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The 2020 presidential election poses a critical test of climate conservatives' willingness to put their environmental concerns before party politics. filo / Getty Images

By Ilana Cohen

Four years ago, Jacob Abel cast his first presidential vote for Donald Trump. As a young conservative from Concord, North Carolina, the choice felt natural.

By Ilana Cohen

Four years ago, Jacob Abel cast his first presidential vote for Donald Trump. As a young conservative from Concord, North Carolina, the choice felt natural.

But this November, he plans to cast a “protest vote” for a write-in candidate or abstain from casting a ballot for president. A determining factor in his 180-degree turn? Climate change.

Climate didn’t become a voting issue for Abel until months after the 2016 election. As a college freshman at Seton Hall University, he found himself increasingly frustrated by lackluster Republican responses to an issue now leading millions to march in the streets.

Abel felt that his party’s future, like that of his generation, depended upon it addressing climate change with the appropriate urgency.

While his progressive counterparts helped propel a “Squad” of climate leaders into Congress, Abel advocated for market-driven climate solutions like carbon pricing as a spokesperson for republicEn, a right-leaning climate advocacy organization.

“The Green New Deal was actually a big catalyst for a lot of young Republicans coming forward and pushing for serious Republican solutions” on climate change, said Abel.

Momentum on the left stirred new conversations on the right, as young conservatives banded together in hopes of sustaining both their party and the planet. Their cries for climate action helped open older Republicans’ eyes to the risk of losing young voters, and a seat at the table in future climate policymaking, if the GOP didn’t change its tune.

“Over the next 10 years,” Abel said, he “wants to see Republicans come together with Democrats to come to a realistic solution,” along with Republicans proposing “more and more solutions” of their own, including around what Abel considers a critical “middle ground” measure to advance decarbonization—carbon pricing.

“Because we’re still kind of relatively new to actually taking this topic seriously and proposing policy,” said Abel of the GOP, “I think our policy response could be more robust and more detailed.”

Only a decade ago, Abel’s story might have been a novelty. Now, it’s commonplace. From raging wildfires on the West Coast to Hurricane Sally’s massive flooding in the South, climate disasters are politicizing young people across the ideological spectrum who have experienced them first hand.

Younger Republicans are much more engaged with climate change than their parents and grandparents, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The program’s research shows young Republicans are more likely than older ones to believe in human-caused global warming and to support climate action.

Frustrated by party leadership that doesn’t represent their call for urgent climate action and public discourse that discounts their views, young Republicans also seem more willing to pose their own climate solutions. They don’t want to see a World War II-style mobilization; they want pragmatic proposals advancing private sector innovation.

The 2020 presidential election poses a critical test of climate conservatives’ willingness to put their environmental concerns before party politics. While some young Republicans who prioritize the issue of climate change remain loyal to Trump and others turn to Biden, a growing number like Abel are not supporting either candidate.

Given Trump’s thin margin of victory in 2016, young conservatives who choose not to vote for either major presidential candidate may help Biden just as much as those who vote for him over Trump, Leiserowtiz said, depending on the state they vote in. Millennials and Gen Zers will comprise 37 percent of eligible voters in November, which gives them vast electoral influence, if they vote.

If youth show up in force to oust Trump from office, their votes could provide a “powerful warning sign” for the GOP, Leiserowtiz said. It would affirm that for Republicans to win the youth vote and have a path to the White House moving forward, they must embrace climate action now.

Fractures Among Young Climate Conservatives 

While young conservatives have united around the urgency of climate change, they remain divided over how to bring their concerns to the ballot box. Some embrace right-wing attacks painting Biden as a “tool of the left” and find his climate agenda “radical.” Others can’t find a way to justify voting for Trump, even if it means breaking with their party.

Patrick Mann from Orange County, California, voted for Trump in 2016. But today, he’s leading Aggies for Joe at Texas A&M University and is co-founder of Texas Students for Biden.

Mann grew up watching wildfires ravage his home state, nearly forcing his family to evacuate in 2017. The GOP is failing to “meet the moment” for climate action, Mann said. He’s hoping Biden will deliver on a promise to “restore the soul of our nation.”

