Environmental Policy in the Era of Trump

William K. Reilly

Second Annual Adrian Fernando Memorial Lecture

April 27, 2017

Oxford University


Environmental Policy in the Era of Trump


I am pleased and honored to be invited to deliver the Fernando Lecture. And the auspices of the Smith School with its commitment to enterprise and the environment, is personally very congenial.  The reconciliation between economic policy and environmental goals remains the enduring challenge to policy in every generation.  To the extent scholars here address the practical integration of social policies which so often are said to involve trade offs, even when they often are mutually reenforcing, I predict researchers will never run out of questions to study.

Brexit and Trump; We Don’t Understand Each Other, We Don’t Even Understand Ourselves!

The recent past has included behaviors on the part of the British people which have perplexed Americans. Most of my American friends consider it was crazy to allow Scotland to decide whether to stay in the United Kingdom.  America, after all, went to war to preserve the union.

And the anti Europe faction in the British Parliament has long tormented British prime ministers. Although they groused incessantly about the EU’s outrageous incursions into British sovereignty, we didn’t think they’d really developed a considered alternative. The reaction of the Brexit advocates to their victory in the referendum looked to many interested Americans like the dog that caught the bus.

I just mention the odd turn of events in your country to provide some thin screen of defensiveness as I attempt to explain recent developments in America. You see, I am made aware by some conversations with friends in the UK and the continent, that some people here consider that Americans also have behaved oddly, have lost our moorings. Like the minister of one European country who called me the morning after the US presidential election and opened with an accusatory explanation, “What have you done!” The tone suggested I personally might have committed a felony. So I am aware that some people in Britain, maybe even some in this audience, have some questions about Americans’ electoral behavior.

All things considered I’d rather talk about Brexit. I cannot say I understand the choice British voters made on Brexit. But I do recall from my days as a student in Paris in the early 60’s, at Sciences PO, the arguments put forward by President Charles DeGaulle against admission of the U.K. to the EU, or the EEC as it was known then. He contended that Britain was not really European. He explained, “She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.” British governments fought hard throughout the 60’s and 70’s to overcome such skepticism. When asked whether Europe’s exclusion of Britain would outlast his term in office DeGaulle was frank to express doubt, mentioning a maximum of 15 years. How ironic that the British people came finally to agree with DeGaulle nearly 50 years after his rejection.

To an American from California, as I am, referenda have a seductive appeal, tapping the democracy raw and immediate. But creating enduring policy by sampling at a single moment in time, as Californians have done on mandatory budget allocations, property tax limits, and criminal sentencing (the notorious three strikes and it’s life in prison rule) carries a large cost.  With these referenda we have established disruptive diversions which have badly compromised efficient, even humane, government, in enduring, practically unalterable ways.

I recall a colloquy between a French and a British diplomat at the United Nations at the time when French rejection was a divisive issue. The French official said that Britain’s behavior in the Profumo scandal, where as he claimed, a defense minister was sacked over an affair, proved how truly foreign British practice was from that of Europe. Fired over an affair! The British diplomat responded, “How little you understand Britain. He wasn’t fired because he had an affair; he was fired because he lied to Parliament.”  Hearing this the Frenchman rolled his eyes and affected astonishment and said, “Even worse!”

Elites Are Not Trusted

This is said to be a bad year for elites, in this country and mine. And the European Union has always been among the most elite constructs. I recall once being in a small luncheon in Paris which included former Prime Minister Raymond Barre, who served in the Cabinet of President Giscard d’Estaing. The French Government had espoused creation of the euro and Barre was asked, how can you possibly expect to abandon the franc when the French people are heavily against it? He began by acknowledging that the German people also were polling against giving up the Deutsche Mark. But, he argued, “nothing of importance we have done since setting up the European Coal and Steel Community had popular support. It is for us, who know about such things and lead to take the decisions in the best interest of everyone.” Now even France is reconsidering its faith in elites.

Why and How Did Trump Win?

The election of Donald Trump was America’s Brexit. He knew that the Brexit voters were kindred souls when he publicly supported them. What we saw in the Trump vote was an uprising of the malcontents, a repudiation of the status quo, of disdainful educated elites, and globalizing disruptions. The US economy has been remarkably strong by several measures; unemployment has been 5% or less, interest rates have been low for years, the stock market has been at record highs. But manufacturing jobs have left whole swathes of middle America, and the loss of service jobs has been even more severe as Amazon has transformed the way Americans buy everything. The Trump campaign flew under the positive aspiration, “Make America Great Again.” But the case Trump made for it was built on fear, insecurity and a wide array of grievances. American lawmakers and its president had got nothing right, according to Trump. In a conversation I had with President Obama just before the election I asked him how it felt to be presiding over a failed state.  He said, you know I have had a bar I intended to clear but I hadn’t realized it was so low.

