Environment Column

How ordinary people can work to enact environmental policy under an anti-climate change Trump administration

In Antarctica, an ice shelf the size of Delaware is dangerously close to breaking off, threatening the stability of the entire continent. But starting 2017 with a cracking iceberg isn’t surprising, especially considering a climate skeptic will soon be in charge of the White House.

If anything, the impending loss of the Larsen C ice shelf should confirm climate change is real, but President-elect Donald Trump continues to turn a blind eye to science supporting a warming planet caused by humans. In fact, Trump is already shaping his administration to favor fossil fuels — the main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — despite NASA naming 2016 the hottest year on record.

Throughout his campaign, Trump promised to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and President Barack Obama’s accomplishments in sustainability. After coming so far with the refusal of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement and the establishment of 22 national parks — including the Stonewall National Monument in New York — Obama’s environmental triumphs will soon be at risk of reversal.

And so far, divestment from fossil fuels is the furthest thing from being on the minds of Trump’s proposed cabinet.

Trump’s appointed EPA leader, Oklahoma attorney Scott Pruitt, has sued the agency several times. Pruitt’s stance on climate change is similar to Trump’s — that its legitimacy is debatable — and yet he may be in charge of the EPA, which is designed to protect the environment from the threats that climate change poses.

In court, Pruitt often defends dying power plant industries against the Clean Power Plan. The plan, administered by the EPA and started by Obama, is a set of rules that have been in place since 2015 to reduce each state’s carbon emissions. Canceling the Clean Power Plan could undermine the country’s current trajectory to phase out power plant pollution and replace it with renewable energy, a cleaner option.

Likely to join Pruitt in Trump’s cabinet is Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mon.), who is expected to head the Department of Interior. The position could enable Zinke, an advocate of domestic energy, to give fossil fuel industries access to public lands and increase the use of the country’s natural resources. Since Zinke would oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, this is bad news for those in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation who are still protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although Zinke has a past of supporting native sovereignty, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to favor gas development over indigenous peoples.

And oil is what Secretary of State appointee Rex Tillerson is best known for. As Exxon Mobil’s CEO, Tillerson is in line to become the U.S.’s next chief diplomat, despite having rubbed elbows with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It doesn’t seem like Tillerson would go into the job with good intentions, considering Exxon granted Russia access to oil in the Arctic in 2011, according to CNN.

Not all hope is lost, though, because there is a way for environmental progression to continue: state and local governments.

Andrea Feldpausch-Parker, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, isn’t totally convinced “things are doomed.”

“States have a lot more control over their energy systems,” Parker said. “To a degree we kind of know how to function without federal support in relation to climate action, and I think that’s where we’re probably going to have to go back.”

Parker pointed to Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush, whose own administration failed to act on climate. Environmentalists have always found alternative paths when their federal government deserts them. It’s during times like these, Parker argued, that people are most empowered to act on climate change.

So although Trump’s goal is to weaken federal agencies with environmental mandates, Parker isn’t scared. She reminds herself that the average citizen also has the powers to inform and spark change.

Just last month, residents of central New York asserted their power when they rallied together to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass the Climate and Community Protection Act. Under the act, New York would commit 100 percent to renewable energy by 2050, fund clean energy jobs and establish regulated limits on greenhouse gas emissions, according to the New York State Assembly’s website.

New York has led climate mitigation policies before and must step up as a leader again. The state, which suffered an unusual drought last summer, is no stranger to climate-inflicted events. This is why Cuomo needs to push for the Climate and Community Protection Act and object to Trump’s anti-climate rhetoric.

Parker described the Trump era as an environmental hurdle that we must deal with, but added that it’s something that we’ve had to deal with in the past.

So as Trump’s inauguration looms near, environmentalists should get ready to roll up their shirtsleeves. Rome wasn’t conquered in a day, and neither will our environmental policies.

Morgan Bulman is a graduate magazine, newspaper and online journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at mebulman@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @morgbulman.

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