Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
The Other Negotiation
President Trump notified the United Nations this week of his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Although you’ve probably been hearing about this for a while—Trump announced his decision in a White House Rose Garden speech in 2017 and sent a legally meaningless letter to the U.N. shortly thereafter—Monday marked the first day that Trump could take an official action under the terms of the agreement. His most recent letter starts a one-year waiting period before our country can formally remove itself from the collective action of nearly 200 nations to combat the climate crisis.
Trump’s decision to withdraw is unwise and unnecessary, and much has been written to that effect. But here’s what baffles me about the Paris situation. Back in the Rose Garden, Trump explicitly and repeatedly stated that he would renegotiate the climate accord: “The United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord . . . but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair.”
Nearly two and a half years have passed since that statement. When Trump made his Paris speech, Meghan Markle was just a bit-part actress, Harvey Weinstein was just another Hollywood big shot, and none of us knew who Anthony Scaramucci was. In the intervening 29 months, Trump has met with many, many foreign dignitaries. There were plenty of opportunities for him to broach the topic of climate. He never did. Trump has done precisely nothing to renegotiate the Paris climate agreement or to replace it. (In fairness to Trump, a new agreement would be virtually impossible, since the United States is the only country on earth that is trying to withdraw from the Paris framework.) But still, it seems that Trump basically forgot about the Paris agreement immediately after leaving the Rose Garden.
But here’s the good news: Trump’s brief attention span is a boon for the planet. With the president having directed his orangey gaze to other priorities, climate negotiators at the State Department have been free to lay the groundwork for the country to rejoin Paris (and the rest of the world) once Trump is out of office.
Take a look at a calendar and you’ll notice that November 4, 2020—the first day the United States can officially leave the Paris agreement—is the day after the next presidential election. Speaking on the sidelines of major climate negotiations in 2018, an anonymous State Department official told Rolling Stone, “The unspoken goal of the U.S. team was to negotiate an agreement that the U.S. could live with, and could use to get back in when the next president is elected.”
So there’s a chance that our withdrawal from the Paris agreement might be more au revoir than adieu.
Better Call Kate
Just over two million Americans hold civilian jobs in the United States government. If you’re a really attentive news hawk, you might know the names of 200 of them. The other 99.99 percent of the employees do the vast majority of government work. They process permits, analyze FOIA requests, assess the environmental impacts of proposed projects, and much more. It’s a good thing that they are anonymous—technical experts, lawyers, and administrators should be insulated from public scrutiny. They should make their decisions in accordance with legal standards and data, beyond the reach of the armies of lobbyists who would love nothing more than to influence their day-to-day decisions. Unfortunately, that’s not how the Trump administration works, and we got yet more evidence of it this week.
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oil company Cimarex made an end run around career officials in the Department of Interior in 2017, after technical experts determined that the company’s application to frack in western Oklahoma was “incomplete” and “deficient.” Rather than correct and improve the application, Cimarex went to an industry group for help. A lobbyist for the association then sought out Katharine MacGregor, who was an aide at the time to then Interior secretary Ryan Zinke.
MacGregor could have approached her department’s analysts for guidance. She could have asked them what needed correcting in the application, then explained to Cimarex what should be done. Instead, she reportedly bypassed and ignored career officials, instead seeking out help from a political appointee. Within 16 days of contacting MacGregor, Cimarex got its fracking permit.
Not surprisingly, oil industry officials have since been elated at MacGregor’s climb up the Interior ladder. When they learned she would serve in the department, one of them had rejoiced that they could “call Kate” with any of their issues. MacGregor is now set to become deputy secretary at Interior, pending Senate confirmation. I hope she has call waiting—the fossil fuel industry will have her on speed dial.
When former Interior secretary Ryan Zinke packed the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee with industry people in 2018, the fear was they would open huge swaths of our national parks to noisy, exhaust-emitting all-terrain vehicles. What no one foresaw was that those ATVs would be towing hot dog carts behind them.
This week the national parks advisory group made a string of truly bizarre recommendations to “improve” our national treasures. The committee would like to bring food trucks into parks and enable people to receive Amazon deliveries at their campsites (for a small fee, of course).
I struggle to find words to adequately address this kind of stupidity. Our national parks are not perfect—there is a significant maintenance backlog, and access for many groups of Americans remains a problem. But I’m pretty sure that enabling two-day shipping of glamping supplies is not going to solve any of them.
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.