Energy & Environment

How to make climate progress with Trump in the White House

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Whatever wishful thinking President-elect Donald Trump may have sparked by meeting with former Vice President Al Gore or proclaiming an “open mind” on climate, let’s be clear — we’re entering a harsh new political climate for climate action.

Trump’s dubious distortions of climate science are well-documented. Even an open mind could soon be shut by climate science denialists leading the transition teams at NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy and chairing key committees in Congress. EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt has raised doubts about the human role in climate change and spearheaded opposition to President Obama’s climate policies.

{mosads}This wall of denial doesn’t change the reality that manmade emissions are warming the Earth, posing serious risks to society. Scientists are making valiant efforts to tear down that wall, highlighting the threats from climate change in an open letter signed by over 800 experts.

However, the clearest path to progress may be to leap over the wall of denial by pursuing actions whose benefits extend beyond cooling the climate.

The policies under greatest attack by Trump’s team focus squarely on climate-warming emissions. In particular, the Clean Power Plan sets limits on carbon dioxide from power plants. The U.S. pledge under the Paris agreement similarly focuses on greenhouse gases.

Focusing policies on greenhouse gases made sense in an Obama administration that prioritized climate. But these gases warm the planet globally over decades and aren’t directly toxic to breathe. With a new administration doubting their role in warming and even the reality of warming itself, greenhouse gases themselves may not attract urgent action they deserve.

Fortunately, many actions that reduce climate-warming emissions yield benefits beyond climate. In fact, scientists have shown that both the Clean Power Plan and Paris agreement would strongly benefit air quality and health. However, since these policies were framed as climate actions, they are vulnerable to attack by the Trump team.

Policies aimed more directly at protecting air, water and health may fare better, while cooling the climate as well. These policies will become all the more crucial if Trump scraps the Clean Power Plan or reneges on our Paris pledge.

A glimmer of hope may come from Trump’s self-perception. Trump claimed to The New York Times that he is “actually an environmentalist.” He specifically described clean air and “crystal clean water” as “vitally important,” even while questioning the evidence of climate change.

Focusing on clean air and water could thus appeal to Trump’s supposed interest in the environment.

Improving air quality can benefit climate as well. The EPA recently tightened air quality standards for ozone, particulate matter (PM) and sulfur dioxide. Dozens of cities violate the new standards for ozone or PM, while unscrubbed power plants trigger violations of the sulfur limits. The Regional Haze Rule requires improvements in visibility at national parks and wilderness areas.

Rigorous enforcement by EPA of these rules would simultaneously benefit air, water, health and climate. That’s because many of the measures to cut unhealthful air pollutants and haze cut water use and greenhouse gases as well.

For example, cities can promote transit ridership, carpooling and charging stations to cut emissions from vehicles. Replacing fossil power with efficiency and renewables slashes their emissions and water use, thereby cleaning the air and preserving water supplies in times of drought.

Vigorous enforcement of clean air and water rules could be jeopardized by a Pruitt-led EPA. The New York Times reports that as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt worked secretly with oil, gas and electric companies to oppose not only climate policies, but also regulations on air and water pollution.

If the EPA shirks its responsibilities to enforce air quality standards, lawsuits would be needed to ensure Clean Air Act provisions are followed. Vigilance is clearly warranted.

Another key battle line will be fuel economy standards for vehicles. Fuel economy bolsters our energy security while cutting air and water pollution from oil drilling and refining.

The EPA is now finalizing efficiency rules for cars and trucks, intended to raise fuel economy to over 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Some fear Trump may scale back those advances under lobbying from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Vehicle fuel economy saves dozens of times more oil than would be transported by the Dakota Access pipeline, yet has attracted far less attention from “keep it in the ground” proponents.

Beyond defending air quality and fuel economy rules against backsliding, there are opportunities to go on offense.

My previous column highlighted how Trump’s pledge to revitalize our nation’s infrastructure provides an opportunity to modernize the electricity grid. That would stimulate investments in wind and solar power and the jobs that come with it. Smart grid technologies would also ensure that electric reliability is maintained as more renewables are brought online.

Advocates could also build political support toward an emissions tax. Supporters already range from environmentalists to economists to the free-market conservatives of RepublicEn. While the incoming Congress is unlikely to enact a carbon tax, it may eventually gain traction by boosting revenue and offsetting other taxes while promoting cost-effective reductions in emissions.

Regardless what happens at the federal level, clean energy will continue to be propelled by other actions. Technology improvements will continue to drive down the costs of renewables and electric vehicles, accelerating their adoption. Just this week, Google fast-tracked its 100 percent green energy pledge to 2017. Dozens of other RE100 companies, local governments and universities are pursuing similar goals while ensuring additionality of their green power purchases.

Individuals and communities may also be motivated by federal backtracking to act toward sustainability themselves, just as supporters have flocked to Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League to combat hostility toward women, immigrants, Muslims and a free press.

None of this is to deny the harsh challenges posed by climate science denial. But climate action can’t wait four years or until science enlightens the Trump team.

Emphasizing actions with benefits beyond climate offers the best hope for progress until a new administration gives climate policy the priority it deserves.

Dan Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. Follow him on Twitter @cohan_ds.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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