Migrants Were Scapegoats

Migration was the first of the grievances Trump gave voice to. He famously called Mexican migrants rapists and murderers, bad hombres. Every study I am aware of has concluded that migrants contribute positively to the US economy, and they also commit fewer crimes proportionately than citizens born in the USA. Resentments of Mexicans and voters’ tolerance for a blatantly racist candidate who vilifies them is grotesquely unfair to people typically better known for their devotion to family, work, and church.  Migrants from Mexico and Central America are vital to the economies of California and many other states.  Without them whole sectors of the US economy would falter:  construction, agriculture, tourism, hotels, restaurants, landscaping, child care, health services.  I once heard the sheriff of San Mateo County, in the heart of Stanford country and Silicon Valley say that his county doesn’t work without illegal migrants.  He added, note I said “illegal” migrants. California farmers from counties that voted heavily for Trump recently protested that his policies have driven their workers to flee the area, thereby endangering the harvest of crops.  The farmers explained to the press, we knew his campaign commitments but we didn’t think he really meant it. Similar sentiments have prompted one succinct explanation of the wide divide between Trump supporters and his critics;  His advocates took him seriously but not literally, while his detractors took him literally but not seriously. 

            It is difficult for me to understand how voters in Iowa could have voted for Obama in 2012 and four years later gave Trump a 15 percent majority over Mrs Clinton. They are not racists but they are unsettled by seeing their cities and towns transforming with Spanish spoken in the stores, unfamiliar foods sold in supermarkets, and schools crowded with Spanish-speaking children. And yet the truth is, the United States is so fortunate in its migrants.   

Free Trade Was Blamed for Job Losses

            A second electioneering grievance had to do with trade and economic challenges. That low unemployment rate I mentioned included many people working at jobs that paid less than they had earned before the Great Recession of 2008. And the numbers mask the dropouts, those who are no longer looking for jobs, who lack the skills demanded by firms today.  A major challenge to societies everywhere concerns work.  Where will people find work they have skills for, with technologies they understand and master?  How are people to prepare for ever changing job requirements?  How can politics remain wholesome, civil and constructive if a large number of voters are angry, resentful, and despairing?   The topic is beyond my purview today, and I have few answers to it anyway, but the sense that government is responsible if a person is unable to find a job will create tensions and vulnerabilities ambitious politicians will exploit.

The Divisive American Problem of Abortion

            And finally, among the critical themes contributing to Trump’s success there’s abortion. Evangelicals in the US traditionally demand that a presidential candidate have an unblemished character. Republican candidates typically are explicit about their piety. Yet 81% of evangelical voters supported a man three-times married and who has has never hidden his hedonism. And almost a third of the Hispanics he so shamelessly maligned as “rapists and murderers” nevertheless voted for him. Trump’s promise to appoint pro life anti abortion judges including to the open Supreme Court seat, likely explains how a huge preponderance of religious Protestants and a respectable percentage of Catholic and evangelical Hispanics, sealed the election for Trump.

The Environment Means Job Killing Coal Destroying Regulation

            Consider now the environment.  The Republican Party platform crafted by Trump supporters promised to decentralize environmental protection and return regulation to the states, where it had been prior to the 1970’s when President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order and signed new air and water pollution legislation with powerful tools to ensure that states did not use lax pollution controls to compete for industry.  Candidate Trump delivered applause lines when he promised to break up the “job-killing” EPA and end the war on coal as he would open up the public lands to vast new coal, oil and gas development.  He promised to break up the EPA “into little bits.”  This is one campaign promise Trump means to keep.

