One of the few things that Donald Trump has been able to do as US President is unravel many of the environmental protection measures enacted by the Obama Administration. This is profoundly important as the United States is one of the biggest polluters in the world and therefore any attempt to genuinely tackle climate change would need the support of the US government. The nature of this problem requires countries across the world collaborating, and if the US chooses to neglect its duty to the rest of the globe it falls to we the people.
The immediate response to Trump’s actions have largely been negative. Senior Democratic politicians lined up to deride the President’s actions. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the ranking Democrat on the Senate environment and public works subcommittee, claimed that the Trump Administration had been “captured by the fossil fuel industry”. Gina McCarthy, a from EPA administrator, said that the White House wanted to take America back “to when smokestacks damaged our health and polluted our air”. The most interesting aspect of this domestic criticism came from over a week ago. ExxonMobil, the US’ largest oil company, sent a letter to the White House on 22nd March calling on the President to remain party to the Paris Agreement.
The criticism wasn’t limited to the US. The Chinese government, who are also one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon, made their thoughts known in the Global Times, a state-owned newspaper. The paper ran an editorial which included this stinging paragraph: “The strength of the US allows it to act wilfully [sic], regardless of international opinion. If Beijing or Moscow threaten to quit the Paris Agreement, it will face enormous pressure from the international community. Many Western media have criticized Trump’s decision, but their calls sound somewhat feeble”. In addition to this condemnation, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the “rest of the world will continue” the fight against climate change. In some sense it’s quite an achievement because it’s normally quite hard to piss off Kofi Annan.
Unless you are a GOP hardliner who bathes in oil of an evening, the news out of Washington was bad. But rather than wallow in self-pity, we need to organise to do whatever we can. The amount that each individual can do is limited by a number of factors so I’m not going to give a list of everything that conceivably done. However, the old maxim of the environmental movement is ‘think global, act local’, and in-keeping with this spirit I am going to do is put the case for small changes that, when done en masse, can make substantial change.
According to the US EPA “a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year”. As the agency points out this is contingent on the usage and the fuel-efficiency but let’s take this figure for the sake of argument. If my maths is correct, the average daily amount of carbon dioxide emitted is 12.87 kilogrammes, but for ease let’s round it up to 13 kg. If an individual decided to not use their car on a random day of the week, Wednesday for example, and instead chose to walk, cycle or get the bus, their carbon footprint would massively drop. Specifically, that person would reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by over 670 kilogrammes per year. Further, if this individual organised their neighbourhood or community to do the same, this saving can rapidly multiply.
If you live in a city then a substantial change would be to embrace the ‘Go Dutch’ campaign and agitate for action by local representatives. A quick summary of the campaign is to redesign towns and cities to be safer for, and more appealing to, cyclists. Campaigners often embrace measures like reinforced cycle lanes and bike hire schemes, thus reducing the amount of traffic on the roads. If this campaign was adopted in the US the benefits would be immense. According to the 2010 US census, around 80% of people live in urban areas. If environmentalists organised to redesign their cities in this way, the scope for reductions in carbon emissions is astronomical.
Take Los Angeles as an example. The infamous 405 highway is often seen clogged up with traffic and runs right through the heart of the city. If communities from Long Beach to Burbank were totally redesigned to promote cycling and discourage driving, traffic would decrease, dramatically reducing emissions and improving air quality. This isn’t a utopian fantasy as the campaign is literally designed to take a successful strategy and implement it elsewhere. Given how California is considered one of the best states when it comes to awareness of environmental issues, such a campaign would capture the public’s imagination and push pressure on the city council to act.
The third and final thing would be to make small dietary changes. The amount of carbon emitted in the farming of cattle is a well known contributor to the green house effect. If people wanted to reduce emissions then reducing their consumption of beef, and meat more generally, would do this. I’m not advocating veganism because bacon is delicious, but making a conscious decision to replace meat in your diet every now and then would be a good start. This is particularly true in the case of poorer communities. Meat is quite an expensive commodity in comparison with other groceries, so I reject the idea that reducing meat consumption is somehow a bourgeois thing that working class people cannot do. In many instances this change is good for the environment and saves money.
To conclude, Trump’s rejection of climate science is nothing new and to be brutally honest I’m not surprised that he went about undoing the work of the Obama Administration. But the response to this massive step backwards cannot just be people laying into one another on Twitter. The anger felt by Trump’s actions should galvanise people into action. Getting organised is always the answer. Coming together with other like-minded people can bypass any governmental institution crippled by corruption.
People have a perception that environmentalism is a preserve of the affluent middle classes because things like solar panels and electric cars are expensive. However there are inexpensive changes in behaviour which, if done by enough people, can make a significant difference. Obviously not everyone can buy insulation or solar panels to make their homes more energy efficient, but lobbying local government to create a different sort of town would be an effective measure.
Don’t underestimate the power of local government. Many people think that they’ve not got much power in comparison with national authorities, and whilst this is true that doesn’t mean that city councils can do nothing. Planning regulations, street design, government contracts are all the responsibility of local government. If a citizens group can get support from the community, representatives will have to act of face losing their jobs. This is where the environmental movement must focus in Trump’s America, and the people must be the ones to mitigate his disastrous climate policies.