foundations. The executive actions he used to force the states to address climate change represent precisely the kind of paternalism that conservatives despise. It drives resentful legislators further into the embrace of climate change skeptics like Myron Ebell and makes them all the more likely to pass damaging legislation in the future. Secondly, and of more pressing concern, is the fact that a new president can reverse his predecessor’s executive orders, making President Obama’s strategy all the more risky. Obama’s actions may have been justified by the science, but they circumvented the democratic process—and that process is vengeful.

Enter Donald Trump. From his populist bully pulpit, the Republican candidate denounced President Obama’s hardline environmentalism as a power grab. He assailed Washington for attacking the fossil fuel industries that employ millions of Americans and keep many blue-collar communities afloat. Meanwhile, he doubled down on the standard Republican trope that elitist bureaucrats were strangling businesses with over-regulation and generally meddling in the lives of ordinary Americans. His message resonated with voters unaware of the real motivations behind Obama’s decisions. His inability to work with Congress was easily cast as unwillingness, his use of executive power reimagined as abuse.

Then Trump won the election, whilst Captain Murphy’s ghost whispered, “I told you so,” in the nation’s ear. Environmentalists broke into a panic, wringing their hands over all the ways Trump might imperil the planet. Would he rescind Obama’s executive orders and “unleash” the fossil fuel industry? Would he withdraw U.S. funding from the UN Convention on Climate Change, or back out of the Paris Climate Agreement? They discovered much too late that President Obama’s executive fiats had created only the illusion of progress, while antagonism festered among voters and lawmakers who cared more about government overreach than rising sea levels. Those sentiments were neatly encapsulated in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and fired at Washington like a political missile.

It’s time to stop panicking. Environmentalism is, inherently, a movement to prevent the end of the world—but Donald Trump’s election isn’t it. In the long run, it may even be good for the movement.

Yes, that’s right—good. In recent decades, environmental activism has focused on influencing national policy through Congress or the President. The result is that environmental protection has been treated like any other political issue, subject to the vicissitude of public opinion and the roadblocks that partisanship raises in its path. Not only is the federal government unreliable, but in those rare instances when it does compel the nation to act, the environmental movement’s opponents don’t fall in line. They dig deeper into their trenches. If environmentalists instead focused their efforts on public outreach at the local government level, then perhaps they could rally the American people to their cause one town at a time.

Currently, mainstream environmentalism is an upper class, urban, and overwhelmingly liberal enterprise. The most environmentally conscious consumers are almost always wealthy. Only 40 percent of rural Americans, the most heavily affected by climate change, believe it’s a serious problem. Politically, less than half of Republicans support government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 86 percent of Democrats. In a political environment where neither the President nor Congress are sympathetic to their cause, environmentalists will be forced to export their message out of the liberal enclaves where it is strongest and into communities on the front lines.

To do this, activist organizations must invest massively in educating communities and local governments on the merits of sustainability, and they should tailor their message to each area’s economic and social landscape. Every area can benefit economically and environmentally from decreasing waste, investing in renewable energies and encouraging green agriculture. Even if putting a solar panel on your roof didn’t cut your carbon footprint (which it does), it would still save you thousands of dollars in electric bills, and could add upwards of $15,000 to the value of your home.

To survive in the era of Trump, the environmental coalition that existed under Obama must expand dramatically, something it should have done long ago. The environment belongs to everyone—the farmer and the urbanite, the rancher and the college student. Environmentalists should consider it unacceptable for their movement to protect the earth not to reflect the diversity those who live on it.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, founder of the National Park service, and one-time swashbuckling cowboy, had this to say about America’s environment and our universal responsibility to protect it: “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune."

Ian Burgess is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “from the mountaintop,” usually runs on alternate Fridays. 

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