It’s no secret that Donald Trump isn’t exactly a tree-hugging environmentalist. Far from it — During Trump’s administration, the United States has pulled out of the biggest international agreement to fight climate change, rolled back regulations on emissions of harmful gases into the atmosphere and has taken down guardrails put up by past administrations to make sure big construction projects are only carried out after their environmental impacts have been carefully measured.
With President-elect Joe Biden set to move into the White House a few short weeks from now, environmentalists are hopeful that Biden will keep his campaign promise to make fighting climate change a top priority.
“It’s been four years since the federal government focused on climate, and there’s a lot of new low-hanging fruit,” said Jim Blackburn, a Rice University professor and environmental lawyer who’s been on the forefront of fighting for environmental protections for decades
The Houston Press reached out to Blackburn to pick his brain about what he thinks are five key ways the Biden administration could reverse course from Trump-era environmental policies to make some much needed progress on fighting the existential threat of climate change.
Get the United States back in the Paris Agreement
Blackburn believes the quickest way Biden can signal to the world that America intends to take climate change seriously again is by rejoining the Paris Agreement, the 2016 deal between virtually every major country in the world to work together to limit global warming to manageable levels.
“I think that’s absolutely essential to get the United States in line with the rest of the world on climate,” Blackburn said.
President Barack Obama was a huge proponent of the deal, but Trump famously announced that the United States would leave the international accord back in 2017, claiming that the agreement put unnecessary burdens on U.S. businesses.
Biden could get the country back in the Paris deal with a few phone calls and some paperwork, but getting policies in place to actually meet the agreement’s emission reduction goals would take Congressional approval. Still, Blackburn thinks the message the world would get by Biden simply saying he wanted to rejoin the international community in the Paris Agreement would still be a huge symbolic step.
“I think that’s one of the most important things, just symbolically. It’s just hugely important for the President of the United States to be behind the Paris accords,” Blackburn said.
Get methane emissions under control
Back in August, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency announced it had thrown out rules implemented by the Obama administration to force oil and gas companies to watch out for and work to limit methane leaks from natural gas operations because doing so would allegedly put an unfair financial burden on those companies.
According to NPR, even huge oil companies like BP, Exxon Mobil and Shell were pissed off by Trump’s reversal of the methane emissions rules because they fear that if methane emissions get out of hand it would be harder to sell the public on natural gas being a cleaner energy alternative to coal-burning.
Biden’s team could and should quickly reinstate those old rules with the flick of a pen, Blackburn said.
“Methane’s a very powerful pollutant from a climate change standpoint,” Blackburn said. “A lot of this is just common sense, and that’s one of those common sense rules that, frankly, everyone in the oil and gas industry ought to be adhering to, and frankly, most of the good companies still are adhering to it.”
Undo Trump’s assault on the National Environmental Policy Act
In early August, Trump announced sweeping changes to the National Environmental Policy Act — the 50-year-old landmark environmental protection law from the Nixon administration — in an effort to make it easier for big construction projects to get off the ground more quickly, negative impacts on the environment be damned.
Chief among those changes was Trump’s decision to override the NEPA rule that says federal agencies have to analyze all of the potential cumulative negative environmental effects of proposed infrastructure construction projects before they can move forward.
Blackburn said if that rule isn’t reinstated, it’ll be way harder for climate scientists and environmentalists to figure out where exactly the United States stands in terms of making climate change worse.
“I would reinstate the cumulative impact analysis,” Blackburn said. “I think it’s one of the most important environmental impact concepts, and it is how we actually understand climate change.”
“Each individual action by itself doesn’t change the climate,” he continued. “It’s when you do 100 things that act together, or 1,000 things of a million things that interact, that’s where climate change comes from. And you literally have to consider cumulative impacts to both understand it and address it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just putting science back into the regulations that the Trump administration had removed.”
Commit to better explain the harms of climate change
Trump hasn’t made any effort to educate Americans on the dangers posed by our rapidly warming planet, which isn’t too surprising given that he’s contended for years that climate change is a Chinese hoax to kneecap the U.S. manufacturing industry.
Blackburn thinks that Biden’s administration should work hard to inform the country about the many dangers of climate change by first cataloging the ways climate change has already negatively affected the world by contributing to worsening natural disasters like wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the gulf coast and eastern seaboard. He then thinks Biden should make it a top objective to tell the story of how climate change will start affecting our lives even more in the next several years to build the grassroots support needed to convince skeptical lawmakers to deal with the issue aggressively.
“I would absolutely make a priority commitment to understand both the impacts that have already occurred from climate change, and to really project what the climate change future will look like,” Blackburn said. “Not in the year 2100, which is when a lot of these projections are made for, but in the year 2030, in the year 2040, in the year 2050, to kind of do it in bite sizes that the American public can better understand.”
“Most people don’t understand that they are living in a changed climate… we’re [already] seeing these incredibly intense rain events and incredibly quickly forming hurricanes because there’s so much heat in the oceans and so much heat in the atmosphere that can accept more water,” Blackburn said, “and we’re going to see that worsen in the future. The sooner we understand that, the better.”
Work toward solutions that can get bipartisan support
The fight over environmental protections and whether to strengthen or weaken them has only gotten more partisan in the four years Trump has been in office, making cross-party collaboration feel like an impossible pipe dream.
To reverse that trend, Blackburn thinks the Biden administration should aggressively court Republican support for new environmental policies that would help curb emissions that don’t go as far as sweeping progressive proposals like the Green New Deal, which he thinks might be too “in-your-face controversial” to win enough support to pass through the as-of-now divided U.S. Congress.
He gave the example of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bipartisan proposal made in June that if passed into law would create huge financial incentives for farmers to use their land in ways that would suck more harmful carbon out of the air.
“There’s a way to set this up that farmers and ranchers in the United States could actually increase their income significantly, and we could also be removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere… all of that should be supportable by both Republicans and Democrats,” Blackburn said.
If Democrats have any chance at getting enough Republicans on board to authorize these kind of environmental policy changes that would take legislative action (especially if Democrats don’t win the two Georgia Senate seats up for grabs in an upcoming January runoff election that would give them a Senate majority) they’ll need to be gracious winners and resist the urge to demonize Republican lawmakers for not doing more to push climate-conscious policies forward during the Trump years, Blackburn believes.
“There’s a tendency to want to punish those that have not done the right thing, and I think that’s counterproductive at this point in time. I think we need to all kind of roll up our sleeves and get to work on solving the problem, and not linger on why we haven’t done anything for so long,” Blackburn said.
“I think my biggest concern is that the Democrats not overreact, that they take a deep breath,” he continued. “They’ve got the opportunity to make some incredibly important changes, but let’s do it in a way that brings as many people as possible with those changes.”
“Don’t be about the fight, be about the healing. That’s what President-elect Biden is saying. This is one area he has a real chance to prove it, so I am all with that plan,” Blackburn concluded.
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