It didn’t take Donald Trump long after moving into the White House to initiate an all-out assault on our environment and health. Since his inauguration in January, the president has made abundantly clear that he values polluter profits over the well-being of the American people.
NRDC has been at the ready every inch of the way over the past year, stepping up to challenge Trump’s egregious attacks on our climate, air, water, wildlife, and wild spaces. Here, seven staff members share dispatches from the front lines of the resistance to Trump’s anti-environment agenda.
Defending Public Lands
Senior advocate, Land & Wildlife program
When President Trump said during his first month in office that he would take a hard look at monuments, Kabir Green knew right away that the administration had its sights set on Utah’s sprawling Bears Ears National Monument. “For a long time, it had been one of those special places that we just knew in our hearts needed to be protected,” he says of the 1.3 million acres of red rock, a region sacred to indigenous groups that President Obama designated for federal protection—and comanagement by an intertribal coalition—in late 2016.
In his work to generate support for the creation of Bears Ears, Green often found himself in Utah listening to the wishes and concerns of indigenous groups. He was then able to use NRDC’s bullhorn to amplify those local voices, to help tell, as he puts it, the story of an entire people—a first in his campaign work for NRDC. Sharing this cultural history inspired widespread support for Bears Ears, and monuments in general, from every corner of the country.
But unfortunately, his prediction was correct: On December 4, Trump signed a proclamation that would all but eliminate Bears Ears National Monument, shrinking its boundaries by 85 percent. Three days later, NRDC and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance—together with Earthjustice on behalf of nine other groups—filed a lawsuit against the administration to block this illegal action. It was a critically swift response made possible in no small part by Green’s continued on-the-ground coordination efforts. “Attempting to get rid of this monument isn’t just bad precedent for conservation—it’s a step backwards in history,” Green says. “It’s shameful. That’s what we’re fighting against.”
Keeping the Hope of Paris Alive
International climate advocate, International program and Climate & Clean Air program
Despite Trump’s attempt to derail the Paris Agreement by announcing his plan to withdraw the United States, the world is forging ahead without us. “Basically, everyone outside the U.S. is committed to Paris,” Han Chen said after attending this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, noting that more than 160 countries have recently begun the hard work of meeting their climate commitments.
There, her meetings with government officials, advocates, and researchers from around the globe focused squarely on the future. Together they plotted next steps for implementing the Paris Agreement and discussed strategies for phasing out dirty coal plants—and fossil fuels in general. Speaking at press conference organized by NRDC’s partners in India, Chen highlighted the important role the United States must play in helping the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Of course, Americans weren’t watching passively from the sidelines. While the Trump team made an embarrassing show of its devotion to fossil fuels at the conference, an inspiring coalition of state and city officials, NGOs, and private citizens were present in Bonn to show that Americans still support ambitious climate action.
“They’re saying, ‘Don’t be discouraged by what Trump is trying to do because he’s going to face a lot of resistance from most Americans. The U.S. is still in the agreement even if Trump is not,’” Chen explains.
Chen’s colleagues in NRDC’s Climate & Clean Air program are working to keep that determination alive by partnering with local municipalities that are still committed to meeting their climate targets, even while Trump attempts to dismantle federal policies like the Clean Power Plan, the rules around methane, and clean car standards. Chen complements those domestic efforts by fostering the resistance abroad. “Over the last few months, the important work for us has been making sure that other countries stand up to Trump,” she says, noting that she personally has encouraged several representatives to not back down from their own ambitious targets.
On the odd chance that the president reverses course on his Paris decision, Chen says the rest of the world should insist that his commitment be no less than what the United States originally agreed to. “He doesn’t get to have a ‘win’ on rejoining Paris if he’s basically weakened the entire basis of the agreement and is demonstrating that any country at any time can weaken its climate targets, can do less on climate action, and still get rewarded,” she explains. “They need to stand firm as an international community.”
Suing on Behalf of the Birds and the Bees
Senior attorney, Land & Wildlife program
An overwhelming 90 percent of Americans support the Endangered Species Act, and for good reason: Since its passage in 1973, it’s saved 99 percent of listed species from extinction. Despite its great success, however, our nation’s most critical law for protecting wildlife has faced numerous political challenges over the years, and under the current president, some lawmakers are doubling down on their efforts to cripple it.
