Author: Helen Santiago Fink
The unexpected election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on November 8, 2016, drastically changed the U.S. national context for sustainability and climate change action. The election results also confirmed the control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate by the Republican Party, traditional climate deniers, to further exacerbate the challenge of working on climate issues at the national scale with trickle down implications for states and cities.
The President’s new cabinet includes former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and Scott Pruitt as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, who has a track record of suing the EPA over its regulations, most recently a 27-state lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan, a key policy driver to ensure USA meets its National Determined Commitments (NDC). Both Cabinet members’ prior relationships with the oil and gas industries call into question their allegiance to climate action and the country’s political commitment to the Paris Agreement. In March, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt questioned the impact of carbon dioxide and anthropogenic influence on the Earth’s changing climate, despite global scientific consensus and a 2014 report of the U.S. National Academy of Science asserting global warming “is mainly a result of the increased concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.”
On March 28, 2017, President Trump issued a sweeping executive order on Promoting Energy Independence that attacked many of the climate policies put forth under the Obama administration. Trump’s order disbanded the Interagency Working Group the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases and withdrew the group’s technical documents, which form the scientific and economic basis for calculating the social cost of carbon and give federal agencies a key tool to measure the benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
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A reprioritization of government resources towards defense, planned to increase by $54 billion, has signaled significant budgetary cuts across government agencies specifically in science and environmental agencies—notably EPA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and jeopardizes national programs in support of climate action. U.S. funding of climate programming in developing countries administrated through USAID has been cancelled reducing the incentives of emerging economies to embark on low-carbon pathways and increasing the probability of their lock-in to fossil fuel dependency. U.S. cities and states also stand to lose resources traditionally received from federal programs such as the Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) that go to support urban services and basic infrastructure such as affordable housing and public transportation.
The highly controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines, the latter of which was halted under the Obama administration, was re-permitted by Trump’s executive order on the basis that the cross-border pipeline project (from Canada to USA) “would serve the national interest” ignoring the negative externalities and fostering detrimental long term socio-economic and ecological impacts.
Early fear of the new administration led to the creation of The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), an international network of academics and non-profits, addressing potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy, and to the scientific research infrastructure built to investigate, inform, and enforce. EDGI is building online tools, events, and research networks to proactively archive public environmental data and ensure its continued public availability.
Federal agencies working in the urban and climate space are uncertain of their futures. To date, few policy directors and managerial positions, traditionally political appointees, have been filled. The existing staff level employees are in some cases hesitant to engage with stakeholders and interested parties due to the lack of policy guidance and availability of resources for future programming. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency are operating ‘business as usual’ for the time being and are willing to share information on past sustainability and climate programs. Some program titles carrying the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘climate’ have been changed to ‘economic development’ and the like or deleted from documents and websites. The proposed budget cuts and prioritization of military and defense agencies suggest resources for sustainability and climate activities will not be forthcoming.
City and Public Reactions
Public protest to the Trump election remains strong and sustained. The day after the inauguration, the Women’s March mobilized more than 500,000 protesters in Washington, DC across a gamut of issues, including science and climate, and approximately 2.6 million supporters worldwide. Other planned public protests across the country and in Washington, DC include The People’s Climate March and March for Science both in April of 2017.
Progressive mayors and cities are reinforcing their programs to continue to move towards a low-carbon and resiliency trajectory. Politically they are focusing their efforts on state legislatures to inform policy-makers on the importance of sustainability and climate agendas as well as to support candidates for public offices with common environmental interests. In reaction to the Trump Executive Order on Energy Independence members of the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda (MNCAA), representing more than 41 million Americans in 75 cities in red and blue states, voiced their opposition in an open letter to the Administration condemning the order.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors is vehemently opposing the proposed elimination of The Community Development Block grant (CDBG) program in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides over $3 billion dollars of direct funding to cities. Cities are considered in some circles havens of liberalism as reported by the Washington Post.
Michael Bloomberg’s recent New York Times article attests: “Those who believe that the Trump administration will end American leadership on climate change are making the same mistake as those who believe that it will put coal miners back to work overestimating Washington’s ability to influence energy markets, and underestimating the role that cities, states, businesses and consumers are playing in driving down emissions on their own.” A strong advocate of the role of sub-national actors to accelerate climate action, Bloomberg’s leadership through his position as the UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate and philanthropic commitments, e.g. Global Covenant of Mayors, remains invaluable during the current inimical administration.
The business community has taken a strong stance to promote the USA commitment to the Paris Agreement. Shortly after the election, a letter signed by 365 businesses addressed to President Obama, President-Elect Trump, and world leaders, implored the U.S. government to abide by its commitment stating “We want the U.S. economy to be energy efficient and powered by low-carbon energy; cost-effective and innovative solutions can help us achieve these objectives. Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk. But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness.” The private sector message was clear; the market is driving change towards a low-carbon future.
The electricity sector is changing rapidly in the United States. States have started to decentralize energy utilities and cost of renewable power has dropped significantly in recent years. As renewable energy prices compete with fossil fuels, customer demand for clean, affordable sources of energy has soared. As of 2013, 60% of the Fortune 100 companies had set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and buy clean energy as renewable energy becomes more cost effective. Companies are setting more ambitious goals to buy clean energy, while large companies are increasingly looking for ways to contract directly for renewable energy to protect against future energy price increases.
These companies need access to more renewable energy within the U.S., and therefore market forces are driving the private sector to take action in support of sustainable energy. Energy can therefore be an entry point to partnerships with cities and sub-national authorities to support of mitigation of emissions at the local level as well as within corporate business operations. This was recently encouraged by Barry Parkin, Chief Sustainability and Health and Wellbeing Officer at Mars Incorporated, in a statement citing the need for corporations to set science-based emission reduction targets: “It is vital that the business community demonstrates its ongoing commitment to tackling climate change, […]. This is an important moment in global political and economic history, and we absolutely must come together to solve the immense challenges facing the planet.”
The contrary wave of actions emanating from the White House underscores the necessity to mobilize sub-national stakeholders and have cities to take climate action locally as well as to advocate on the international level to ensure the steadfastness of the USA Paris commitment in the face of unyielding climate change. The People’s Climate March on April 29, 2017, is an opportunity for the American public to reaffirm the country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and the importance of global cooperation and forward-looking solutions to advance sustainable quality of life for all.