Taylor Walker from Pensacola, Florida, is also determined to make her voice heard on climate, including by casting her first-ever vote for president—but not for Biden.

Walker, a statewide campus coordinator for the conservative environmental advocacy group American Conservation Coalition, felt compelled to act on climate change after seeing the lasting environmental and economic damage the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico wreaked on her home state. As a practicing Christian, Walker feels a “responsibility from God to steward the environment,” which means fighting climate change while protecting industry.

She lauded Trump’s support of Ron DeSantis’ run for Florida Governor in 2018. Walker appreciated DeSantis’ ambitious environmental vision and said he “passed quite a few green initiatives in the first few months of his term.” The governor’s environmental record since has been controversial, with DeSantis earning dismal ratings from the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters.

Walker also praised Trump’s recent commitment to banning offshore drilling on the state’s coasts, which came two years after he proposed vastly expanding oil and gas drilling in U.S. continental waters. The move “shows a good faith investment” in finding clean energy alternatives, Walker said.

Walker said she’d examine both major presidential candidates’ platforms and records on climate policy up until Election Day, but she doesn’t think there’s much, if anything, the Biden campaign could do that would convince her to swing left. If Trump can help pivot the GOP in greener directions, she said, “then more power to him.”

A False Equivalency 

Young climate conservatives may fear climate denial and delayed climate action, but more than that, they fear the growing political momentum around the Green New Deal, the massive spending it entails and Biden’s citing of it as a “crucial framing for meeting the climate challenges we face.”

Many don’t want to split with their party to support a Democrat whose allegedly bipartisan intentions they doubt. If stymieing what they consider a radical green agenda means re-electing a climate change denying president, so be it.

“I’m scared of climate change, but I’m also scared of the Green New Deal and what it means for America,” said Ben Mutolo, a republicEN spokesperson and junior at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Mutolo felt encouraged by former Ohio Governor John Kasich’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention, but he still struggles to see himself voting for Biden. Though the candidate paints himself as a centrist, Mutolo believes he’s “cozying up to the ultra-progressive left.”

Mutolo, who wants to see market-based climate solutions like a carbon tax, feels torn between a candidate whose climate plan relies on taking an “All-of-Government approach,” and one with no efforts to reign in global warming at all.

Leiserowitz said he appreciated how a conservative might feel Biden’s climate plan “doesn’t jive with their limited government, free-market approach.”

But he sees a strong distinction between voting for a presidential candidate with a trillion climate plan that includes large renewable energy investments, which have bipartisan support, and a candidate trying “to take the country in the opposite direction, towards more fossil fuels.”

Equating the two seems “hard to square rationally,” said Leiserowtiz. But most people don’t vote rationally. Research shows they vote based on their social and political identities, not policy positions, and are influenced by messaging from their social circles.

As someone ready to talk climate solutions, rather than debate science, Mann, the Texas A&M student, has struggled to connect with Republican peers supporting Trump. He believes that people concerned about climate change have a moral imperative to support Biden. “Voting for someone who took us out of the Paris Agreement, you’re not going to get progress on climate change,” said Mann. “Trump is not making America a leader on this.”

Given the vast threat posed by climate change, Mann said, a vote withheld from Biden is just as problematic as a vote for Trump.

Mann knows he can’t change people’s minds, but that won’t stop him from trying. “All I can do is plant ideas in their mind of why it’s important” to elect Biden now and put climate leaders into office beyond this November, he said. “Hopefully, those grow.”

While some young climate conservatives like Mann are engaging their peers in discussions about the presidential election, others like Walker are more concerned with raising awareness of market-driven climate solutions or getting out the vote for local and Congressional races.

Whatever their course of action, the chance to help shape climate policy for a critical next four to eight years isn’t lost on any of these young climate conservatives. How they cast their ballots, and in what numbers, may solidify for the right a reality already made clear on the left—political survival now goes hand in hand with efforts to stabilize the climate and invest in the futures of today’s youth and those of generations to come.

