As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump criticized global warming as a “hoax,” threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty, and promised to bring back coal-mining jobs. Now, as president-elect, he has appointed well-known energy realist and anthropogenic global warming skeptic Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team. Ebell is also rumored to be under consideration for head of the EPA after Trump takes office.
What Trump will do as president, and where energy and environmental policy fall in his list of priorities, remains to be seen. But if President Trump is anything like candidate Trump, it is likely the EPA will shrink, the U.S. will pull back on its Paris commitments, and President Obama’s coal-crushing regulations will be relaxed. Extravagant subsidies for “alternative” energy—wind, solar, magic—will also likely be curtailed. These are all sensible reforms that President Trump should green-light for immediate implementation.
They are also reforms that cut at the heart of the sustainability movement, which is fixated on leveraging climate catastrophe as a “once-in-a-century chance” to ram through a host of leftist policies. The radical environmentalist movement is bent on shuttering the fossil fuel industry in favor of windmills and solar panels, a costly boondoggle that would result in skyrocketing prices and erratic energy production. The movement has also ridden the coattails of the social justice movement and Bernie Sanders-style socialism. That’s because activists see sustainability as a set of ideological values that go beyond protecting the environment. Many depict “sustainability” on a Venn diagram at the intersection of social justice, environmental protection, and economic redistribution.
The sustainability movement has grown into a regnant regime on college campuses, some 475 of which offer degrees in sustainability and related fields. More than 600 university heads have signed the Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging to eliminate or offset 100% of all carbon dioxide emissions and to “integrate” sustainability into all classes as the backbone of the curriculum. A generation of college students has graduated with the understanding that global warming is the most urgent, important issue of their lifetime, responsible at once for economic inequality, the oppression of women, and the rise of ISIS.
Donald Trump’s upset victory strikes a blow to the idea that sustainability has the imprimatur of the American people. His administration will have the opportunity to encourage transparency and scientific scruples within the EPA, long known for cherry-picking data and peer reviewers to produce the scientific conclusions it prefers. President Trump should also shrink the size of bureaucratic agencies like the EPA, which has appropriated to itself ever growing amounts of power at the expense of individual autonomy. (Think of the Clean Water Act, which the EPA interpreted to cover backyard drainage ditches.)
How has the sustainability movement reacted to Donald Trump’s election? So far, with anger, fear, and an urge to fight back. The former executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, confesses in the Huffington Post he is “in the midst of tears” but finds solace in believing California “is the new command post” for the sustainability movement. Vox writer Brad Plumer, in an article titled “There’s no way around it: Donald Trump looks like a disaster for the planet,” bemoans the declining momentum behind the environmental movement. Once China and India feel empowered to slip on their carbon dioxide reduction goals, civilization may be headed toward extinction, Plumer fears: “This is the future of humanity at stake.”
Paul Krugman exclaims in the New York Times that Trump’s win is “an epic mistake” with “apocalyptic” effects, including the loss of “our last, best chance” to end climate change. The Guardian, never one to slack in sounding the global warming alarm, assembled climate scientists to interpret Donald Trump’s victory. Michael Mann, inventor of the discredited hockey stick graph, suggests Trump’s ascent “might be game over for the climate.” A senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, Kevin Trenberth, considers the election “an unmitigated disaster for the planet.” Bill McKibben’s group 350.org has already held webinars urging activists to double down on community organizing.
Myron Ebell, a soft-spoken policy wonk, has attracted his own protesters. Over 50,000 have signed a petition at WhiteHouse.gov asking the president to block Ebell from heading the EPA.
The backlash from the sustainability movement is a last gasp of anger—not just at Donald Trump, but at inconvenient facts that don’t align with alarmist soundbites. The movement has blown through nearly two decades of false predictions of climate catastrophe. Even Michael Mann has admitted to the “hiatus” in global warming, and others have scrambled to postulate where the missing heat might be hiding. In the Atlantic Ocean? The Pacific? Blocked by pollution from volcanoes? Until now, sustainability advocates have enjoyed the protection of President Obama, who vowed in his first inaugural to slow the rise of the oceans, and spent much of his presidency talking about climate change. That shelter is now gone, leaving sustainability activists to defend their track record to a less sympathetic administration.
Yet the sustainability movement may well soldier on. An ideology firmly planted in the institutions of higher learning does not wither overnight. Activists’ perceptions that they are the persecuted faithful may only fortify their dedication.
If President Trump rolls back environmental regulations that make little economic sense but are dear to the hearts of activists, he may find stiff opposition. He should remember that a vocal faction does not speak for the rest of the country.
Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars, and the co-author of Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism