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Climate change and Donald Trump

What Donald Trump’s Presidency Means for Climate Change and Environmental Justice

Climate change and Donald Trump

Image from Climate Reanalyzer, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, USA.

Two days after Donald Trump was elected to the American Presidency, the Washington Post ran an article reporting, “North America is awash in warmth and there are no immediate signs of significant winterlike weather on the horizon.” It was the third-warmest October on record, and that warmth continued into November.

The timing didn’t feel like a coincidence. Trump’s election spells dire trouble for so many people and ideals: human rights, government transparency, foreign relations. But looming over all of those is what he stands to do to the environment.

For starters, Trump’s election means we will likely miss a critical window in the effort to slow down climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported recently that there’s still time to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C, which would prevent some of the more disastrous consequences of climate change. But with Trump in charge, it’s likely those prevention efforts will be derailed — at least in the United States, and in any country that might look to us as a model.

Trump said numerous times, particularly on Twitter, that he didn’t believe humans are responsible for climate change, or that it’s even a real thing. He went so far as to call it a Chinese hoax:

Meanwhile, the very real effects of climate change are everywhere, and their impact on humans have been growing. California has suffered a severe drought for several years, threatening both drinking water supplies and America’s primary source of fresh produce. Some have blamed an uptick in hurricanes over the Atlantic Ocean and across the Eastern Seaboard on climate change as well; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it’s too soon to tell whether that increase is directly related, but does say:

“Anthropogenic warming by the end of the 21st century will likely cause tropical cyclones globally to be more intense on average… [and] There are better than even odds that anthropogenic warming over the next century will lead to an increase in the occurrence of very intense tropical cyclone in some basins.”

Related: Meet the Native Women at the Heart of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests

The people who suffered through Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and the numerous deluges and floods over the past decade or so can tell you that isn’t good news.

Trump has promised to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, the hard-fought treaty in which more than 100 countries have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to keep a lid in climate change. Even Fox News host Bill O’Reilly urged Trump not to back out of the deal, if for no other reason than it’ll piss off American allies. Trump also wants to undo Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and slash numerous regulations on the oil, gas and coal industries.

Trump has also said that he would substantially defund the Environmental Protection Agency, which was founded in 1970 (by Richard Nixon, no less), notably after the publication of Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring. Carson attacked the widespread, indiscriminate use of pesticides, particularly DDT, which was later shown both as likely to cause cancer and caused the decline of the bald eagle, America’s own animal spirit. Her book was a major motivator for the modern-day environmental movement.

When asked in 2015 what departments he might cut if he became president, Trump told Fox News: “Environmental Protection; what they do is a disgrace. Every week they come out with new regulations. They’re making it impossible —”

Anchor Chris Wallace interrupted, “Who’s going to protect the environment?”

“They — we’ll be fine with the environment,” Trump replied. “We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

During a campaign stop in New Hampshire, he said something similar: “We’re going to save [money] on Department of Environmental Protection, because they’re not doing it. They’re not doing their job, and they’re making it impossible for our country to compete.”

So far, Trump’s staffing strategy appears to be right in line with those claims. He has chosen Myron Ebell, a climate-change skeptic, to oversee the EPA transition. Among other things, Ebell thinks more federal lands should be logged and explored for petroleum and coal mining — and he doesn’t think pesticides are harmful.

What may not be obvious to Trump — or maybe he just doesn’t care — is how environmental issues intersect with human rights and social justice. Take, for example, how rising temperatures have contributed to the Syrian Civil War — the very same war that has led to millions of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and the U.S., which has, in turn, stoked Islamophobia (and arguably Brexit). A years-long severe drought in Syria boosted tensions there, leading to an uprising in 2011 that still hasn’t settled down.

Closer to home, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline is both an environmental issue and a social justice one; the Native tribes who oppose the pipeline are doing so on the grounds that a spill could compromise their water supply. And they have reason to be concerned: the DAPL was re-designed to pass through Native lands only after the residents of Bismarck rejected it for similar reasons.

Trump, on the other hand, is a big fan of petroleum pipelines. News reports have said he would likely revive the Keystone XL pipeline plan, which he believes would have “no impact” on the environment. President Obama rejected the plan last year after environmentalists said the project increased the risk of oil spills, threatening waterways and wildlife.

And, in fact, such pipelines fail regularly; so many have leaked since 2000 that there’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to them. Koch Industries paid a $35 million fine in 2000 for 300 leaks in its pipelines between 1990 to 1997 — a fine levied by the EPA for violations of the Clean Water Act. Is that what Trump means when he talks about the EPA getting in the way of business?

Flint's water pipes

Corroded water pipes in Flint, Michigan.

(Speaking of the Clean Water Act, Flint, Michigan, still doesn’t have lead-free drinking water coming out of its pipes. Last week, a judge ordered the city to continue paying to have bottled water delivered to its residents, an order the city is fighting.)

All of this brings us back to the EPA, which is one of the nation’s main watchdogs for environmental justice. That means making sure that poor and underrepresented communities aren’t disproportionately affected by pollution, smog, pesticides and other environmental concerns. There are others — including the National Black Environmental Justice Network, the National Resource Defense Council and the Sierra Club, among others, all of whom will need support if Trump makes good on his plans. Environmental racism is real, it’s pervasive, and it’s a likely consequence of Trump’s presidency. Even though his policies will likely threaten the entire planet, the effects are bound to hit oppressed communities the hardest.


Bay Area-based journalist, author and a senior editor for Wear Your Voice. Featured in The Guardian, The New Yorker, Wired, Mother Jones, PopMatters, the San Francisco Chronicle and the SF Weekly. View total badassery at her website, or follow her on Twitter.

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