Column: The pandemic and the economy top voter concerns, but there’s a bigger issue

Stephanie Pincetl, a professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability
Stephanie Pincetl, founding director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, at her property in Ojai.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“We have done an incredible job environmentally,” President Trump said in the last presidential debate, believe it or not.

That was a bit like Genghis Khan saying, “We’ve done really good work in Eurasia.”

As we slog toward the finish line in the most high-stakes, nerve-rattling presidential election in my lifetime, the pandemic and its impact on the economy are exactly where they should be on the list of issues that will decide the outcome — at or near the top.


But I’m certain — or hopeful, I should say — that whoever prevails, we’ll get past the virus at some point, and the economy will one day hum again.

When that happens, though, the planet will still be warming at an alarming rate. And if President Trump is reelected, we can be quite sure he will do more irreversible damage to the natural environment and to climate change initiatives.

Two weeks ago, citing analysis by the law schools at Harvard and Columbia universities, the New York Times identified nearly 100 environmental protections and climate policies the Trump administration has rolled back or is in the process of eliminating.

In California, which has tried to lead by example on climate, the Trump administration has been positively vindictive, revoking the state’s ability to reduce tailpipe emissions and removing protections for salmon and smelt.

Elsewhere, Trump has worked methodically to eviscerate protections for wetlands and endangered species, roll back oil and gas drilling restrictions in national forests, weaken power plant emission controls and lift ocean protections to make way for energy production.

Trump’s “incredible job” on the environment also includes pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and, lately, stacking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with climate change doubters, even as global heat extremes become the norm, night-time temperatures rise, atmospheric carbon dioxide content is at historic highs and 2020 is about to close out as the hottest year on record.

If there were oil deposits in the District of Columbia, you’d see derricks on the back lawn of the White House and a gas station out front. But the one thing I’ll say in Trump’s defense is that for all his ruthless disregard for the natural world and the scholars who beg us to respect its fragility, he didn’t create this mess that we’ll be passing down to our grandchildren.


“We’ve been assaulting biodiversity for over a hundred years,” says Professor Stephanie Pincetl, founding director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.

Pincetl’s resume would not fit on this page. Her areas of expertise include environmental science, urban planning, natural resource depletion and land use governance. She’s been a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, a Fulbright scholar in England, a researcher and professor in France, and she wrote “Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development,” a study of the environmental degradation of her native state.

“I love California,” Pincetl said. “But we haven’t really been able to figure out how to build better with the resources we have. We do not design with nature, so I continue to be motivated in my work by this immense feeling of anger, despair and bewilderment.”

Last week, I headed north to meet with Pincetl at the 20-acre orange orchard on which she and her husband Jonathan live, off the grid, at the base of the Topa Topa Mountains in the eastern end of the Ojai Valley. Along the way, I couldn’t help but be awed once more by the glory of California’s coastal and mountain terrains, nor could I overlook how many wounds we’ve inflicted on the landscape.

We’ve paved over natural habitats and flood basins, forced wildlife into retreat and fouled the air, not with bad intentions but with too little respect for what preceded us. And despite California’s role as a leader on steps to stall climate change, our accelerating cycles of drought, extreme heat and wildfires are all signs that we’re losing the fight.

When I arrived, Pincetl and her husband offered me a glass of orange juice that had traveled about 12 feet to get from the nearest tree to my gullet. I heard about how water use in the orchard has been reduced by 40% thanks to Jonathan’s mulch-farming techniques, then sat back with Pincetl under a great oak tree and listened to the patter of falling acorns as I squinted through branches to green-tinted mountain peaks.

A deer appeared at the end of a row of trees, and in the quietude, I began waxing about the treasure we call California. At least until Pincetl suggested I was being a bit nostalgic, if not overlooking environmental misdeeds closer to home while focusing on Trump’s mortal sins.

“We’re still fracking, and polluting the water we use for fracking,” said Pincetl, who also rattled off a list of massive real estate development projects in nearby communities where the temps are hot and the water is scarce.

In those places, getting to work will require long commutes for many, transit is virtually nonexistent, and Pincetl marvels at our penchant for building needlessly large homes that burn vast amounts of energy. In mostly blue and liberal California, the wealthy are big burners, said Pincetl, who also mentioned our history of building “willy-nilly,” as she called it, near combustible wildlands.

“Single-family zoning has remained sacrosanct in California,” Pincetl said, and you can’t separate land-use decisions from their climate impact. But in her mind, there’s an even bigger piece that’s missing from the conversation.

“People have forgotten that in addition to the climate impacts of burning fossil fuel, there are other impacts,” said Pincetl. Air pollution, water pollution and toxicity not only damage ecosystems, said the professor, but they create widespread health problems — including childhood asthma, heart disease, breast cancer and low sperm counts.

“We need to be more rigorous when we look at climate, and my biggest gripe with climate scientists is that they don’t connect back to these other questions,” said Pincetl.

We didn’t really talk much about Trump, whose loyalties are clear. If Trump had attacked the coronavirus with half the energy he’s expended attacking the environment, we wouldn’t have the highest death toll in the world.

Trump, who has a stock market ticker for a heart and a calculator for a soul, was asked during the last debate what he would say to families of color who fear the health consequences of living near oil refineries and chemical plants that have benefited from his regulatory rollbacks.

“They are making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made,” said Trump, who insists on a false choice between environmental protection and good jobs, when in fact both are possible — essential, I should say — in a clean-energy future.

And Biden?

“I think that the Green New Deal is really an important vision for the future, and I’m glad to see that Biden is moving in that direction,” Pincetl said. “What I worry about is that Biden is an incrementalist … and we’re past the time for incrementalism.”

She’s right.

But the fire is raging and Trump’s answer is more oil and gas. On climate, the biggest issue of this election and our times, any forward progress is better than falling further behind.