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Donald Trump’s environmental agenda at 100 days: lazy and plutocratic

No serious accomplishments or coherent philosophy, just favors for fossil fuels.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - APRIL 25: (AFP-OUT) US President Donald Trump signs the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue looks on during a roundtable with farmers in the Roosevelt Room of the W
(Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has been in office long enough now to make his leadership style clear. There’s the chaos and daily mini scandals, the rumors and intrigues, the bewildering fire hose of clickbait, yes. But in terms of actual governance, what Trump has done so far can be summed up in two words: lazy and plutocratic.

Trump has always been a performer above all, hungry for approval and ratings. He was performing throughout his candidacy and seems interested mostly in performing the presidency. That is very, very different from being a good president.

Effective presidential leadership often involves working behind the scenes and allowing others (deputies, members of Congress, interested constituencies) to take the credit. But there is no scene Trump wants to be behind. He wants to be in front, getting the credit, unless something goes wrong, in which case he gropes immediately for a scapegoat. Not surprisingly, he has thus far proven abysmal at accomplishing anything that requires trust, cooperation, or consensus — witness health care. Trump is (oh, the irony) a truly terrible negotiator.

That’s why the section on legislation in Trump’s much-touted list of accomplishments is devoid of significant achievements, full of joint resolutions and reversals (through the Congressional Review Act) of minor Obama regulations.

Major legislation requires patience and persistence. Trump has none of those. So instead, the vast bulk of his action has come in the form of executive orders, which amount to declarations that his administration intends to do something. As Jonathan Chait says, this amounts to “making America great again by signing pieces of paper asking people who work for him whether they have any ideas how to make America great again.”

All these EOs may one day result in serious damage, but in terms of substantive changes, so far there’s much more Trump sizzle than Trump steak.

The other theme of the Trump presidency is the utter collapse of any remaining intellectual infrastructure on the right. There is no apparent governing philosophy at work in economic and environmental policy, just a careening and unpredictable combination of populist theater and naked plutocracy. For Trump’s supporters in industry, it is wish-list time — literally, the administration is asking industry groups for lists of regulations they want reversed. If Trump has an overarching take on government, it’s that government is a tool that allows him to dispense favors to loyal constituencies in exchange for good ratings.

Let’s take a look at how these themes have played out in environmental policy.

Performative anti-environmentalism

For Trump to accomplish anything on climate change that outlasts his administration — like, say, amending the Clean Air Act to permanently exclude carbon dioxide — would require cooperation from Congress. Given that Trump and Congress are still locked in a drunken three-legged race on Trump’s first priority, health care, that is rather difficult to imagine. The president and his congressional frenemies would have to get through health care, tax reform, and a budget with time left over to assemble a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for substantial reversals of climate progress. Pulling that off would require a level of competence that is so far nowhere in evidence.

Trump could do serious damage to international climate negotiations if he withdrew the US from the Paris climate accord altogether, but that is an issue on which various Trump whisperers are split. And given that he seems to agree with whoever he talked to last, the signals so far are whiplash-inducing. A long-delayed meeting on Paris is scheduled for Thursday, and a decision, allegedly, is coming in early May.

Again: substantial policy requires patience and consensus building; that has proven beyond Trump’s abilities.

And so instead there are executive orders. I suspect the term “executive order” is pleasing to Trump, which is why he seems to have such a ball signing them and giving away pens. (His list of accomplishments cites 30 EOs, which is quite a few pens.)

But the executive branch of the government does not operate according to executive whim. In almost every case, Trump’s EOs are not actions themselves but pledges to launch various reviews and assessments with an eye to taking action upon their completion.

For instance, Trump cannot simply order away the Clean Power Plan. The EO he issued in March simply instructs Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to review the rule. If the EPA decides to rescind the rule, it will have to explain to courts why, and it will have to develop a new rule, which will involve years of planning, comments, and legal challenge. The same goes for EPA’s carbon rules for new power plants and its rules for natural gas methane.

Trump didn’t scrap Obama’s fuel economy standards — he ordered a review of them. He didn’t kill the federal government’s “social cost of carbon” estimate — he ordered a review of it. He didn’t unleash any new oil and gas drilling — he ordered a review of those rules. He didn’t undo any of Obama’s national monument designations — he ordered a review of them. He didn’t open the Arctic and Atlantic Coast back up to offshore drilling — he ordered “a review of the locations available for off-shore oil and gas exploration.”

This kind of review and assessment is the kind of thing Clinton’s team was doing during the campaign, so that it could hit the ground running. Trump could have done the same; he could be making new rules now instead of telling the world he intends to start thinking about how to make new rules. But when it comes to policy, Trump can’t be bothered.

To be clear: All these review processes likely will, in the end, do damage. Nobody, even in the administration, seems to be making any pretense about the fact that they are designed to loosen restrictions on the fossil fuel industry. Eventually, agencies will lumber into action; rules will be weakened, protections undone.

