The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been a key player in protecting the environment from dangerous anthropogenic activity ever since its inception forty seven years ago. From the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and Paris Agreement, the EPA has developed countless regulations (almost 4,000 under the Obama administration) aimed at minimizing the effect that industry has on climate change, endangered species, forest biomes, air/water quality, and more. Given that Donald Trump once expressed interest in eliminating the EPA entirely, how exactly will the environment fare under the new republican administration?
To answer this question let’s first look at Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick for administrator of the EPA. Pruitt, age 48 and a self-identified republican, previously served as the attorney general for the state of Oklahoma where he held the honor of having sued the EPA a total of thirteen times. An ally to oil and gas, Pruitt not only helped to protect Exxon Mobil from climate change investigations by other states but also sent a letter to the EPA arguing that oil and gas pollution in Oklahoma had dramatically declined; it was later found out that the letter was written by Devon Energy, an Oklahoma-based oil and gas company. These conflicts of interest along with many others (e.g. accepting approximately $175,000 worth of donations from the Koch brothers’ de facto lobbying group Freedom Partners) poses a substantial and unhealthy uncertainty in both the eyes of the public and the Office of Government Ethics. For a more balanced view, let’s hear from Pruitt himself. "[I am] a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda" he wrote on his LinkedIn page in 2012. So how exactly will Pruitt, with his open denial of climate change, along with the environment writ large play out over the next four years?
Besides the legal hurdles involved, it’s highly unlikely from a political perspective that the EPA will abolished. Sitting at the helm of the EPA however, Pruitt will have a unique opportunity to roll back many Obama-era regulations for good. For instance, Pruitt could rewrite the Clean Power Plan in a way that softens innovation across every renewable energy sector, further setting back the United States on its path to slash CO2 emissions 30 percent by 2030. Additionally, Pruitt can lower standards for fuel-economy cars, subsidize oil and gas reservoir-search projects in the Gulf of Mexico, cut the Superfund program for cleaning up hazardous waste sites, and in general gridlock any EPA project he disagrees with through the use of budget cuts.
Regardless of the specific method(s) that the Trump administration will take to downsize the role that the EPA plays in protecting the environment, the fate of the world will inevitably still hang in balance. In the face of overwhelming magnitudes of scientific evidence supporting the theory of climate change, the United States has been a global leader in the push for renewables, sustainability projects, and phasing out greenhouse gas emissions. Any lack of commitment to the cause, no matter the size, will signal a shift in the United States' priorities, creating a snowball effect that will depress (either financially or politically) developing countries and the scientific community from continued positive engagement with the environment at large. It should be noted that although the United States cannot legally exit the Paris Agreement for another four years, it can refuse to enforce its different components.
The solution, in my view, begins with constructive deliberation. A discussion, with members from both sides of the political aisle, is urgently needed. Climate change is not a political issue. Science is fact. And the Trump administration needs to start treating it that way.