For the past four years, our climatic and ecological systems have suffered at the hands of an administration that has routinely ignored science, sensibility, and security. With the Biden-Harris administration slated for inauguration in January 2021, the Trump administration’s time in the White House is coming to an end and they’re using the remainder of their tenure to solidify anti-environment rules.
In a string of events over the past two months, the Trump administration has made last-ditch efforts to set in stone numerous positions, orders, and policies that would be difficult, although not impossible, to undo under a new administration.
NOAA and the National Climate Assessment
The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) is one of the leading federal agencies on climate science and research, and an agency that has conflicted with the Trump administration in the past.
In late September, the White House appointed Ryan Maue chief scientist of NOAA, a position that dictates where NOAA will prioritize its research and sets the tone for how the agency speaks on issues like climate change. Previously, Maue had been connected to the Cato Institute, a think tank founded by Charles Koch that has questioned the science behind anthropogenic climate change. In 2018, Maue also co-wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that severely downplayed the rate at which the Earth is warming. While not a full-blown climate denier, Maue’s climate skepticism at the helm of NOAA brings into question how the agency will shift on climate research and how it conveys its findings.
Before the appointment of Maue, the Trump administration had also hired David Legates, a climatologist “who has spent much of his career questioning basic tenets of climate science,” to serve as the deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction at NOAA. Legates has long questioned the reality of climate change and has ties to the Heartland Institute, a think tank known for its climate denial, which puts another climate denier in a NOAA leadership position.
After the election in November, Legates was elevated to a new position. It was announced that he would replace the lead scientist in charge of the National Climate Assessment. The assessment is led by the Global Change Research Program and consists of a comprehensive analysis of climate change impacts in the United States; the program is comprised of 13 different federal agencies and the assessment’s next edition is set to be released in 2023. With Legates leading the report, and Maue leading oversight, the Trump administration seems to be trying to politicize the assessment and disrupt the already ongoing process.
FERC and Clean Energy
At the end of September, the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) held a technical conference on carbon pricing and independent systems operators that was led by then Chairman, Neil Chatterjee. The conference aimed to create a more intentional discussion of how a carbon pricing mechanism could be deployed, and possibly controlled, by FERC to lower electricity sector emissions. Many stakeholders supported the initiative to hold this conference, as well as a similar conference on offshore wind.
In early November, per the order of the Trump administration, Chatterjee was removed as FERC Chairman — some speculate that his removal might be a retaliatory move for his pro-climate and clean energy statements. His replacement is Commissioner James Danly, a more conservative energy official who has criticized Chatterjee’s moves to advance carbon pricing. While Danly now serves as FERC Chairman — a tenure slated to end June 2021 — a Biden administration could reverse course and nominate any sitting Commissioner to be Chairman once he’s inaugurated.
While FERC undergoes a seemingly politically-charged reshuffling, the Department of Energy (DOE) grapples with the suppression of critical clean energy research. In-depth reporting from Grist and InvestigateWest reveals how Dan Simmons, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, has been stifling as many as 40 clean energy studies that highlight the benefits of scaling up renewables. Since the reports from the DOE can “drive investment decisions,” clean energy advocates worry that this suppression of research could “hurt U.S. competitiveness on clean energy innovation.”
This seems to be a common thread under the Trump administration, and something we talked about extensively on our Cooler Earth podcast with Lauren Kurtz, Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Kurtz touched on the specific case of Maria Caffrey, a climate scientist who blew the whistle on the suppression of science running rampant in federal agencies under Trump and subsequently lost her job. The happenings in DOE are nothing new, federal agencies have been censoring scientists from all fields under this administration, but the efforts to stymie our clean energy future are just now coming to light.
Lauren Kurtz on Cooler Earth
Indigenous land and the ANWR
In Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is home to over 19 million acres of pristine, untouched wilderness. In his last days in the White House, Trump has initiated the process for selling off that public land for oil and natural gas exploration and development. To add insult to injury, the sale of land leases is set to begin January 6th, meaning President-elect Biden would need to work to rectify this issue almost immediately after he’s sworn in. As of now, all major U.S. banks have stated they have no plans to fund drilling in the ANWR, but the Treasury Department tried enforcing a rule that would force banks to lend to drilling efforts. It’s unclear whether that rule will be implemented before the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden.
The potential development of oil and gas infrastructure in the ANWR would wreak havoc on an ecosystem that has historically been preserved and protected, and land that has long been sacred to Indigenous peoples and their ways of life. In response to the move to sell off ANWR land, Gwich’in, an Alaskan native tribe, filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior. The suit argues that fossil fuel developments in the coastal plain of the ANWR would not only jeopardize efforts to combat climate change but would also impact Porcupine Caribou populations. In the statement announcing the Gwich’in lawsuit, the groups write:
“The Coastal Plain is one of the most important natural, cultural, and subsistence resources to the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in of Arctic Village and Venetie and to the Gwich’in people as a whole[…]Any impacts to the Porcupine Caribou Herd from changes in migration patterns, lower fertility rates, and loss of habitat will have significant adverse social, cultural, spiritual, and subsistence impacts on our people. This process must be stopped.”
The selling off of the ANWR does nothing except pad the pockets of fossil fuel corporations and infringe upon the rights of Indigenous people, all the while threatening their social and cultural values. The expansion of domestic oil and gas capacity also locks us into an economy centered on fossil fuels and extraction, a model that is no longer acceptable — or sustainable — amid climate and ecological crises.
The Biden administration provides a newfound hope in the return of scientific integrity to the White House, but he’s going to have a lot of work to do to correct course. Trump has dismantled 84 different climate and environmental regulations and protections, some of which can be undone with an executive order, but others will take longer, especially if Biden plans to rewrite the rules to be more stringent. The new administration will have their work cut out for them, but they’ll need to act swiftly to avoid irreversible damage to our planetary systems and to protect frontline, vulnerable communities from unnecessary harm.