This story originally appeared in Inside Climate News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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Towns like Breckenridge, Colorado, are part of a national organization, Mountain Towns 2030, that's swapping ideas about how to meet a goal of net-zero carbon emissions within a decade. 12019 / Needpix

By James Bruggers

In Maine, state officials are working to help residents install 100,000 high efficiency heat pumps in their homes, part of a strategy for electrifying the state. In California, an in-demand grant program helps the state's largest industry—agriculture, not technology—to pursue a greener, more sustainable future. Across Appalachia, solar panels are appearing on rooftops of community centers in what used to be coal towns.

By James Bruggers

In Maine, state officials are working to help residents install 100,000 high efficiency heat pumps in their homes, part of a strategy for electrifying the state. In California, an in-demand grant program helps the state’s largest industry—agriculture, not technology—to pursue a greener, more sustainable future. Across Appalachia, solar panels are appearing on rooftops of community centers in what used to be coal towns.

The Trump administration may have pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, but most states and many rural areas in America have developed their own plans for reducing carbon emissions and moving away from fossil fuels as they maneuver—often aggressively—to address the threat of climate change.

“Even if the U.S. government has decided to leave the Paris Agreement, we see in the U.S. an enormous movement in favor to climate action,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in an interview with Covering Climate Now on Monday. “We see companies, we see cities, we see states, we see the civil society fully mobilized.”

Many state and local officials, including those in rural areas, hope stimulus funds aimed at helping rebuild economies ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic will support renewable energy and other “climate smart” initiatives that cut carbon emissions, while often creating more jobs in emerging industries than traditional infrastructure spending.

The plans for decarbonizing America have been sown and exist like seeds in a parched field, waiting for a drenching rain.

Here are five examples.

In Maine, Federal Funding ‘Would Make a Big Difference’

The fingerprints of climate change are all over the state of Maine, from the invasion of temperate species into the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine to summers that are now two weeks longer than they were a century ago. But despite all this change, one thing will stay the same: Winter in Maine will still be cold.

In a state that uses more home heating oil per capita than anywhere in the nation, Maine’s climate hawks are looking to make a major change in the way people heat their homes, and help mitigate climate change at the same time.

In 2019, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill with the goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps into homes in Maine by 2025. This would represent nearly a fifth of the homes in the state.

“It’s clearly the electrification strategy,” said Hannah Pingree, the state’s director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. “Electrify homes, electrify transportation. That’s a strong theme of the Climate Council.”

Maine’s Climate Council—a group of scientists, industry leaders, local and state officials and residents—is charged with figuring out how Maine will meet a trio of ambitious goals: reducing emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and at least 80 percent by 2050; increasing the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard to 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050; and making the state carbon neutral by 2045.

Heat pumps—which also cool homes—draw in air from outside and use the difference in temperature between inside and outside air to keep a home comfortable. They are run on electricity, and can be paired with clean energy sources like solar or wind power to eliminate the carbon footprint of home heating.

Mills’ plan offers incentives for installing the pumps, thanks to state funding that’s being supplemented by some federal low-income housing funds. The program is up and running, but it’s something that Pingree said could benefit from an infusion of federal funds.

“The governor’s heat pump program is already ambitious and innovative, but to really get to the full scale and take it even further, federal investment would make a big difference,” said Pingree, who co-chairs the Climate Council. “Especially when it comes to people’s homes, investments in transportation and housing stock, the federal government’s participation is extremely helpful and it helps put people to work.”

The heat pump program is part of a bigger picture of state and local governments working to get consumers to move away from using fossil fuels for heating. Some local governments in other states are banning natural gas hookups for new construction, and some electric utilities and clean energy advocates are asking California regulators to enact a statewide ban as part of the next update of the state’s building code.

Heat pumps are just one part of Maines’s strategy, which will likely include a massive expansion of offshore wind and community solar projects and a push to electrify the transportation sector. At a meeting earlier this summer, more than 230 people from six working groups presented ideas to the council—more than 300 actions in all—which are being weighed now.

