Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
Trump’s Legal Arguments Are Garbage
Pop quiz! Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. What are the three largest sources of human-caused methane emissions?
Many environmentalists know that oil and gas drilling and livestock are the two biggest sources. But few people know the third: landfills. And it’s not even a distant third. Landfills and other waste sites are responsible for 16 percent of methane emissions, the result of organic matter rotting in a low-oxygen environment. The global warming potential of methane is many times greater than that of carbon dioxide, making landfills a major problem for the climate.
So, did you pass the quiz? The Trump administration definitely did not. This week, a federal judge gave the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency a big fat F for its failure to act on landfill pollution.
In 2016, the Obama administration developed a plan to address landfill emissions of methane and 30 other pollutants. The program left it to the states to develop their own methods to meet federal standards and established a road map for federal intervention when states failed to comply. There are several approaches to dealing with landfill methane, including using the gas to produce electricity. The states’ plans were due in May 2017.
Although the Trump administration has had years to move the program forward, it has done nothing. States waited and waited for the EPA to review their pollution-fighting strategies; finally, a California-led coalition of states sued the agency as a way to force the issue.
The EPA’s response was pathetic. Without a credible excuse for its inaction, the agency argued only that the states didn’t have the right to sue because they couldn’t show that the EPA’s thumb-twiddling was actually harming them.
That argument failed, because climate change is already happening. And states like California, which are suffering from intensified storms, droughts, and protracted wildfire seasons, can easily demonstrate that the Trump administration’s refusal to lift a finger to address greenhouse gas emissions is damaging them.
Here’s the richest part of the administration’s argument. The EPA claimed it should not be forced to implement the landfill emissions rule, because the agency is short-staffed.
Year after year, President Trump has asked Congress to slash EPA funding and personnel. In the most recent budget, he asked Congress to cut EPA funding by 31 percent. When proposing those cuts, the administration told the public that the agency could carry out its mission with far less money. But now, the EPA is telling federal judges that it doesn’t have the resources to fulfill its basic obligations under the law.
Fortunately, Congress has saved us from the sheer idiocy of Trump’s proposals, ignoring his requests and leaving the EPA’s budget largely intact. As courts recognized this week, if the EPA spent more of its resources protecting the environment and less on rolling back important protections, there would be plenty of money to help states deal with their landfill problems.
Burying the Burying Beetle
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week proposed to reduce species protections for the American burying beetle, adjusting the insect’s status from “endangered” to merely “threatened.” Since the FWS couldn’t acknowledge the real motivation behind the move—doing a favor for oil and gas interests, which are tired of having to ask for federal permission to drill in the beetle’s habitat—it engaged in a twisted (and tragic) line of illogic.
The American burying beetle once lived across 35 states, where it carried out important work aiding the decomposition of dead wildlife and returning nutrients to the soil. Today the insect dwells only in Rhode Island and parts of the Midwest. The FWS says the biggest obstacle to the beetle’s survival in the southern parts of its range is climate change.
“Even with the most aggressive reductions in climate change models,” says the FWS’s Kevin Stubbs, “it wasn't going to change the fact that the temperatures down here were going to rise above levels we think would support the beetle.”
Okay, we are all in agreement that the insect is in ever-increasing peril. So, if anything, we should be increasing protections for the burying beetle to give it the greatest possible chance against extinction, right?
And yet the FWS is proposing to do precisely the opposite—dropping protections that have been in place for decades exactly when the burying beetle need them most. Essentially, the Trump administration is admitting defeat in the fight against climate change as a favor to companies that are helping exacerbate that climate change through increased fossil fuel drilling. The entire incident gives the impression that the Fish and Wildlife Service is being run by a character from a Lewis Carroll story.
Kickin’ It with Mike Pompeo
The Arctic Council, made up of representatives of the eight countries with Arctic territory and of indigenous communities, met in Finland this week but failed to agree on a formal declaration on the protection of the region. Why? Because U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected any language relating to climate change.
The Arctic is in the throes of a major climate crisis. Warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the region is seeing its sea ice and glaciers melt, resulting in vastly changed landscapes and ecosystems. But Pompeo isn’t concerned. He views the dramatic changes as an opportunity to increase trade, rather than a warning that we’re veering into an uncertain future in which many of the planet’s coastal communities and a huge amount of its biodiversity are threatened.
But here’s the silliest part of Pompeo’s climate change rhetoric. When Finnish journalists asked him about his refusal to allow climate change language in any formal communiqué, Pompeo replied: “The United States is kicking it when it comes to getting its CO2 down. I mean, compare it to China, compare it to Russia, compare it—frankly—to many European nations, each of whom signed the Paris Agreement.”
Let’s just skip over the secretary of state’s use of a 1980s street colloquialism to describe U.S. climate policy. Also laughable is the idea that the Trump administration would be proud of its carbon dioxide emissions record. Last year, U.S. carbon emission rose, while the European Union as a whole emitted 2.5 percent less carbon dioxide. To be fair to Pompeo, a few European nations did see their emissions increase in 2018, including Malta, Latvia, and Estonia. But every country in the EU that might plausibly be considered an economic or political peer to the United States managed to cut its carbon pollution.
As for China, that country’s emissions did increase last year by 2.3 percent, but that’s still half a percentage point lower than the amount that our emissions rose. And China managed this while growing its economy by 6.6 percent, more than double the U.S. economic growth rate last year.
So, no, Mike Pompeo, we’re not kicking it when it comes to getting our CO2 down.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.