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Trump Named ‘Worst President for Our Environment in History' by Nine Green Groups

Politics
Trump Named ‘Worst President for Our Environment in History' by Nine Green Groups
Trump departs the White House for the U.S. Capitol to deliver the State of the Union address in Washington, DC, on Feb. 4, 2020. NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP via Getty Images

As President Donald Trump prepared to give his third State of the Union Address Tuesday night, nine conservation groups considered the state of the nation's environment.


Their consensus?

"Donald Trump has been the worst president for our environment in history," the groups wrote in a statement released Tuesday.

The statement was written by Alaska Wilderness League Action, Clean Water Action, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, EDF Action, Friends of the Earth, League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society. The groups said they decided to release the statement out of concern the president would try to "greenwash" his record during his speech.

The groups wrote:

"Donald Trump's administration has unleashed an unprecedented assault on our environment and the health of our communities. His policies threaten our climate, air, water, public lands, wildlife, and oceans; no amount of his greenwashing can change the simple fact: Donald Trump has been the worst president for our environment in history. Unfortunately, our children will pay the costs of this president's recklessness. Our organizations have repeatedly fought back against these attacks and we will continue to fight to ensure that our kids don't bear the brunt of the Trump administration's anti-environmental agenda."

As of Dec. 21 of 2019, the Trump administration had attempted to roll back more than 90 environmental rules and regulations, The New York Times reported. Those included:

  1. Replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that limited carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas plants. The new rule would let states make their own rules and could lead to as many as 1,400 additional air pollution deaths a year by 2030.
  2. Revoking California's waiver to set its own vehicle emissions standards under the Clean Air Act
  3. Changing how the Endangered Species Act is applied to make it harder to protect animals and plants from the climate crisis
  4. Stripping protections from streams and wetlands that had been protected by the Obama administration

In his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday, which came a day before the Senate is set to vote on whether or not to remove him from office following an impeachment trial, Trump talked up his deregulatory efforts as a boon to the U.S. economy.

"Thanks to our bold regulatory reduction campaign, the United States has become the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world, by far," he said, according to a transcript published by The New York Times.

However, The New York Times pointed out in a separate fact-check that the U.S. became the world's leading oil producer in 2013 and its leading gas producer in 2009, making it impossible to credit Trump's rollbacks.

Trump's only other mention of environmental policy came when he spoke of his decision to join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, a plan launched by the World Economic Forum to plant, conserve and restore one trillion trees.

The plan is intended to help fight the climate crisis and restore biodiversity. Capturing carbon in forests, grasslands and wetlands can achieve as much as one third of the emissions reductions needed to meet Paris agreement goals by 2030, the initiative pointed out, but such so-called "natural solutions" need to go along with reducing emissions in the energy, heavy industry and finance sectors.

Trump called the initiative "an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world," but did not mention the climate crisis.

However, The New York Times pointed out that the U.S. emitted 5.8 billion tons of greenhouse gasses in 2019. To plant enough trees to draw all of that down out of the atmosphere would require an area of land about four times the size of California.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to a New York Times article listing Trump's environmental deregulations as being dated Dec. 20. It has been corrected to reflect the fact that the article was last updated Dec. 21.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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