“If you look at the recommendations from the working groups, one of the cross-cutting ones is finance. We do need to raise revenue, and we also need the federal government to step up,” said David Costello, the clean energy director of the Natural Resource Council of Maine. “It’s going to be hard for Maine to implement many of the actions that we’d like to implement without increased funding.”

California’s Grants for ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’ Are Successful—and Threatened

To say California farm country is central to its ambitious plans to combat climate change seems redundant. The billion agricultural sector is a pillar of the state’s economy, the world’s fifth largest, encompassing 70,000 farms and ranches.

With such a vast and vital industry (which includes parts of every county in the state), California has created a suite of “climate smart agriculture” programs. The first-of-their-kind programs, launched in 2014 and expanded in 2017, are helping farms become more resilient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve land and protect ecosystems and communities.

The programs provide grant funds and technical assistance to farms in four key areas: conserving agricultural land against non-farm development; increasing on-farm water efficiency; improving soil health and managing manure to mitigate its climate impacts. The programs, popular with farmers, are receiving at least twice as many applications as there are grants.

They are also popular with nonprofit environmental and agricultural advocacy organizations. The California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), evaluated the programs’ climate benefits and found impressive results. To date, the programs collectively have funded more than 1,250 climate smart agriculture projects and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1.1 million metric tons of CO2 e (carbon dioxide equivalent) over the life of the projects, the equivalent of removing 67,000 passenger vehicles from the road for a year. The water efficiency programs have saved more than 110,000 acre feet of water (the equivalent of more than 50,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools).

They are also affordable, costing between and 0 per metric ton of CO2 reductions. In a pre-pandemic California, one with a budget surplus and climate policy priorities, the programs would be expanding. Instead, climate smart agriculture funding is in jeopardy. The state, still partially wracked by the coronavirus, is in a worsening recession. Supporters of climate smart agriculture programs worry the state will spend its funding on other priorities.

This at a time when the coronavirus has exposed the need for greater investment in farm country, said Jeanne Merrill, CalCAN’s policy director. “We’re seeing the pandemic impacts on farmers is clearly a major disruption,” she said, “and it’s a disruption that can point to weaknesses in our current system. We’re taking the lessons learned from the pandemic and applying that to how we can prepare for greater climate extremes. Investing in resilient farming is key.”

Across Appalachia, a New Post-Coal Economy Beckons

Coal mining jobs have been crashing for decades in eastern Kentucky, from roughly 30,000 in 1984 to about 3,000 now, undercutting what has long been among the most impoverished regions of the country.

For a long time, elected leaders held what turned out to be false hope that the coal industry would come back.

But a nonprofit based in Berea, Kentucky, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, has been working toward a post-coal economy since 1976.

Among its programs: training entrepreneurs and providing low-interest loans to small businesses. In the past dozen years, MACED added energy efficiency and solar power to its mix of programs, saving clients money and cutting carbon emissions at the same time.

It’s an ironic twist that rural Appalachian counties that helped power the nation with cheap—though dirty and climate warming—coal have seen residents’ electricity bills skyrocket as coal has given way to cheaper natural gas and increasingly competitive wind and solar. Utility customers have been shouldering the costs of shuttering old coal-burning power plants and cleaning up the toxic messes they leave behind, while the power companies doubled down on more expensive coal.

Since May 2015, MACED has helped with 30 solar installations, saving almost 0,000 in energy costs, said Ivy Brashear, MACED’s Appalachian transition director. And since 2008, MACED has helped hundreds of homes and businesses reduce their energy bills by scrutinizing them for errors and helping to pay for energy efficiency retrofits, she said. She added that it included, for example, helping a grocery store stay in business to prevent a rural area from becoming a food desert.

“We listen and collaborate with people who are living and working in these communities, and help advance that new economy in ways that are really just and really equitable,” Brashear said.

In solar work, MACED has focused on Letcher County, with a population of about 22,000, where businesses, faith communities and nonprofits are tapping their cultural strengths to create a new economy.

