Protest sign from the March for Science in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Mic.
Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: Environmentalism should transcend partisan politics

In one of his most dramatic stunts to date, President Donald Trump announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords as of June 1. By doing so, he will not abide by the U.S. commitment made by former President Barack Obama, which was to reduce the country’s carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025.

From Trump’s history with environmentalism, it was clear the current administration would not be trailblazing innovative ecologically conscious policy. Within the first 100 days of his presidency, President Trump re-initiated the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, repealed the Stream Protection Rule, promised to soften car pollution regulations, released a budget plan reducing EPA funding by 30 percent and halving funding for the Clean Air Act, and signed the “Energy Independence Executive Order”, which many saw as a direct attack on Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the premier initiative adopted by the United States in its commitments made in cooperation with the Paris Climate Accords.

Even before Trump was sworn into office, he selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to helm the Environmental Protection Agency as an administrator– of whom Pruitt was acquainted with after suing the agency 14 times over regulations. To head the Department of Energy, he nominated former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has called for defunding of the very department he was chosen to lead.

It’s hard to ignore that environmentalism has assumed an increasingly polarizing and partisan identity, especially in the context of the Trump presidency. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Democrats believe that the “country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” compared with 52 percent of Republicans.

Seventy percent of liberal Democrats trust climate scientists to provide factual research on the causes of climate change, versus 15 percent of conservative Republicans, asserting that these positions are likely informed by other partisan issues, such as “fake news” and embellished media; 72 percent of conservative Republicans agree that “the media exaggerates the threat of climate change”, while 64 percent of liberal Democrats propound that “the media does not take the threat of climate change seriously enough.”

Concerning environmentally progressive policy, such as power plant emission restrictions and an international consensus on restricting carbon emissions, 76 percent of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference versus 29 percent of conservative Republicans, and 71 percent of liberal Democrats and 27 percent of conservative Republicans say an international agreement is capable of making a big difference, respectively.

Reflecting back on the United States’ relationship to the environment, the motive for protections seems to have transitioned from preserving scenic landscapes to maintaining the absolutely essential to a polarized range of opinions. Naomi Oreskes, environmental historian and author of “Merchants of Doubt,” elaborates on the cultural transition from “aesthetic environmentalism” to “regulatory environmentalism,” the phenomena that distinguished transcendentalist Thoreau or conservationist Roosevelt and their fervor to protect beautiful spaces and later establish the National Park system from policy such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmentalism Protection Act, that revolved around protecting the Earth not to protect beauty, but to protect general health primarily.

In the 1960’s, as the pastel, Technicolor façade of the ’50s wore off, as did the illusion of a resilient Earth: Los Angeles was smothered in smog; the Great Lakes became epicenters of water pollution. The Cuyahoga River was inflammable.

But as the shift occurred, pushback was already stirring.

But where did the partisan division occur? After all, the genesis of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can be credited to the notorious President Nixon, a Republican. During the signing ceremony, President Nixon spoke of how in future years the United States could reflect on when “we signed a historic piece of legislation that put us far down the road toward a goal that Theodore Roosevelt, 70 years ago, spoke eloquently about: a goal of clean air, clean water, and open spaces for the future generations of America.” Senator James Buckley, a Republican, would organize a group of five Republicans six years later urging the GOP to reinforce the Act and thwart industrial pollution in national parks.

Many have claimed it an ideological shift, closely tied to the altered populations of the Republican and Democratic parties that have shifted general opinions, deemed “party sorting”. Some have even deemed it a consequence of conservative staunchness and reluctance to see the grey tones of any hot issue, or the general developing tendency to interpret in extremes across both parties, whereas others even pin a major change at the election of Bill Clinton, who was accompanied by Al Gore as his Vice President. Al Gore’s “Earth in Balance” and prominent efforts to expose the urgency of climate change tethered the tissue to the liberal platform.

Perhaps the most pertinent cause influencing current politics is the gradual realization that the environment and the economy are intrinsically intertwined and dependent on one another, and in order to begin comprehensively working towards a sustainable future, the economy will be affected. As will the corporations driving the fossil fuel industries, and their monetary interests.

Oreskes proposes a compelling argument tied to the pervasive fear of the Soviet threat around the time conservative opposition began, as it was feared solutions in themselves may contradict quintessential capitalist theory: “You have the recognition that pollution is tied up with the economy, so any attempt to regulate pollution is an attempt, on some level, to regulate the economy. That invites a profound and problematic political argument. It is profound, because it taps into the central question of the function of government, and its role in regulating the marketplace and protecting people from harm. It is problematic, because if you argue that the government must intervene in an expansive way, it invites the criticism that you’re a Communist: you’re saying we have to control and regulate economic activity –  that the government needs to step in and control economic activity.”

This dawn of realization perhaps occurred at an unfortunate point in history: during and at the tail end of the Cold War. Some have even made the claim that “anti-communism” morphed directly into
anti-environmentalism,” as it was understood economic intervention would be a necessary component to eroding at factors most culpable for environmental distress and deterioration.

However, Trump’s version of anti-environmentalism has taken on a corporate agenda that plays on Republican fear of big government and executive overreach while acting on the interests of big business.

