Week 43: Hawking Coal at a Climate Change Summit. Awkward...

The Trump administration evades ethics rules, closes a science center, and seeks to end protests at the Washington Monument.

November 17, 2017

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Am I at the Wrong Meeting?

The United Nations held its 23rd international conference on climate change in Bonn, Germany, this week. While 17,000 people discussed ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the Trump administration tried to sell coal, like a guy who brings booze to an AA meeting.

The only forum the U.S. delegation organized was a panel featuring an executive from Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, and it didn’t go exactly as the Trump administration had hoped. Most of the attendees were protesters who heckled and sang through the beginning of the presentation. Even after the protest choir left en masse, the questions from the remaining audience members made clear that those who oppose Trump’s climate stance still dominated the room.

A reporter from a Chinese outlet asked the panel why President Trump described climate change in a tweet as a hoax perpetrated by China. George Banks, the White House energy aide who represented the administration at the summit (and who disappointingly bears no resemblance to the father from Mary Poppins), said the tweet was taken out of context. He didn’t explain, however, how a 140-character outburst that exists in a jumble of random thoughts in someone’s Twitter feed can be taken out of context. Perhaps he should have simply said, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”—it’s the best thing to say when you have nothing to say.

The Peabody representative argued that coal’s only problem is that research on carbon capture is badly underfunded, ignoring the fact that coal is also responsible for a deadly stew of air pollutants beyond carbon. Also, her co-panelist George Banks and the rest of the Trump administration are dramatically cutting funding for carbon capture research. They seem to think they have better uses for their tuppence.

The good news is that, despite the Trump’s abdication of responsibility, the United States still had serious representation at the climate conference. America’s Pledge, a coalition of subnational groups devoted to climate action and funded in part by Michael Bloomberg, hosted its own gathering. They told the world that U.S. cities, states, and businesses are pledged to upholding the American commitment to climate change mitigation. Intriguingly, the coalition currently represents 54 percent of U.S. gross domestic product; the same proportion of Americans voted for someone other than Donald Trump.

Swampier Than Ever

One of Trump’s more confusing campaign promises was his assurance that he would limit the power of lobbyists in the federal government. If anything, Trump has vastly increased their authority. Not only has he failed to enact and enforce the new ethics rules he planned, but he seems not even to be enforcing ethics standards that already exist.

Consider, for example, Rebeckah Adcock, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official who used to work in the pesticide industry. When Adcock joined the USDA, she pledged to avoid for one year any issues involving CropLife America, a pesticide industry trade group and her former employer. This week, however, the New York Times reported that Adcock has attended meetings with lobbyists from CropLife America. The newspaper further reported that Adcock has been involved with issues on which she lobbied in the past two years, which could also represent a violation of her ethics pledge.

A USDA spokesman claims that a 2009 memo from the Office of Government Ethics permits Adcock’s activities, but not everyone agrees, including Walter M. Shaub, Jr., who led the Office of Government Ethics under President Obama. Schaub resigned in July. He said that the ethics situation under Trump rendered the United States “close to a laughingstock.”

If only we could laugh, Walter.

Good Thing You Can See the Monument From Far Away

The Trump administration has proposed many changes to our national parks. It’s planning to slash the budget, lay off workers, raise entry fees, and close campgrounds. It’s censoring park officials and going to ludicrous lengths to stop them from talking about climate change. (When Mark Zuckerberg toured Glacier National Park, the administration made sure there were no climate change experts present.)

In that context, the administration’s plan to permanently close the Washington Monument’s grounds to recreation seems minor, but it stands for something much larger. Americans have gathered on those fields for decades, not just to play but to make their voices heard.

The National Parks Service says that it is simply trying to protect the grass, and that this is nothing but a turf management issue. Given the administration’s history of censorship, this only seems true in the metaphorical sense.

No Science for You!

Speaking of symbolic closures, the U.S. Geological Service will close its science center in Reston, Virginia. The center received much of its funding from the USGS’s climate change budget, and you can probably guess what’s happening to that money under the Trump administration.

The Reston site wasn’t a hugely important center for climate change research, even at the best of times, but it seems fitting that, a week after northern Virginia’s highly educated voters rebuffed President Trump and his surrogates, the administration is taking away their science. 

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


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.

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