Whitesburg-based Appalshop, the 50-year-old arts and education nonprofit, for example, partnered with MACED to put solar panels on its new outdoor performance pavilion, which opened a year ago, to power its headquarters building and reduce electricity bills.

“In the last decade, our energy costs have gone up by 50 percent and were expected to keep rising,” said Alexandra Werner-Winslow, Appalshop communications director. “That was not sustainable.”

MACED, she said, “was tremendously helpful with our construction,” and with the low-interest loan. At the same time, Appalshop sees solar development and energy efficiency as an important economic engine for eastern Kentucky.

MACED’s funding includes grants from government and philanthropic foundations. With Congress weighing further ways to help the nation recover from an economic recession caused by the novel coronavirus, it could further a transition to cleaner energy and energy savings in rural areas through targeted investments and tax rebates, said Peter Hille, president of MACED.

“Anything that can (bring) down the front-end cost makes a big difference since that also reduces interest cost on financing over the life of the loan,” he said.

Mountain Towns in the West Hope for a ‘Green Pathway’ Stimulus 

Jessie Burley is the sustainability director for the town of Breckenridge, Colorado, a posh, outdoorsy community in the Tenmile Range. Not only is Breckenridge a member of the statewide Colorado Communities for Climate Action but the town is also part of a national organization, Mountain Towns 2030, that’s swapping ideas about how to meet a goal of net-zero carbon emissions within a decade, and one of many tourist towns focused on clean energy long before the coronavirus pandemic.

And the resulting economic downturn hasn’t changed the goal, said Burley. Sustainability-minded communities recognize that jobs and businesses ought to be a focus of the Covid-19 recovery, since the pandemic has revealed how exposed existing economic systems are, she said.

“Whether it’s a virus or whether it’s global warming or whether it’s some other kind of disaster, we are more susceptible,” she said. “We also can’t lose sight of the fact that going back to business as usual is not going to be enough.”

Members of a Mountain Towns 2030 task force on Covid-19 are pressing for any new stimulus package to include provisions supporting “green pathway” programs, such as green infrastructure, electric vehicle charging or renewable energy jobs. In that spirit, although Breckenridge has suffered steep, pandemic-related revenue losses, a community solar program is pressing forward this year, its grants scaled back from 25 to 20.

Similarly, in Montana, where revenue from natural resource industries makes up 12 percent of the state’s general fund and paychecks for 1.2 percent of the workforce, a task force is finalizing a statewide climate change plan this month, said Mark Haggerty, an economist with Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics and a member of the governor’s climate task force. Planning is still underway to decarbonize Montana’s electricity sector by 2035 and to decarbonize Montana’s economy by 2050, he said.

“A lot of this needs to be done in recognition of the fact that [the energy transition] is already happening,” said Haggerty, noting that the task force is diverse, including everyone from conservationists to energy officials.

“It is a broad-based challenge, and everyone is affected regardless of where you live or what your political affiliation is,” he said of the new climate goals in a world also dealing with Covid-19’s economic fallout. “But, also, we need everyone to buy into and ultimately benefit from the changes that we can enact and that will benefit the entire state.”

Virginia is the South’s First State to Commit to Carbon-Free Energy

In the wake of a political upheaval that put Democrats firmly in control of state government, Virginia in 2020 became the first state in the South to commit to 100 percent carbon-free energy and to join the northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Most of the state’s coal power would have to shut down by 2024 under the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which also lays the groundwork for a burst of new renewable energy construction. Lawmakers declared large amounts of solar and wind energy and energy storage to be “in the public interest,” sweeping aside the regulatory barriers to new renewable energy projects.

This transition to renewable energy already has a footprint in the Hamptons Roads area, where the state plans to develop a wind industry hub to be overseen by a newly created state agency aimed at fostering offshore wind farms. The bill that created the agency stated Virginia’s opposition to offshore drilling.

About 25 miles east, Virginia Beach is considering an array of plans to protect homes and businesses from increased climate-related flooding, storm surges and sea level rise, hoping for either state or federal funds to do everything from buying out flood prone homes to possibly building large floodgates to protect its shoreline.

