Will We Be Able to Reverse Trump’s Climate Damage?
By Hannah Murphy
When he talks about the Trump administration, David Doniger likes to say: "Imagine where we'd be if they knew what they were doing." The climate lawyer and senior advisor to the NRDC Action Fund spends his days defending the environment from the U.S. government, and for the past three and a half years, that's meant a front-row seat to the Trump administration's relentless attacks on any regulation that's meant to slow the climate crisis.
But it's also been a window into the hasty, sloppy, and legally dubious ways that they've gone about it. "One of the hallmarks of this administration is how incompetently they're doing this," says Doniger. "It shows up in how slowly they've been able to work, and how flimsy their legal rationales are." Almost all of Trump's attempts at deregulation — some 100 rules that he's tried to eliminate or weaken — are being challenged in court, and environmentalists are steadily winning. According to the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, the Trump administration has lost 69 of the 83 legal challenges it's faced in its deregulatory blitz.
"We were saved by their incompetence," says Andrew Wetzler, from the NRDC Action Fund, mainly by their failure to follow basic rule-making procedures. They rushed through the process, often shortening or entirely skipping over the required 60 days for public comment, which provided a clear opening for their rule changes to be challenged in court. The administration's ineptitude has given environmentalists hope that if Trump loses the election, the policy impact of his unrelenting pro-fossil fuel agenda could ultimately be short-lived. "If he's a one-term wonder," says Doniger, "the biggest consequence of the Trump administration may just turn out to be lost time."
But time, at this hour of the climate fight, might be our most precious resource. As we stumble ever closer to the collapse of ice sheets, oceans and forests, the range of meaningful action we could take narrows. There is now believed to be more carbon dioxide in the air than any time in the last 3 million years. Our oceans are on track by the end of this century to become more acidic than they've been in some 15 million years — when they were enduring a major extinction event. Those oceans are also rising steadily enough to threaten the homes of 150 million people in the next three decades. "We lost years at a critical time," says Wetzler. "We're on the precipice of a number of climate and biological tipping points." And, he says, we won't fully understand the impact of that loss for years.
If Biden wins in November, environmentalists say, his administration would have a slim window of opportunity to get our agencies back on track to meet the enormity of the climate crisis. "It means being aggressive from day one," says Brett Hartl from the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. "And not futzing around — knowing what you're going to do and implementing it immediately."
Making up for the lost time won't be easy. Despite his slap-dash approach, Trump still managed to scramble the trajectory of American climate policy, creating a tangle of legal fights that will have to be cleared up for U.S. climate policy to move forward. And he left almost no part of our environmental regulatory structure untouched — greenlighting fossil fuel infrastructure like the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines, setting us back on emission-reduction goals by reversing the Clean Power Plan and higher fuel-efficiency standards, and gutting the federal agencies that should be at the helm of our climate response.
So how difficult will it be to unscramble this mess? It would have to happen in three parts, environmentalists say, and all three would have to start on day one. First, Biden would have a powerful arsenal of executive tools available to him — if he chooses to use them. A coalition of over 500 environmental groups has already assembled a plan for how he could effectively jumpstart our fight against the climate crisis using executive powers, which would avoid both going through Congress and the lengthy federal rule-making process.
Using executive power, Biden could declare a national climate emergency. It wouldn't just send an important message to Americans — and the rest of the world — that we're taking the climate crisis seriously; it would give the administration the power to mobilize the government on a massive scale, like ordering the Secretary of Defense to redirect military spending toward the rapid development of clean energy.
Biden could also immediately order federal agencies to reverse the climate rollbacks Trump introduced through executive order — like allowing oil and gas companies to side-step state approval — and start issuing his own. Most urgently, Biden would have the power to keep more fossil fuels in the ground: He could direct the Secretary of the Interior to halt oil-and-gas leasing and fracking on federal lands, reinstitute the ban on exporting crude oil, and order all federal agencies to deny permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure, like pipelines, storage facilities, and refineries.
He'd also be able to change the ways that money moves through the energy sector. He could prohibit the U.S. government from financing fossil fuel programs overseas and end all Department of Energy loans for fossil fuels stateside, while also requiring the Federal Reserve to manage climate risks — forcing it to acknowledge the current and future impact of climate change on our economy.
Many of these tools were already available in the Obama era, but the administration chose not to use them. For example, "the Clean Air Act is actually quite clear that you have the authority to set national ambient air quality standards," says Hartl. "It would have been incredibly bold, and it actually wouldn't have had the problems that the Clean Power Plan had. They could have really moved the needle on greenhouse gases in a very, very powerful way." But, Hartl says, the Obama administration shied away from these kinds of actions for fear of political consequences.
Biden would face a very different national landscape. At the beginning of this year, two thirds of American adults said that protecting the environment should be a top priority of the federal government, up from only 30 percent at the beginning of Obama's first term. In a poll last week, likely Democratic voters ranked climate change as the most important issue to them in this election, and Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, has found that talking about climate change could actually help persuade voters who are on the fence to vote for a Democrat. All of this is to say, a Biden administration could have an unprecedented political mandate to take action on the climate crisis.
In addition to issuing executive orders, beginning on day one Biden would also need to start the process of unwinding the deregulation efforts that Trump carried out through the federal rule-making process — like rollbacks on the Endangered Species Act and fuel-emissions standards — and writing new ones to take their place. Environmentalists are confident that a new administration could systematically undo each rollback, but that process could take two years, according to Hartl.