            He has appointed as EPA Administrator a lawyer who does not believe that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming, and who as Oklahoma attorney general has been the leading litigator against President Obama’s EPA and its Clean Power rule, one of the pillars of the architecture designed to support compliance with the commitments the United States made at the UN Conference of the Parties in Paris in 2015.  There the US promised to reduce its generation of carbon dioxide by at least 26% by 2025.  The Clean Power rule aims at reducing emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.  Previous federal EPA rules target new coal-fired power, requiring that they feature sequestration and capture of emissions, something no one has figured out how to achieve cost effectively. Another pillar essential to effective climate policy would require average automobile fuel efficiency improvements for a minimum of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025 models, a virtual doubling over the current performance average.  Auto industry executives actually committed to this efficiency improvement in negotiations with the Obama Administration in return for government bailouts of the industry in 2009, but they have lobbied hard and effectively, it seems, to repudiate the commitment now that the sympathetic Trump Administration is in office. President Trump has promised to jettison all three of these measures. There is said to be a lively debate within the upper reaches of the Trump Administration about whether to withdraw formally from the Paris commitments.  Secretary of State Tillerson is said to be resisting pressures to abandon altogether Paris, arguing to “keep a seat at the table.”  But decisions have already been taken which effectively declare the US Government’s indifference to the obligations made by President Obama. The EPA administrator, would you believe, is the leading advocate for formally disavowing Paris.

Defunding Science, Climate, and Development Assistance

            One of the most consistent themes evident in the proposed budget put forth by the Trump Administration is to cease funding anything related to climate policy, at EPA, the State Department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.  Each of these agencies has performed functions vital to worldwide understanding of trends in the temperature of the seas, acidification of the oceans, and sea level rise, and to atmospheric climate change and its effects.  Should the Trump budget proposals be accepted the services of these institutions will be keenly missed by the scientific community.  They have no ready replacements in the capacities and commitments of other governments.  Their absence will deeply diminish understanding of the nature and the rate of profound changes associated with a warming world.  I consider the prospective loss of these functions, monitoring, measuring, and reporting, irreplaceable, and more destructive than a 31% reduction in EPA’s budget and proposed deep cuts planned for climate regulations, enforcement efforts, the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program, and environmental grant.

            There is an important role here which I encourage the British and German and EU leaders to fill. It is to design and fund an institutional capability to assume the scientific functions relating to climate science which America has heretofore borne through NASA, NOAA, and EPA, but which the Trump Administration intends to discontinue.

            The American leadership that was essential to the commitments of China and so vital to the success of Paris, has been effectively repudiated.  Support for emission controls on two of the three major sectoral contributors to US emissions of greenhouse gases, autos and electricity-generation, have been abandoned.  The third large source of greenhouse gas, buildings, is less impacted by federal laws.  However, there is a highly effective voluntary energy efficiency certification and labeling program I initiated on my watch at EPA and called Energy Star.  The program has 83% unaided name recognition by the American public and it is responsible for billions of pounds of CO2 reductions as buildings, computers, and appliances all comply with its energy efficiency standards.  It has the support of the real estate industry, and also lenders.  It’s impossible to obtain a significant building loan in many parts of the country unless the project will bear the familiar Energy Star placard.  The President’s budget shows this program as slated for elimination.  Several other voluntary programs involving participatory aspirational commitments to achieve objectives in areas which go beyond what the law requires, but which also ratchet up best practice, are also to be terminated, programs involving reductions of toxics and environmental education.

            The Trump budget proposes significant reductions in several international programs and agencies, 28% for the Department of State, reduced support for the World Bank and elimination of funding for the United Nations Population Fund, and foreign development assistance.           

            The intentional discrimination against environmental protection and international development assistance strikes me as especially hard to justify. No cost benefit or risk assessment are offered to explain these large cuts.  The budget director has said that they’re not going to waste any more of the taxpayer money on climate research, and that they are going to put America first.  President Trump is famously admiring of winners.  He is contemptuous of losers.  And his spokespeople repeatedly assert that the unifying principle of his budget priorities is, what works.  Yet there are no major enterprises of US policy that are more indisputedly winners than environmental protection, and international development.

            Consider a few facts:  Since EPA was founded amid alarms about toxic smog and air you could see and taste in all major American cities, when rivers in Ohio and Texas actually caught fire, the criteria air pollutants have diminished by more than 75%.  These are the major health-related emissions and for the most pernicious, lead, the emissions are down 97%. Fish have returned to the Hudson River and Lake Erie, pollution levels in water bodies are sharply down.  If many of our lakes and rivers still have not achieved the statutory objective of “fishable and swimable,” they are, as one of my EPA predecessors once observed, no longer flammable. Many American cities and water bodies still show non-attainment for some categories of substances but the standards have been progressively raised and the advantages to public healt are demonstrable. All this progress has accompanied a 300% increase in GNP.  It is this progress that prompted the writer Gregg Easterbrook to call the environment one of the two greatest achievements of American social policy in the post World War II history, the other he cited is Social Security.