In Norfolk, the state is supporting construction of new reefs using crushed concrete and granite that can serve as a habitat for the eastern oyster and also help shield the city against storm surges and erosion. The effort enabled state officials last year to declare the Lafayette River fully restored under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed agreement.

The Legislature, meanwhile, considered, but rejected, the idea of a Virginia “Green New Deal” public works-style program. Instead, lawmakers opted for a business-friendly approach that had the support of the state’s big utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, by the time the legislation was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam on April 11.

The new Clean Economy Act makes it easier for rooftop solar to spread across Virginia, by expanding “net metering” for households—giving electricity customers credit for the excess solar energy they produce and sell back to the grid. It enables Virginians for the first time to save money on their monthly electric bills by going solar.

If utilities fall short on their obligations to cut carbon energy and expand renewables, they will be subject to penalties that will go into an account to fund job training, with priority given to historically disadvantaged communities, veterans and individuals in Virginia’s coalfield regions. Some critics note that this set-up means there is no assured funding for worker transition programs, which could be provided by stimulus programs from the federal government.

Virginia already has more solar jobs (4,489) than coal jobs (2,730), and the latter are concentrated in the rural southwestern part of the state, a Republican stronghold which has lost political power to the state’s burgeoning northern suburbs. Diverse, highly educated and tech-heavy communities in the northern part of the state helped Democrats take full control of Virginia’s Legislature in 2019, paving the way for passage of Northam’s clean energy agenda. A chief challenge in implementing the law will be ensuring that the Republican-dominated, fossil fuel-dependent rural regions that have been resistant to change don’t get left behind.

This story originally appeared in InsideClimate News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Two weeks before the start of the Republican convention in late August, President Trump rolled back Barack Obama's last major environmental regulation, restricting methane leaks. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Vernon Loeb, Marianne Lavelle and Stacy Feldman

In the middle of his 44th month in office, two weeks before the start of the Republican convention in late August, President Trump rolled back Barack Obama's last major environmental regulation, restricting methane leaks.

By Vernon Loeb, Marianne Lavelle and Stacy Feldman

In the middle of his 44th month in office, two weeks before the start of the Republican convention in late August, President Trump rolled back Barack Obama’s last major environmental regulation, restricting methane leaks.

The move represented an environmental trifecta of sorts for the president, who had handed the oil and gas industry another gift in his quest for “American energy dominance,” thumbed his nose yet again at climate change and came close to fully dismantling his predecessor’s environment and climate legacy.

It had been a busy four years, and a breakneck 2020, as Trump and the former industry executives and lobbyists he’d placed in control of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior raced to rollback auto emissions standards, weaken the nation’s most important environmental law, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and reject stronger air pollution standards, even as research showed a link between those pollutants and an increased risk of death from Covid-19.

“I applaud and strongly support President Trump’s continued support for the oil and gas industry,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said after the administration proposed its rollback of the Obama methane rules. “During these uncertain times, it makes no sense that we would be placing additional regulatory burdens on our vital industries which are not supported by sound science and do not consider economic impact.”

Environmental lawyers and climate activists who’ve been battling Trump since day one are in agreement that Trump, beginning with his decision to lead the nation out of the Paris climate accord, has done more to roll back and weaken environmental laws and regulations than any president in history.

Trump extolled the accomplishment and put a different spin on the superlative during a White House speech in July, saying, “We have removed nearly 25,000 pages of job destroying regulations, more than any other president by far in the history of our country.”

A few days earlier, as his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, unveiled a trillion plan to combat climate change, Trump promoted what he called a “very dramatic” series of revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act, the foundation of environmental protection in the United States that had been signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon 50 years ago.

Environmentalists have used the law to block everything from pipelines to the destruction of natural habitats. Trump has now limited environmental reviews under the act to between one and two years and relieved federal agencies from having to consider a project’s impact on climate change during the review and permitting process.

“While our world is burning, President Trump is adding fuel to the fire by taking away our right to be informed and to protect ourselves from irreparable harm,” Gina McCarthy, Obama’s EPA administrator who now serves as president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of weakening the act.