And the Biden administration would need to learn from Trump's mistakes. Legal challenges from the industries that these regulations impact — the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association — are inevitable, "so you have to go in and be prepared to defend it the first time," says Hartl. That means following the process to the letter: establishing rules with legal backing from legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts; opening the rule up to public comment; and then presenting a final rule that can stand up in court. Unlike Trump's deregulation efforts, which were fighting against decades of environmental legislation, the law would be on Biden's side. "The reality is that when Congress passed these laws," says Hartl, "they were designed to make the environment better."
Finally, Biden would have to start hiring like mad. Over the past four years, Trump's EPA and Interior Department have hemorrhaged talent. The Bureau of Land Management moved the majority of its staff out of Washington, D.C., leading some 70 percent of that staff to resign, and the EPA is nearly as small as it was during the Nixon era, when the EPA was founded. "That pattern, in the most extreme way, is mirrored throughout the environmental agencies," says Wetzler. "There's been a real brain drain of people who can't stand in an agency and support the agenda under the Trump administration, and we'll have to put back the pieces of very demoralized, and in some cases broken agencies."
But from those ashes, Biden could build a coalition of climate advocates across his Cabinet. His transition team, and the 4,000 people they appoint, are arguably more influential than any campaign promises he could make. "Personnel is policy," says Jamal Raad, co-founder and campaign director for Evergreen Action, founded by former staffers of Gov. Jay Inslee's presidential campaign. "We need to choose regulators that have a climate lens," and that lens doesn't end at the EPA — it can reach the Department of Agriculture, where we have to reimagine our food production to work with our changing climate, or the Treasury, where regulators could interpret the Dodd-Frank consumer protection act to include climate risks. And within the White House, Raad says, Biden could create a National Climate Council that's equivalent to the National Economic Council. "There needs to be a plan to reorient the federal government so that climate is a lens in all decision making."
Heading into the general election, pressure from the left wing of the party shaped Biden's $2 trillion climate plan, which is "a green new deal in all but name," wrote activist and journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat. "It's the most progressive, forward-leaning environmental plan that any candidate for president has ever released," says Wetzler of the NRDC Action Fund. "It would represent incredible progress." And while the Biden campaign hasn't laid out a timetable for the plan, "the Biden team has been signaling their prioritization of climate by making it central to their economic recovery plans," says Raad. "I think that folks should be cautiously optimistic — but vigilant — on the prospect of climate being a priority early in the first term."
Of course, this all hinges on what happens in November. And if Trump is re-elected, his administration would have the chance to establish a legacy of more than just incompetence and squandered time. Four more years of Donald Trump being in charge of the environment could permanently alter the American landscape.
In some cases, it would give the Trump administration time to fight back against the legal challenges they face, leaning on courts that they've stacked with anti-environmental judges. And damage could be done that will be near impossible to undo — rules can be changed, but mines can't be unmined. The Trump administration has pursued the largest rollback of federally protected land in U.S. history. Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, for example, which Trump shrunk by 85 percent in 2017, is in the crosshairs of uranium developers. Trump's move has been mired in lawsuits, but a second term could give them the time to untangle them, and hand the land over to the uranium lobbyists.
Likewise, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was just approved in August, leaving little time for leasing, let alone actual development, before Inauguration Day. But if Trump wins, those leases are likely to move forward, as will the roads, pipelines, and oil rigs that come with them, doing permanent damage to a vital and fragile ecosystem. "Over time you're looking at millions and millions of acres of fossil fuel leasing," says Hartl from the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. "And eventually, once you get to the point where they're actually putting drills in the ground, it's very hard to undo that. You're locking in a tremendous amount of fossil fuel infrastructure."
Trump's influence on the Supreme Court looms heavily for the environment as well. With Trump already raring to appoint a new justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a second term is likely to offer him a fourth Supreme Court appointment, which would mean the highest court would house seven Republican-appointed justices. When you're suing over environmental issues, the court's make-up can be the difference between having your day in court, and not. "For example, there's a general judicial doctrine called 'standing,' or your ability to go to court to pursue your aggrieved interests," explains Hartl. "Conservative judges want to narrow who has standing as much as possible, because that limits access to the courts. When you're fighting for the environment, and your interest is protecting an endangered species or the atmosphere or the water, they've already made it hard for us to go to court, to have standing. And they can narrow it even further so that we don't even have recourse. Our ability to just fight for the environment is at stake."
The climate movement has never been more clear on what it is fighting for and what it needs to do, and finally has a presidential candidate who is signaling some willingness to do it. The prescription is fairly simple: Stop burning fossil fuels so we can begin drawing down the carbon in the atmosphere that's overheating our planet and disrupting the systems that have supported life on Earth as we know it. The president has a lot of power to take that action, and we have no time to lose. "It's true that we have 30 years [before an irreversible climate collapse], but when you act on that 30-year scale really affects how radically you have to act," says Wetzler. "If you think about where the United States was at the beginning of the Trump administration — and where the world was, in terms of taking climate change seriously — it's a huge, squandered opportunity." This November, we can choose to act, and set ourselves back on course. "If this is a one-time, Black Swan event, we're probably going to recover as a nation," says Doniger. "This is the project of the century."
This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
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<div id="a858f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99d487bc34e6e570edd2a3089e616347"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318606309256798208" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🎥 We're live! @NRDems, @RepRaulGrijalva, and @USRepKCastor are unveiling #OceanClimateAction legislation. W… https://t.co/pPdylA6cKQ</div> — Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (@Select Committee on the Climate Crisis)<a href="https://twitter.com/ClimateCrisis/statuses/1318606309256798208">1603215217.0</a></blockquote></div>
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