While the law gets batted about in Congress, NRDC challenged the Trump administration in the courtroom for neglecting one of the newest additions to the list of species it protects. In an airtight case built by Rebecca Riley and her colleagues, NRDC sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February for its refusal to grant Endangered Species Act protections to the rusty patched bumblebee. The species has declined by 87 percent since the late 1990s and had been set to become the first bumblebee on the list that month. A few weeks later, Trump’s team reversed course.
“They knew what they did was completely illegal,” Riley says. “It was really satisfying to have an early victory over the Trump administration—to show that they’re going to try to do the wrong thing, but that the law will stop them. It was a first glimmer of hope for me.”
That first victory wasn’t the end of NRDC’s fight on behalf of endangered pollinators during Trump’s first year in office. Fast-forward to October, when Riley again was the lead attorney for another NRDC lawsuit—this time against Trump’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its approval of products containing deadly neonic pesticides. Numerous studies have shown that these toxic chemicals imperil butterflies, birds, and bees, including the rusty patched bumblebee.
“It’s one thing to put the species on the list—it’s a very important first step. But now we have to make sure the government is doing what it can to actually protect the species and ensure that it doesn’t go extinct,” Riley says.
Safeguarding America’s Clean Water
Senior attorney, Water program
In late June, when many Americans were out swimming and fishing in the early-summer heat, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s appointee as head of the EPA, was signing a proposal to take away protections for tens of millions of acres of wetlands, ponds, and small streams.
His action took aim at the Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the United States Rule, which protects not only waters we use for recreation but also those that supply the drinking taps of 117 million people. “It’s easy to dismiss this issue as wonky because it’s about a definition in the Clean Water Act,” Jon Devine says. “But it’s fundamentally about whether it’s OK to let certain kinds of waterbodies be dumped in, polluted, or destroyed.”
“The kinds of waters that are most impacted are not glamorous,” he continues. “But ecologically, they’re workhorses. They filter pollution, they curb flooding, they provide habitat for all kinds of critters―including a third of endangered or threatened species―and they feed into the drinking water supplies of one in three Americans.”
It was a dangerous move by the Trump administration—and yet another handout to industrial groups and developers who seek to undo regulations on their business practices, regardless of the public benefit of those regulations. Devine, who has focused his career on defending our aquatic resources from such attack, is ready to challenge a formal repeal of the Clean Water Rule—or the introduction of a weaker rule in its place—in court. (Along with members of the litigation team, Devine has already participated in NRDC lawsuits about the Clean Water Rule. Soon after the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers issued the rule in July 2015, business groups sued, claiming it protected too many waters. NRDC intervened on the side of the EPA and Army Corps to defend the rule, and that case that is currently pending before the Supreme Court.)
“The ferocity and the sort of comprehensiveness with which this administration is going after environmental protection is hard to overstate,” Devine says. “I started at NRDC early in the George W. Bush administration, and that was a challenging time. But this is unlike anything I’ve seen, ever.”
Leading the Way in California
California legislative director
When the California legislature adjourned on September 15, leaders referred to the session that had just ended as the most productive in memory. Whereas extreme polarization in Washington has led to paralysis at the federal level, lawmakers in the Golden State demonstrated the kind of bipartisan cooperation—on climate, transportation, parks, and more—that is essential to getting things done.
“California’s first year of progress under a new federal administration is more important than ever as Trump seeks to dismantle our most basic protections for public lands, our health, and our communities,” Victoria Rome says. “California has always been a leader on environmental issues, and since Trump’s election, it’s one place where we can still make progress.”
Indeed, as the president and his administration stifle climate action, cut funding for clean energy and energy efficiency programs, and threaten to repeal the Clean Power Plan for the benefit of their fossil fuel allies, Rome has spearheaded NRDC’s advocacy for progressive climate and energy policies in California, the world’s sixth-largest economy.
Rome is the organization’s day-to-day lobbyist in Sacramento. Her relationships with decision makers, her efforts facilitating meetings between NRDC experts and state legislators, and her work helping staff prepare testimony, crafting letters and fact sheets, and building a coalition of supporters have helped secure some impressive recent victories. Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills into law that extend the state’s cap-and-trade program through 2030, and a companion bill to improve air quality. These wins built on the success of a two-bill package from the previous year that requires California to reduce its carbon pollution by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030—the toughest emissions target in North America.