But that will be a long, fraught process, beset at every step by resistance — from agency employees, civil society, and courts. It is impossible to say in advance where the reviews initiated by these EOs will end up. But it is rather odd to tout them as “accomplishments” of Trump’s first 100 days. They aren’t accomplishments; they are promises to eventually accomplish things.

Plutocratic anti-environmentalism

As I wrote in a previous post, Trump shows every sign of being a “disjunctive” president, the one who presides over the final crumbling of an intellectually exhausted movement in politics. The raiment of small-government philosophy that once tastefully concealed the process of rewarding corporate backers has grown tattered and thin; the plutocracy is peeking through.

To be sure, Trump’s assault on Obama’s legacy has been attended by the familiar old ideological slogans. “Level playing field.” “Regulatory certainty.” “Job-killing regulations.” And whatever dime-store version of Kuznets curve has apparently filtered down to Trump for Earth Day:

But these rhetorical efforts feel rote and habitual; there’s scarcely even a pretense that any coherent philosophy is being consistently applied.

Trump’s environmental EOs, for instance, are united by one thing: They are intended to make it easier and more profitable for the fossil fuel industry to pollute. Why? What is the public constituency for greater pollution in streams, in the air, in the atmosphere? Majorities of Republicans, like majorities of all Americans, favor limiting pollution from industry. They love renewable energy, which is growing like crazy and creating thousands of jobs. Nobody, aside from fossil fuel executives and donors, is demanding these things.

Even the fealty to fossil fuels is incoherent, untethered to any consistent worldview. The market has turned against coal, mainly because of cheap natural gas. Trump says he wants to revive coal — but he also wants to remove barriers to more natural gas fracking. That ... doesn’t make sense.

Trump’s people say they don’t believe in — or, depending on who is talking, don’t worry about — climate change. So what is the point of Trump’s embrace, through Energy Secretary Rick Perry, of “clean coal,” i.e., coal plants that bury their carbon emissions? It makes no sense to bury carbon emissions if climate change isn’t a problem.

the kemper ccs project
Enormous, expensive CCS projects, even though climate change isn’t real.

Even fossil fuels’ most fervent supporters realize that federal energy research plays an important role in economic development. (The fracking revolution relied crucially on federal research.) So what exactly is the philosophy behind slashing federal advanced-energy research and science in order to pay for gigantic tax cuts for the wealthy? I am aware of no theory of governance in the 21st century suggesting that less science and research is to a nation’s advantage.

Trump and his people say they want a “level playing field” while locking in subsidies for fossil fuels. They say they want “regulatory certainty” while throwing a dozen regulations into years-long legal dispute. They say they want to create jobs while shifting support from labor-intensive energy industries like solar to capital-intensive energy industries like oil.

It doesn’t add up. There is no discernible environmental or economic theory at work, just a mania to reverse anything with Obama’s name on it, driven by massive industry donations ($3 million in lobbying by the oil baron Koch brothers alone). In its desiccated modern form, conservatism has concluded that clean energy is for Democrats and fossil fuels are for Republicans — like everything else, their tribe and ours.

All that remains by way of justification are slogans that were tired when Newt Gingrich was distributing them to the House in the early 1990s. The energy world has changed; Republican energy policy has only devolved, reduced, in Lionel Trilling’s immortal words, to “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

What remains of conservatism: dilatory nihilism

Republican presidents oversaw the creation of the EPA and some of the most important amendments to the Clean Air Act (e.g., 1990). And there was a moment in the early 2000s when it seemed like the GOP might take climate change seriously and seek a solution that fit with its principles.

But the tidal undertow of radicalization and tribal epistemology, which accelerated so disastrously under Obama, has left no room for grappling with reality. Nor has it left any real intellectual superstructure. In its place is a stew of xenophobic populist signaling, reflexive plutocratic policy, and proud ignorance.

Since Obama took office, renewable energy has exploded. The science of climate change has grown more dire. And the entire world has finally rallied to take action. Technology is moving; policy is moving; markets are moving; public opinion is moving.

Though there is plenty of reason to worry about the speed at which global society is moving on climate change, there is no longer reasonable doubt about the direction. Trump can’t stop it. America can’t stop it, certainly not in four years.

At the federal level, the US is going to bench itself for a while. Others — other countries, American states and cities, the private sector — will stay in the game, picking up the slack.

US conservatives are engaged in a hopeless and purely dilatory effort to preserve the hegemony of fossil fuels. They are throwing sand in the gears, as much out of spite and habit as any coherent alternative worldview. They will go down in history as delaying the inevitable climate effort, ensuring marginally more suffering in exchange for a little more time for fossil fuels to operate unrestricted. That will be Trump’s environmental legacy. It is, to borrow a term, sad.