The modern Republican approach began with cap-and-trade legislation, an attempt at creating “a statutory limit, or cap, on the overall amount of a certain type of pollution that could be emitted”. Bush Senior had been modestly successful in using cap-and-trade in 1990, and McCain used the strategy to open a dialogue on climate change during his campaign in 2008. With concern for the environment translating to legislation, the “No Climate Tax” was introduced, an initiative drafted by Americans for Prosperity facilitated by the Koch brothers. Its thesis asserted: “I will oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.”

After a year of degrading at the validity of scientific research by oil-industry commissioned and conservative activists, a cap-and-trade bill pushed under Obama managed to survive the House but was terminated in the Senate. Without corporate campaign finance restrictions imposed before “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,” Americans for Prosperity utilized “television advertising, social media and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who would ensure that the fossil fuel industry would not have to worry about new pollution regulations”. In addition, they began pouring funding into Republicans candidates who were opposed to climate change, while Republicans in support of ecologically friendly policy slowly began dwindling.

Thus began the intervention of fossil fuel industries in the matters of environmental legislation. But the revival of backlash against what was seen as interference in the economy assumed true form during Obama’s second term. Constrained by a predominantly Republican Congress, President Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan, which would greatly reduce emissions by shutting down hundreds of coal-powered power plants.

Viewing the shift in policy as an opportunity to play on conservative fear of unbridled executive power, 28 state attorney generals and major corporations joined forces to deconstruct the new set of regulations. They sought to bring the case to federal court. Pruitt, whom Trump promoted to EPA administrator, quickly ascended as a huge proponent of the war against the Clean Power Plan, accumulating millions through backing by fossil fuel groups. In February of 2016, the Supreme Court blocked the Clean Power Plan.

As Trump entered the scene, he took full advantage of the frustrations of citizens across coal country that had felt neglected by Obama’s policies. At a rally in Charleston, he declared, “I’m thinking about miners all over the country. We’re going to put miners back to work.” From there, Trump recruited Robert E. Murray as an “informal campaign advisor”, the chief executive of Murray Energy, who had acquainted four representatives of the company with the Republican attorney generals driving the lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan at their annual summer retreat and consequentially enmeshed the two worlds in that fated August of 2015.

In the end, familiar motifs are bound to resurface throughout history. The undercurrent driving the actions of the fossil fuel infiltrated GOP is the same force feeding the disputed discourse of other potent issues: fear. Fear of loss of political influence, of economic stability, of wealth, of the United States’ place at the helm of the free world. Loss of global authority and preeminence.

Ironically, Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement will leave a power vacuum for Russia, India, or, most likely, China to fill as he forfeits the United States’ position at the forefront of the sustainable energy movement. The E.U. and China have both released a statement foreshadowing adherence to their culpability in the Accords that “commits them to cutting back on fossil fuels, developing more green technology and helping raise billions of pounds to help poorer countries cut emissions.” In response to the announcement of the U.S.’s intended exit, China’s Premier Li Keqiang commented, “Fighting climate change is a global consensus, it’s not invented by China… and we realize that this is a global consensus agreement and that as a big developing nation we should shoulder our international responsibility,” addressing Trump’s tweet made in 2012 that claims “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese”.

However, there is a silver lining to this acid-rain cloud. Already, prominent business leaders representing Facebook, Google, Apple have condemned this misstep on the part of the government, and the same day Trump announced his planned exit, a combined effort of 30 mayors, three governors, more than 80 university presidents, and more than 100 businesses began preparing a statement to submit to the United Nations that would entail adhering to “everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” commented Michael Bloomberg, a former New York city mayor and leading coordinator of the initiative.

Most important is the conservative backlash, although minimal, following Trump’s decision to exit the Paris Climate Agreement. “Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is misguided, and harms the ongoing effort to fight climate change while also isolating us from our allies,” propounded New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik, and Senator Susan Collins expressed her disappointment with the result.

Floridian Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, lamented, “With 40 percent of Florida’s population at risk from sea-level rise, my state is on the front lines of climate change. South Florida residents are already beginning to feel the effects of climate change in their daily lives.” Other discussion, initiated by James A. Baker III, has been brewing among moderate Republicans to propose including a carbon tax as a component to a potential extensive tax package.

With a looming four years of presidential refusal to recognize the true direness of the situation we have before us, it’s time to set aside party loyalties, corporate interests, and apathy for a sustainable future, before the irreparable damage fatally dooms my generation and the generations to come.

“For the last several decades, we have been neglecting the fact that this is the only planet that we have and that the main stakeholders in this issue (of climate change) are the younger generation. Not only are the youth going to be inheriting every problem that we see in the world today– after our politicians have been long gone– but our voices have been neglected from the conversation,” says Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 16-year old plaintiff involved in the historic “Youth v. Government” lawsuit that is suing the Trump administration for his lack of addressing the imminent global warming crisis.

Reactionary responses to the issues of today, across several premises, have to stop if we are to make positive changes in a global context. If Trump continues with this rhetoric, not only will we lose what we fear to forfeit– our reputation as a global superpower and international credibility– but we also have the lives of future generations and the condition of our world at stake.

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