By late summer, Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law had counted 159 actions since Trump took office “to scale back or wholly eliminate climate mitigation and adaptation measures.” Many have been slowed or blocked by the courts.

Trump’s Long Focus on ‘American Energy Dominance’

When Trump delivered his first major energy speech in the fracking fields of North Dakota as a candidate in May 2016, he called for American domination of global energy supplies.

“We are going to turn everything around,” Trump declared. “And quickly, very quickly.”

Once in office, Trump pursued a policy of unfettered support for fossil fuel development. He immediately signed memorandums to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, projects blocked by Obama.

In early March 2017, his administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to stop gathering data from oil and gas companies needed to rein in leaks of methane, a potent short-lived climate pollutant. Fossil fuel infrastructure adds to greenhouse gas emissions, in part by leaking methane into the atmosphere.

He followed up, at the end of March, by issuing a sweeping executive order directing all federal agencies to target for elimination any rules that restrict U.S. production of energy. He set guidance to make it more difficult to put future regulations on fossil fuel industries and he moved to discard the use of a rigorous “social cost of carbon,” a regulatory measurement that puts a price on the future damage society will pay for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted.

As his first year in office came to a close, Trump and Alaska’s Republican senators inserted a provision into his signature tax cut legislation that called for opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.

In 2018, domestic oil production hit a record high. The result of this, among other things, was the reversal of three consecutive years of declining U.S. carbon emissions.

Many of Trump’s regulations have also been tailored to favor the coal industry, often at the expense of cheaper, cleaner energy. Robert Murray, founder of the now-bankrupt coal company Murray Energy and one of Trump’s closest industry allies, gave the president a “wish list” early on that became a virtual template for the administration’s rollback of regulations.

The administration swiftly lifted an Obama moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, to no real benefit. The decline of coal continued unabated, but Trump remained an unapologetic champion of the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Trump’s War on Science

When U.S. government scientists released their latest volume of the National Climate Assessment in November 2018, it revealed much about the robust, sobering scientific consensus on climate change.

It also revealed the striking disconnect between Trump and essentially every authoritative institution on the threat of global warming.

The president rejected the assessment’s central findings—based on thousands of climate studies and involving 13 federal agencies—that emissions of carbon dioxide are caused by human activities, are already causing lasting economic damage and have to be brought rapidly to zero.

“I don’t believe it. No, no, I don’t believe it,” Trump told a reporter after the assessment’s release.

In almost every agency overseeing energy, the environment and health, people with little scientific background, or strong ties to industries they would be regulating, were appointed to scientific leadership positions.

One of the administration’s first actions was to order scientists and other employees at EPA and other agencies to halt public communications. Several federal scientists working on climate change have said they were silenced, sidelined or demoted. The words “climate change” have been purged from government reports and other reports have been buried.

The administration’s mistrust of scientists and its tendency toward science denialism would also become a prominent feature of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, when the president muzzled scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and chafed at the dire predictions of many epidemiological models for Covid-19 deaths.

With the nation in a state of emergency over the pandemic, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who serves as Trump’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, moved in late March to fast-track the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule. Wheeler replaced Scott Pruitt, an Oklahoma Republican who served as Trump’s first EPA administrator before resigning in 2018 amid an ethics scandal.

Critics call Wheeler’s transparency proposal Orwellian and say it would actually limit the use of human health science in environmental decision-making, by eliminating studies that rely on patients’ anonymous medical data.

While Trump and his conservative allies contend that the reliance on such studies amounts to “secret science,” scientists and leading medical authorities respond that it is standard practice to honor patient confidentiality in peer-reviewed studies.

Numerous studies, including one based on health data from 60 million Medicare recipients, have shown that one of the signature pollutants from the burning of fossil fuels, microscopic particles less than 2.5 microns in width—known as PM 2.5—kill as many as 52,100 Americans prematurely each year.