While Rome is focused on her home state, she also points to the broader implications these policies will have for the nation. A dozen states across the country, for example, have already adopted California’s 2012 emissions-reducing clean car standards, which the Golden State voted to reaffirm in March of this year. “In addition to pursuing aggressive policies that are good for California, I think people see this as a place where they can test good policies that may then become models for other states and other countries,” Rome says.
Fighting for the Oceans
Senior advocate, Oceans program
When Alexandra Adams talks about the process leading up to the Obama administration’s decision to permanently ban oil and gas drilling in most of the country’s Arctic waters and huge portions of the Atlantic Ocean, and to remove these areas completely from the nation’s 2017–2022 offshore drilling plan, she recalls the high value placed on public input. “They took information that they received from communities, from business leaders, from mayors and governors, and they incorporated that into their decision making,” she says. “People felt like they were being listened to.”
But six months later, under the Trump administration, that input was ignored. Indeed, the only voices that seemed to matter on April 28, when Trump signed an executive order seeking to open up those off-limits areas, were the oil and gas companies that would be the beneficiaries of new drilling opportunities. In turn, NRDC and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Trump’s action. The new administration also proceeded to scrap the five-year leasing plan (2017–2022) that the previous administration had spent a great deal of time, money, and effort crafting.
Meanwhile, the administration is moving to lift all drilling safety regulations, Adams notes, and to speed the undoing of protections for marine mammals where these conservation measures bump up against industry interests. “This is the most extreme stuff we’ve seen in a really long time,” she says.
Like her NRDC colleagues, Adams is more committed than ever to stopping Trump’s assault on our treasured marine areas. In addition to advancing the legislative fights—both current and potential—she has worked with community groups to help amplify coastal citizens’ voices and help the public weigh in. Despite widespread opposition to offshore drilling in these communities, Trump’s secretary of the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, is set to announce a new five-year plan that will almost certainly put many of our coasts’ protections on the chopping block.
“The ocean is vast, but it can’t take all of the punishment this administration is planning,” says Adams, who grew up in a coastal area and feels a personal connection to the communities, livelihoods, and economies that depend on fishing, seaside tourism, and recreation. “There’s never been a more important time to be doing this work. The hard-fought gains that came out of the last administration, and the many years before that, are at risk. But that doesn’t mean that we stop. We double down now and we fight back.”
Speaking Out for Public Health
Kristi Pullen Fedinick
Staff scientist, Health program
The increasing attack on scientists in the Trump age has renewed Kristi Pullen Fedinick’s devotion to her own scientific work. “It has really showed me the importance of the types of analysis we do,” she says.
In a time when conspiracy theories and scientific myths are propagated for political gain, the need to defend facts is more urgently felt than ever. What’s more, as NRDC’s Health program makes clear, people’s lives depend on access to accurate information. Fedinick focuses mainly on two areas, drinking water quality and ways to evaluate the potential hazards of chemicals in our environment—areas where the Trump administration has already tried to cut corners.
Unlike her NRDC colleagues challenging the Trump agenda in courtrooms and on Capitol Hill, Fedinick crafts resistance mostly behind the scenes through her rigorous research. Her comprehensive studies form the backbone of reports like the May 2017 Threats on Tap paper, which exposed the proliferation of contaminants in drinking water systems across the United States.
“These studies help illustrate the power of data to inform national discussions and provide easily accessible resources for everyday people interested in learning more about the state of their drinking water, enabling all of us, even in a time of rampant misinformation, to have facts at our fingertips,” she says.
What’s more, in the Trump age, these studies support the efforts of NRDC’s attorneys to fend off Trump’s environmental assaults. For example, through her work for another analysis, What’s in Your Water? Flint and Beyond, Fedinick provided an important backdrop for NRDC’s legal challenge—and eventual victory—to secure safe drinking water in the Michigan city. The report mapped the extensive lead-related issues plaguing drinking water systems across the United States, while outlining EPA violations and the agency’s record of enforcement—or lack thereof.
“It’s really an honor and a privilege to be in a position to ensure that the truth can come to light,” she says.
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