One year of Donald Trump in office, Mary-Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club : “This has obviously been a slap in the face for US climate leadership”

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Outdoor coal mine, Arizona, United States (32°21’ N, 111°12’ W). © Yann Arthus-Bertrand

One year into the presidency of Donald Trump, how has the environmental landscape changed in the United States? Mary-Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, gauges how climate change issues have fared since.

Donald Trump has been in office for close to a year now. How has this year played out on environmental issues?

This first year of presidency has brought both bad and good news!

Bad news of course, with scores of climate sceptics in office, within the administration and Executive office, and at the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma, nominated by Donald Trump to head the EPA, is a notorious climate sceptic, openly rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change and who harbours close ties with the oil, gas and coal lobby groups. As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt sued the EPA at least 14 times. Not mentioning the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017… a major blow, with ripple effects across the US and the World.

This has obviously been a slap in the face for US climate leadership, which President Obama had managed to completely overhaul.

Yet at the same time, Donald Trump has been far from successful in implementing his many loud and vocal anti-climate decisions. We remain confident that most decisions will continue to be blocked and not be able to follow-through at all. Hence the good news!

Has Donald Trump followed-up with his pro-coal campaigning hard line?

In the same vain as mentioned previously, the answer is no, not all. Two main reasons can be given to understand why he has thus far failed.

First of all, in the US, environmental decisions are still at part taken at the state and local level, even though the Federal level has largely increased its environmental scope and authority since the 1970s. Prior to the late 1970s, nearly all environmental policy was at the state and local level. A certain autonomy still prevails, and many states and cities are making the most of that: California for instance is emerging as the nation’s de facto negotiator with the world on the environment, circumventing the administration on multiple domains.

Second, Donald Trump’s views are actually failing to get the approval of the regulators, and far from convincing within his own political realm and set of followers. To date, just on January 8th 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) unanimously rejected Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan to bail-out coal and nuclear power plants. Note that this unanimous rebuke to the controversial piece of the Trump administration’s energy policy, was acted by the five-person commission, four of whom President Trump nominated himself! It was opposed by all grid operators – CEOs included. Thus his support amongst the regulators and industry is far from being a given.

This disapproval of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan to prop-up coal and nuclear power plants is a significant victory for American electricity consumers.

Do Donald Trump’s stances go against economic realities?

Yes, indeed, his decisions cannot compete with the reality of the energy market. Trying to force electricity consumers to pay more for dirty energy sources has absolutely no appeal.
Such decisions, are mainly supported, when so, by coal mining executives and hard-line climate deniers.

How does the Sierra Club analyse the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement?

The Sierra Club has worked closely with Michael Bloomberg, who with California Governor Jerry Brown is leading a coalition of U.S. cities, states and businesses to meet America’s commitments to combat climate change. What is important to note is that the United States can achieve 60% of its Paris Climate agreement goals through the Beyond Coal campaign goals alone! Indeed, by closing one third of the country’s more than 500 coal plants by 2020, and replacing them with renewable energy sources, the US would be making head-ways into its original Paris Climate Agreement objectives.

How are Americans reacting to Donald Trump’s decisions on the environment?

The Paris retrieval was widely unpopular, ill-received by the general public and caused an uproar amongst citizens. As mentioned, it fostered collaboration and comradery, as a coalition of businesses, cities, and states came together to continue to meet America’s commitments to combat climate change. This is also unique!

Donald Trump’s environmental decisions have probably been one of the most polarizing of his first year in office. People have been alarmed by the environmental decision-makers at the Federal level. In fact, this is what clearly comes out of the Washington Post article “What Americans are afraid of in the age of Trump” (20 October 2017), reporting on the Chapman University fourth annual survey of American fears. In a clear shift, Americans expressed big fear about their air and water quality, with water pollution, air pollution and climate change making the first ten fears. This is new. People are now more and more aware of environmental issues. Climate change has stormed into their backyards and is now knocking on their front doors. The recent extreme weather conditions and environmental disasters that have hard-hit people across the US (California wild fires, land-slides, to the extreme cold-wave and storms in the East coast…) have deeply impacted people’s mind-sets. We can really feel a growing environmental momentum throughout the country.

How has this year affected the Sierra Club? Have you seen a change in your membership figures and the general public support towards the Sierra Club?

The Sierra Club has seen a sharp increase in its membership, more than 1 million people have joined in a year! A year ago the Club had 2 million members (followers and active supporters that are campaigning and in the field). Today that figure is over 3 million. And this support is continuing to increase, both in the field and in terms of donations.

In the coming 3 years, what will the main priorities for the Sierra Club be?

First, to continue to back progress on climate change and continue to undermine the President’s detrimental decisions.

Second, to pursue the protection of our landscape (curbing oil drilling, arctic drilling, the reneging of National Monument Park and protected land).

Third, to carry on with our will to be a more effective movement that is engaging with people and to increase action and public awareness on climate issues, notably the need to go from coal to renewable energy sources. This implicates better collaborating with organizations globally, specifically in Europe. The Beyond Coal campaign has an independent sister campaign in Berlin (Europe Beyond Coal) that is mounting and increasing its reach. Both the US and Europe have a crucial role to play in this fight against coal, and bridges are to be made on both sides of the Atlantic!

Interview held by Daphne Joseph-Gabriel

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