            Now Trump’s EPA administrator is aware of this success, and essentially offers it as justification for dismantling the EPA.  The job, he seems to say, has been done.  This while climate change is expected to exacerbate temperature spikes, atmospheric inversions and wildfire smoke and trigger unprecedented health threatening smog alerts.

           I was asked last evening whether I was optimistic. I said yes, I am optimistic. No one who entered the field of the environment when I did, who experienced the terrific success of nature protection, pollution control, the cleaner air and water and cars and factories, and the elevation of environmental values into the behavior of people, businesses, and nations, could reasonably be anything but optimistic. Ours has been a wildly successful enterprise. Sure, institutions experience periods of reaction, reconsideration and retreat, which they appear to be headed into now. But the predominant trajectory of American conservation and environmentalism has been upward, to higher expectations, more rigorous protection, and a deeper sense of responsibility and stewardship for the natural systems on which human life depends. My experience convinces me that the time will come again when the era will be marked by an openness to invention, innovation, and creativity, and that now is the time to take stock, make plans, and prepare for that moment. Stay in the game. Get to know those who disagree with you. Environmental NGOs, chat up Republicans! Take seriously the reservations of evangelicals. And learn to respect the anxieties of people who distrust government and fear the loss of freedoms or lifestyles to disdainful elites.

            The intended discontinuance of support for international development assistance, just as in the case of environmental policy, targets a field of astonishing success.  The number of people in severe poverty has been reduced by half since 2000.  The annual incidence of new cases of polio plummeted from 300,000 to 30, mortality of children under five dropped by half, cases of dehydration and dysentery are sharply down, and the number of households served by safe drinking water and sanitation increased by hundreds of millions. These numbers, this progress, didn’t just happen.  Governments, foundations, NGOs, business, all played a major part.  George W Bush’s priority for AIDS alleviation and reduction saved 2.5 million lives, as President Obama’s staff reminded us when I served on Obama’s Global Development Council. This is one of the few notable successes shared by both political parties as progressive Democrats and religious Republicans worked together to support foreign development.  New data-driven policies and savvy incentives like “pay for performance” and “cash on delivery”  have immunized development funds from diversion and theft.  The Norwegians charted the way when they offered the Government of Brazil $1 billion in return for Brazil’s arresting the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.  But they were not to receive the funds until the performance was verified. My father hated foreign aid, and considered it generally financed Mediterranean villas for Mobutu, which it often did.  But the current sophistication and effectiveness of development assistance is not my father’s foreign aid.

            Well, I am aware I have not given you much in the way of good news. But there is some.  First of all, while we may be about to see the federal government take a sabbatical, a four year vacation from actions to avert climate change, cities are displaying innovative methods of reducing their carbon footprint.  Chicago’s Climate Action Plan commits the city to install new permeable pavement invented in Chicago to absorb torrential rains as rainfall patterns are expected to concentrate into a few months in the fall and spring. Unfamiliar new tree species are being planted in the parks as plant zones become intolerant of traditional maples, ash and Norway spruce.  So they are being replaced by Alabama sweet gum. Hospital emergency rooms are being expanded to handle anticipated heat stroke victims as summer days with 95 plus temperatures increase from an average of 15 per year in the 20th century to an expected 45 days per year in the 21st century.  I30 American cities have joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, with laws requiring greater energy efficiency in their buildings, new mass transit investments, bike-sharing programs, planting trees, installing electric vehicle charging stations, creating green infrastructure to store floods and manage sea level rise. In both the Northeast and Pacific West Coast, states have created compacts to reduce carbon. 

            Companies including Walmart, Google, Microsoft and Apple have committed to power their facilities with renewable energy. New facilities in Texas, for example, involve companies contracting for wind or solar power and bypassing any dependence on coal.  In fact, more than 250 coal plants have announced in recent years that they will close or switch to cleaner fuels.  Moody’s Investor Services has announced that wind power could displace two thirds of coal-powered production in 15 midwestern states, the very heart of US coal country.  I have served on the board of the largest electric utility in Texas and I have watched the contribution from coal decline from over 50 % to little more than a third, as natural gas and wind and finally even utility grade solar, became competitive.  And now the book value of three of the remaining coal fired power plants is zero!  It is not government policy which has effected this abandonment of coal;  it is the market.  And as a result principally of the success of fracking and resulting cheap natural gas, coal has lost its economic appeal and the United States is decarbonising. Carbon dioxide emissions have declined 2 % per year in the United States in each of the past three years. The discontinuance of coal has meant that well before 2015the United States was on its way to achieving the 26% reduction in CO2 promised in Paris. Some two thirds of new solar installations in 2015 were utility grade, representing not rooftop statements by affluent homeowners but hard economic choices by major electricity providers.

