'Climate Change Has A Cost': The Trump Administration's Environmental Rollbacks During COVID-19

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Protesters hold signs during a rally and protest by government workers and concerned citizens at Post Office Square near the Federal building, headquarters for the EPA and IRS in Boston, on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters hold signs during a rally and protest by government workers and concerned citizens at Post Office Square near the Federal building, headquarters for the EPA and IRS in Boston, on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

The Trump administration has been busy during the pandemic, reshaping and rolling back long-standing environmental regulations on water, air and climate change.

The administration has been trying to push through its deregulatory agenda before the upcoming election, says Kendra Pierre-Louis, senior reporter for the Gimlet climate podcast "How to Save a Planet." The broader context surrounding the more than 100 environmental regulation rollbacks is important to consider.

“It's been an unusually hot summer. We've had eight hurricanes and there's a really strong chance that we're about to have our ninth named storm,” she says. “These rules have real-life repercussions.”

One of these rules is the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, which created a review process for assessing the environmental impact of federal projects such as building highways or energy plants.

The rollback of NEPA narrows the scope of projects that have to go through the environmental review process, she says. But even before the rollback, only 1% of federal projects go through an intensive environmental review.

The review process makes agencies consider alternatives that reduce the negative impacts of the original plan, such as building a highway around a protected habitat instead of through it, she says. Now, even fewer projects will go through this process.

“Even when a project has to go through that process, you don't have to consider climate as one of the potential environmental impacts,” she says, “which many people are interpreting as a giveaway to pipelines because pipelines have a really large climate effect on top of their broader environmental footprint.”

Plus, the environmental impact studies can now take only one to two years, which many people say isn’t possible. Trump says a longer review process is too much red tape, while Democrats say they plan to fight the change.

Over the past 50 to 60 years, broader requirements for clean air and water have been enacted to regulate pollution, she says.

The Obama administration created the Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from facilities that burn coal. The policy resulted from a lawsuit that said the Environmental Protection Agency had to regulate carbon emissions.

The Trump administration’s rolled-back plan doesn’t go as far as the Obama-era law. Legal challenges could undo changes like this, she says.

At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, the administration created environmental legislation without going through the proper process, she says, which resulted in a series of lawsuits. Now that the administration follows the process, another administration could undo the rollbacks the same way.

But that depends on what Congress looks like — and time is running out. A new study finds that best-case climate scenarios likely won’t happen.

“Even if there was a change in administration that wanted more environmental regulations, every day that we don't reduce carbon emissions is a problem,” she says. “Every additional unit of carbon that's emitted into the atmosphere is a problem.”

Every ton of carbon dioxide released has an economic impact that can include damaged infrastructure, sea-level rise and weather events. The General Accounting Office recently released a report that lowballs the cost of damage done by greenhouse gas emissions.

The new numbers are seven times lower than the Obama administration's accounting, which set the social cost of carbon at about $82 a ton. The Trump administration says it's about $11.

Experts agree that the Trump administration’s costs are too low, Pierre-Louis says. Some of the most expensive costs from disasters during a single year have been tied to climate change.

In 2017, 40% of the rainfall that devastated the Houston region during Hurricane Harvey was linked to climate change, for example.

“It's really difficult to have a billion-dollar disaster year after billion-dollar disaster year and not acknowledge that there is a real human and economic cost associated with that,” she says.

In early April, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era fuel economy standards. The Trump administration says it will make cars cheaper, which is better for the economy. But analysts say cheaper cars using more gas is more expensive over the lifetime of a car.

The Obama administration set out to reduce fleet-wide averages to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Trump administration dropped this goal to about 40 miles per gallon, she says.

The Trump administration also argues the rule will save lives because people with old cars will buy new cars with higher safety standards. The rule will also release about 1 billion tons more carbon dioxide and burn 80 billion more gallons of gas.

“But the thing that they're not factoring into that assessment is the number of lives that climate change will claim,” she says. “Climate change has a cost.”

An EPA proposal in June to overhaul clean air rules would only weigh the economic impact of proposed rules without accounting for costs to public health.

During the pandemic, the Trump administration stopped enforcing some pollution rules. Facilities that release over a certain level of pollution need to report it to the government, but the Trump administration put a pause on this during COVID-19, she says.

COVID-19 causes respiratory issues and air pollution makes the disease worse, she says. Research suggests higher exposure to air pollution throughout a person’s life makes them more likely to die from the disease.

“There's this mismatch in terms of what we're valuing and that's only exacerbated by these kinds of regulatory changes,” she says. “It's essentially prioritizing the interests of corporations over the interests of the people who live in this country.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 28, 2020.


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