A few weeks ago the world received the United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report 2019, which again laid out in jarring detail how much humans have heated up the atmosphere through carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Not only is the science incontrovertible, but the impacts already are playing out before our eyes, and it’s probably too late, given the fast-rising temperature and political realities, to fully corral the problem. But it’s also inarguable that the world must act anyway — quickly — if it is to avert climate change’s most damaging effects, and that we desperately need innovative, persuasive and courageous political leaders to show the way.
Yet over the past year, and in the face of these ever more dire reports and warnings about the crisis that confronts us, President Trump has blithely continued to push policies and regulatory rollbacks that will increase carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Another study released in November warned that despite the overwhelming evidence that the world needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, humankind will in 10 years be producing twice as much coal, oil and natural gas as it can safely consume and still limit the most severe impacts from human-caused global warming. That is disastrously wrong-headed. Governments around the world should be pursuing policies that will significantly reduce production and consumption while investing to support faster innovations in creating, distributing and storing renewable energy. Instead, Trump’s policies are designed to further increase U.S. production of oil and natural gas as part of his effort to make the U.S. the dominant producer of energy in the world.
So what did the Trump administration do this year to exacerbate the situation? It eased restrictions on the drilling of oil and gas wells in some sensitive habitats and drastically expanded the amount of federal lands available for leases by the oil, gas and coal industries (as well as mineral mining, which creates a different set of problems by exposing sensitive land to degradation). As part of that expansion, it shrank the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah and issued an executive order opening nearly all federal waters to offshore drilling (which the administration put on hold after legal setbacks). Trump loosened regulations limiting methane emissions at drilling sites. And after a Republican-led Congress in 2017 lifted the 35-year-old ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the administration moved this year to fast-track leases even as legal challenges work their way through the courts.
The Trump administration also this year finalized its rollback of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would have further restricted greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, and replaced it instead with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, a dubiously named policy that would do the opposite of what it seems to promise. The new rule not only contributes to global warming but seeks to shore up a domestic coal industry already dying because of market forces. (Other forms of energy production are cheaper.) The administration also reversed the Obama administration’s rejection of permits for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline that will increase the flow of tar sands oil from Alberta to U.S. refineries.
Of course, those policies are what the nation should expect from a president who is skeptical, to say the least, that human activity is driving climate change. It’s true that just about any Republican administration would have sought to reduce regulations, but Trump’s full-on attack on the science of climate change and his abject support for fossil fuel industries stand out. (In fact, even some major oil companies recognize the global implications of burning their products.) Trump is the only national leader to renege on commitments made in the 2015 Paris agreement to cap the rise in global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Although our government played a vital role in reaching the Paris agreement, we will be the only nation in the world not in it.
By any objective assessment, his policies are pushing the nation — and by extension the world — into an environmental future of excessive heat, extended droughts, more frequent and stronger storms, rising seas and regional migrations of species — including humans, adding fuel for conflicts over natural resources.
If Trump thinks the Paris agreement posed an “unfair economic burden” on the U.S., as the administration described it, he ought to contemplate the costs of dealing with a warmer and more unstable climate. Americans — and the world — are going to pay one way or another for our generations of emitting greenhouse gases, whether Trump believes it or not.