Less than a month later, as much of the nation remained locked down to halt the spread of Covid-19, a respiratory disease, the Trump administration rejected a recommendation from government scientists to strengthen the national air quality standard for particulate matter. Trump chose instead to maintain the current PM 2.5 standard, handing the fossil fuel industry a major victory.

A ‘Concerted Attack’ on Alaska, Public Lands

The Trump administration knew no bounds for its fossil fuel agenda, pursuing drilling from the outset on pristine public lands in Alaska and the lower 48 states, where oil companies have long sought access.

Less than four months after taking office, Trump moved to lift Obama’s offshore Arctic drilling ban and, then, in July 2017, gave Italian oil company Eni a quick green light to drill exploratory wells.

In March 2018, the Trump administration proposed a resumption of leasing in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. President Obama, shortly before leaving office, had “permanently” withdrawn from drilling there.

By then, Trump had also carved 2 million acres of land from the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in southern Utah in what amounted to the most sweeping reductions in protections for public land in U.S. history.

In September 2018, the Interior Department finalized a rule that loosens methane requirements for oil and gas operations on federal lands. A month later, the administration proposed a regulation to streamline and expedite oil and gas permits on national forest lands.

The following summer, the administration proposed weakening protections under the Endangered Species Act for threatened species and critical habitat. Shortly thereafter, the Interior Department commenced the public comment period on its plan for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that had been included in the 2017 tax bill.

In early August 2020, the president signed the Great American Outdoors Act appropriating 0 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and .5 billion over five years to reduce maintenance backlogs in the national parks.

The bipartisan legislation was sponsored by a House Democrat, but Trump extolled its passage as the most significant act in support of parklands since Teddy Roosevelt.

Still, the administration was preparing, on the eve of the Republican convention, to start selling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The sale was one of six pending projects in which Trump was pursuing more drilling, logging and mining in Alaska.

One environmentalist called it the most “concerted attack” in 30 years on Alaska’s natural resources.

All six of the Trump initiatives could still be blocked or rolled back in the courts, or undone by a new Biden administration working with a Democratic Congress. But for now, they are proceeding, with enormous consequences for Alaska’s environment, and global climate change.

One by One, Obama’s Main Climate Accomplishments Fell  

The same could be said for President Obama’s environment and climate legacy: Trump’s relentless attacks could be wholly or partially undone by a new administration and Congress. But for now, Trump has accomplished his mission: a near total elimination of his predecessor’s most significant measures.

After countless piecemeal rollbacks during Trump’s first two and a half years in office, the administration in June 2019 launched its long-awaited attack on Obama’s signature plan to tackle climate change. Designed to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants, Obama called it the Clean Power Plan.

While the plan was challenged by industry and 27 states and blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court before Obama even left office, it encouraged many states to begin a process of planning for a transition away from coal-fired electricity at a time when cheaper natural gas and renewable energy already were forcing coal plants to shut down.

Next came Trump’s rollback of Obama’s 2012 automobile fuel efficiency standards, the single largest step any nation had taken to address global warming by cutting carbon emissions from cars and trucks. The weakened Trump plan will allow automakers to deploy fleets that average just 40 miles per gallon by 2025, instead of 54 mpg.

If Trump’s standard ultimately survives legal challenges, cars and trucks in the United States would emit nearly a billion tons more carbon dioxide during their lifetimes than they would have under the Obama standards.

Finally, in mid-August, Trump proposed the rollback of the methane rules, the last major Obama environmental regulation still standing. Methane, a super-pollutant, is 86 times more potent in warming the planet than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

The Obama rule required oil and gas companies to monitor methane leaks and fix them. The Trump replacement weakens those requirements, allowing companies to release 4.5 million metric tons more pollution each year.

In the climate realm, Obama is best known, of course, as the driving force behind the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Trump first announced in a Rose Garden speech in June 2017 that the U.S. would withdraw from the accord in three years, as soon as the treaty allowed.

So, right on cue, two years later, on Nov. 4, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified the United Nations of the formal exit of the United States, activating the final one-year waiting period.

The actual U.S. withdrawal is set for Nov. 4, 2020, one day after the presidential election.

This story originally appeared in Inside Climate News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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