            In a recent op ed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the NY Times, he cites the average cost of wind power as $20 per megawatt, versus $30 for many coal plants.  I should caution that a considerable subsidy in the form of a production tax credit and in most states also a minimum required quantity of renewables, have helped to drive the competitive advantage renewables are achieving, but plentiful natural gas has needed no help to displace coal in the electricity marketplace.

            It will be important in the years ahead to recall the American progress on greenhouse gas reduction even as the Trump Administration dismisses climate as a hoax and repudiates carbon reduction as a priority.  America can still lead the way irrespective of the President’s abandoning the field. My advice then to China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa,  all significant emitters of greenhouse gases, is watch what we do, not what we say, not what our President says, and be prepared to cite the American experience against those interests in your own countries who advance coal, disparage climate concerns, and ignore the conclusions of more than a dozen national academies of science which have concurred that carbon dioxide emissions threaten the livability of the the planet and humans are significant contributors to the warming climate.

            So, as Michael Bloomberg’s opinion piece was entitled, “With or Without Trump,” the United States is making steady and reassuring progress in reducing its carbon footprint.  Legions of Americans are committed to the cause.  Polling data indicates that a majority of Americans believe that the climate is warming, and humans are contributing to climate change.  So too, the public has long supported environmental protection, strong air and water pollution controls, even through the periodic recessions and the Arab oil embargo.  More than 80% of the public has supported keeping or even strengthening these laws.  As the chief pollster Bob Teeter advised the first President Bush in 1988, environmental commitment has become part of the core values of the American people.  Nevertheless, the public is not voting on their environmental convictions.  Members of Congress tell me that upon visits to their constituency they are rarely asked about their position on climate.  And polls that have asked voters to rank their concerns reveal that concern about climate scores well down on their list.  There is, in short, no sense of urgency about addressing the principal threat to continuing livability of the planet. I have long believed that the complacency regarding climate action in the United States will require a catastrophe, of storms or floods or droughts, a catastrophe that scientists are willing to say, yes, that’s well beyond the 100 year 1000 year experience, that’s climate change.  Should that happen the politics of climate can suddenly acquire new urgency at the national level.  During the summer of 1988 a sustained heat wave afflicted much of the United States.  Smog alerts were serious and recurrent.  The press gave a great deal of attention to the threat to upper atmospheric ozone, the thinning of the ozone layer. And global warming began to feature in political coverage. Republican presidential candidate George Bush took notice.  He promised to become the environmental president, and to bring the White House effect to bear on the greenhouse effect. He captured the issue from the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.  Here was Reagan’s vice president embracing the environment, an unexpected move from an Administration notably tone deaf on the issue and whose first EPA administrator set out to do something quite similar to what Trump’s EPA administrator is attempting.

            There is also a positive message that his strongest critics are drawing from the Trump presidency.  A grassroots resistance is forming.  It is taking many forms.  One new and well-funded group takes as its mission initiating litigation challenging Administration decisions, conflicts of interest, and failures to respect requirements for environmental impact assessments, public comment periods, procedural reviews of all sorts.  The US system, so friendly to litigious disruption, lends itself well to these tactics.  Others are swamping congressional offices with phone calls, requests for meetings, and packing town halls when congress members visit their home districts.  John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker, “...what is striking is how many people Trump has mobilized who previously didn’t pay very much attention to what happens in Washington.  He has politicized many formerly apolitical people; ultimately, this may be among his biggest achievements as president.”  America is awakening to a moment of “exuberant agitation,” one writer has written.  It is something we are good at as I recall from experiencing the first Earth Day.

            I have two contrasting images when I consider our new president and the spirit of his administration.  One recalls a luncheon comment made by a close protege of a new president who was enjoying early success in public approval ratings as he confronted a series of decisions.  My luncheon companion said, “I know this man very well.  He ain’t this good.  This is the best example since Truman that the presidency makes the man, uplifts him and draws from him strengths we didn’t know, and maybe he didn’t know, he had.”

            The other image is an architect who appeared as an expert witness in a trial.  He was asked, for the record, to state his name and occupation.  He replied, “I am Frank Lloyd Wright, the world’s greatest living architect.”  The questioning attorney, taken aback, commented, “And not particularly given to modesty I see.”  Wright replied, “I remind you counsellor, I am under oath here.” In Wright’s case he had actually earned the right to assert such narcissism, such egotism.  One hopes President Trump will too.  


William Reilly