The Environmentalists Versus Trump

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