March 2017Policy

Suicide by Climate

According to the media, astronomers have discovered a string of possibly habitable Earth-sized planets a measly 39 light years from our Sun.  This is undoubtedly good news for humanity.  To be sure, 39 light years is not especially close, for there are 5.88 trillion miles in a single light year.  If you wanted to travel from Earth to the newly named Trappist system to escape  Donald Trump's insane reign in the White House, therefore, you would need to fly approximately 119 trillion miles through the empty bleakness of interstellar space before arrival.

The idea of the Trappist system's planets serving as a refuge for humans fleeing an increasingly over-cooked Earth, however, is looking a bit less crazy in light of recent news about Trump's plans for fossil fuel energy development and environmental deregulation as key elements in his program to "make America great again."

The normally rightwing Washington Examiner, in its Feb. 6 cover story on "Trump's Energy Agenda," reports that when it comes to efforts to counter global climate change, "Trump intends to send Obama's energy regulations to the ash heap within 100 days."

State-level officials concerned with energy development, the Examiner continues, are "excited by the change at the White House," and the new head of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), Robert Powelson of coal-rich Pennsylvania, is hailing Trump's policies as a turn away from greater federal control over environmental regulations and toward a greater focus on states' rights.

In an impressively detailed article on the Trump energy agenda, the Examiner's energy and environment editor John Siciliano writes that with every passing day, it's becoming clearer that "Climate change priorities, and the regulations and metrics that Obama's administration used, are finished."  Trump is not merely intent on replacing Obama's climate change initiatives, Siciliano reports, "but eliminating them."

This will entail not only eliminating Obama's Clean Energy Plan (CPP) developed by the EPA (but currently stayed by the federal courts).  It also will mean phasing out Department of Energy (DOE) programs to support that plan.  Siciliano quotes a Trump advisor for policy changes at the Energy Department, Tom Pyle, as predicting that Trump's strategy will strip "several agencies" of their climate change initiatives and will "shrink budgets and lay off thousands of staff."

Similarly Myron Ebell, a long-time official with the climate-denialist Competitive Enterprise Institute, has been widely cited as saying that Trump's energy policies will "gut" the EPA in particular and reduce its 15,000-member staff by about half.  However, the Examiner quotes Ebell as predicting that Trump will keep in place EPA's long-existing funding programs to help states and localities build and maintain water infrastructure projects, such as sewage treatment plants.  Apparently, Trump will still allow EPA to deal with certain kinds of air pollution problems as well.

In this fashion, the Trump team appears to be positioning itself to claim that it is upholding EPA's "legitimate" functions, the ones established back in the early 1970s, without interfering in any way in the nation's energy markets or unfairly choosing to emphasize - say, renewable energy development, at the expense of coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power.

Trump's newly appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma Attorney General who had sued the agency 12 to 14 times before Trump picked him to lead it, emphasized this focus on EPA's supposedly lawful programs, as opposed to its efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, at his first Senate confirmation hearing.

Also likely to be on the chopping block, judging from Pruitt's testimony and Siciliano's story in the Examiner, is EPA's controversial "Waters of the United States" rule, which was notably strengthened by the Obama administration.  As a story in Politico noted some years ago, the revised WOTUS rule establishes "whether antipollution laws are triggered if a farmer blocks a stream to make a pond for livestock, a developer fills in part of a wetland to put up a house or an oil pipeline has to cross a creek."

The final WOTUS rule, according to Jo-Ellen Darcy, an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which jointly administers certain portions of the Clean Water Act with EPA, ensures environmental protection for tributaries of rivers and lakes that have physical signs of flowing water, even if they do not flow all year round.  It also covers drainage ditches that "look and act" like tributaries.

To the Obama administration, it makes sense to protect regulated lakes and rivers from pollution even from these apparently minor sources.  However,  to Pruitt, the Trump administration and many senators from farm states, such an extension of the federal government's authority hurts US agricultural production -- and, of course, it is certainly annoying to farmers and real estate developers.  Hence the WOTUS rule is one the Trump administration is likely to scuttle.

Speaking of the recent discovery of the Trappist system mentioned at the start of this story, there is at least one other major climate-related agency that Trump and Co. will try to defund and eliminate.  It involves outer space.

As John Bellamy Foster writes in the February 2017 issue of the independent socialist journal Monthly Review, a Trump aerospace advisor, former Pennsylvania congressman Robert Walker, has said the administration will attempt to defund the Earth-system research now being done by NASA, which has repeatedly reported alarming news about the growing risks of climate change.  As an alternative, the Trump team will attempt to force NASA researchers to focus solely on "deep-space exploration" on keeping its focus on fascinating space phenomena like the Trappist system, perhaps, and not on anything occurring on this planet.

In order to make their extreme anti-environmental program palatable for voters, and clearly in hopes of building a corporate-directed popular hegemony against the idea of democratically elected governments addressing climate change, the Trump team is touting its pro-fossil fuel agenda as an essential element in US economic recovery and the creation of new jobs.

According to Siciliano's account in the Examiner, Trump envisions a $300 billion increase in US economic output as a result of repealing "strict climate and green regulations," including the Waters of the US rule.

Additionally, Siciliano writes, the Trump team wants to accelerate US oil and natural gas production and exploit "vast fossil fuel deposits in America's shale rock." The Trump energy plan states in part:  "We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands … We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure."

Fueling Climate Overdrive

How bad will the Trump energy agenda, if implemented, be for the environment of the US and the world? What, if anything, can climate activists do to stop it or significantly reduce the damage it does to nature and human society?

In his Monthly Review piece, Foster cites prominent climate researchers to the effect that the Trump agenda could be disastrous.  Climate scientist Michael Mann, in his 2016 book The Madhouse Effect, has written that the current global rate of carbon emissions, if continued at present levels, would push the global climate system past a crucial "tipping point" in about 30 years.

To remain with the limits of how much industrial emissions of CO2 and methane can grow without causing irreversible damage to the climate system, Mann argues, global carbon emissions must fall to just one-third of their current levels in 20 years. By 2050, "emissions must approach zero."

Scientists fear that if such reductions do not occur in this time frame, climate change will go into overdrive -- with a warming Arctic region releasing vast quantities of methane from thawing peat bogs, for example, or with a decline in the floating ice cap of the Arctic Ocean greatly reducing the reflectiveness of the planet as brighter, more reflective snow are replaced by darker, less reflective ocean waters, which will absorb more of the sun's incoming energy.

Then, accelerating methane emissions and/or more heat-absorbent polar waters could ratchet up the rate at which climate change is occurring -- effectively putting it beyond human control, and condemning humanity to centuries of drastic sea level rise, ever-hotter summers, ever-more destructive storms, and the like.

To head off virtually uncontrollable accelerations in the current rate of anthropogenic climate change, Foster concludes, it's conceivable that a very broadly based coalition of environmentalists, social and economic justice activists and other political change agents could unite to keep temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions from moving past the most dangerous climate tipping points.

Is a climate alliance possible?

Such a broad, numerically massive climate activism alliance, as Foster envisions it, might be modeled after the so-called Popular Front that a number of anti-fascist organizations and movements -- from Communists and Trotskyists to liberals, who otherwise had little use for each other -- formed in the 1930s following the Nazi takeover in Germany.

In the short run, Foster argues, an enormous Green Popular Front of global dimensions might fight for changes to our economy and social system -- for "ways of eliminating carbon emissions and economic waste while also promoting social and environmental needs" -- which would "not call into question the existence of the capitalist system itself," but would serve the goals of all the different coalition members.

But Foster contends that in the longer run, "capitalism's threat to planetary boundaries cannot be solved by stopgap reforms, however radical, that leave the system's fundamental features intact while simply transcending its relation to fossil fuels.  The end goal of socialists and other radicals in the Green Popular Front would need to be transcending capitalism and replacing it with eco-socialism.

As admirers of liberal economist John Maynard Keynes are fond of noting, of course, "in the long run, we are all dead."  One urgent question today for DSA members, both "eco-socialists" and otherwise, and for the US environmental movement as a whole, is whether in the short term, something like a Popular Front for climate reform can come together quickly enough to block Trump's suicidally risky energy plans.

On this score, the limited amount of outreach to existing climate action organizations that Metro DC DSA's new Climate Change & Environmental Justice Committee has done in the past few months is somewhat encouraging.

Although foes of Trump's fossil fuel agenda have so far failed to block the appointment of Pruitt as EPA administrator, Texas governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy, and long-time Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State, there are impressive coalitions of climate activist groups forming, both at the local level and nationally -- in fact, even internationally -- to contest the Trump program.  A host of indigenous tribal groups and supporters from around the world meanwhile continue to fight against Trump's orders for work to resume on the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline.  At the state and local levels, too, green activists continue to fight for clean energy initiatives that can help to counter -- partly -- the damage Trump and the Republicans are doing at the federal level.

And this April 29, here in Washington DC, a wide range of different constituencies hopes to come together in a People's Climate March that ideally will resemble the huge New York City climate march of a few years ago.  Whether the different organizations and movements now working on climate issues can coalesce into a Green Popular Front big enough to turn around Trump's march toward climate catastrophe remains to be seen.  Yet while there's life -- and while there's political struggle -- there's still hope.  And there's a lot of political struggle around climate and energy politics now underway.

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