Debate: In the United States, environmental activists are organising their resistance

An American environmental activist at the climate summit in San Francisco, California, in September 2018. Josh Edelson/AFP

While environmental issues weren’t at the core of the campaign for the U.S. midterm elections, Donald Trump’s climate-change denialism and full assault on the regulations put in place under Barack Obama have generated a broad and often effective response. Transformed into a referendum on Trump and his presidency, the midterm campaign was dominated by issues that amplified the ideological divide and fuelled the President’s demagoguery.

From the drama surrounding the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the acts of domestic terror culminating in the attack to the Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue that left 11 people dead, to the caravan of Central-American migrants trying to reach the US-Mexico border, the news cycle has almost always focused on broader national subjects, further confirming the inexorable and often toxic “Trump-centric” nature of the political conversation.

Trump’s anti-environment activism

Hardly mentioned – by the media, Trump’s opponents and even the president himself – has been one of the most remarkable achievements of his administration: the embrace of an overtly anti-environmentalist philosophy and the ensuing adoption of a barrage of measures aimed at reversing many of the policies adopted in the previous decade.

Acting primarily via executive orders or through orders to federal bureaucracies on how to interpret and apply the existing legislation, the Trump administration has effectively dismantled many of the regulations and policies introduced by his predecessor. It has removed obstacles to drilling in waters and national parks, repealed Obama’s plan for the reduction of harmful emissions, pulled out of the 2015 COP21 international agreement, packed the courts with climate-change deniers, slashed funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while appointing to key federal posts figures with close ties to the fossil-fuel industry.

Trump is often ridiculed for his inability to deliver on his promises; during his two years in office he has suffered numerous political and legislative setbacks. When it comes to the environment, however, he can certainly boast of his success in reversing what had been attained in the previous decade, both nationally and internationally.

The Democrats are under pressure

But if we look more carefully at what has been (and is) going on, we see a more complex picture. Trump’s offensive has generated a broad and effective resistance, with local governments and legislatures adopting measures aimed at containing or even blocking many administration initiatives. As during previous midterm elections, those of 2018 produced a nationalisation of the debate and side-lined of many local issues. In a campaign centred on Trump, the anti-Trump camp has come to fully embrace environmental proposals and platforms once contested even among many democrats. Today, one cannot run as a Democrat without unequivocally supporting a reduction of CO2 emissions, investments in renewables and protection of vulnerable habitats.

Meanwhile, multiple polls reveal a broad opposition to Trump’s policies and philosophy. Buoyed by good economic results and growing energy self-sufficiency, Americans aren’t particularly concerned about the availability and affordability of energy, one of the main justifications behind Trump’s deregulatory frenzy. According to the latest Gallup poll, those who worry “a great deal” about energy prices and potential scarcity are down to 25%, the lowest level ever since 2002, when Gallup began this poll, and almost half the percentage of 2012. Climate change remains a very partisan issue and the inexorable “Trumpization” of the Republican Party has further intensified the divide. Polls clearly indicate this cleavage: less than 5% of registered democrats think that scientists are exaggerating global warming, whereas 70% of Republicans think that to be the case.

Independents closer to Democrats

A large majority of independents hold views that are closer to those of the Democrats, a clear majority of Americans believe in human-driven climate change, and the younger generation considers it a major threat that requires swift political action. In addition to the age divide, there are of course major regional differences. In political and economically heavyweight states, this environmental sensitiveness is even more acute. California – by distance the largest state in terms of population and wealth – is a perfect example. Polls shows broad opposition to every Trump’s initiative from off-shore drilling to elimination of automobile emissions standards. Californians have never considered the environmental positions of a candidate more important than in 2018.

The same applies to many other states. And in this electoral cycle, Americans voted not only for the 435 seats of the House, 35 of the Senate, 36 out of 50 governors, and 87 out of 99 legislative assemblies, but also for many state referenda on environmental issues. These range from Alaska’s initiative on the protection of wide salmon habitat protection to Colorado’s ballot on the minimum distance requirements for new oil, gas, and fracking projects.

A range of counter-measures

Almost two years with Trump in power have taught us a very important lesson: Effective resistance to the administration’s policies has often been promoted locally, horizontally and transnationally. Many cities and states have continued, and even intensified, their actions, renewing their commitment to respect the objectives of the COP21 accord, and launching ambitious new initiatives. A bipartisan coalition of governors – the United States Climate Alliance – has been formed after Trump’s election to uphold the objectives of the accord. California approved a bill that set the goal of achieving 100% clean electric power by 2045; other states updated their renewable mandates to much more ambitious targets; cities often led the way, implementing bold pilot projects or joining consortia – at the national and global level – where experiences, policies and expertise can travel and be exchanged. The United States remains the primary actor of the international system; its actions and choices are fundamental in fostering or weakening today’s yet partial and insufficient machinery of world governance.

When it comes to the environment, it’s surely impossible to overlook the damage the Trump administration has inflicted on the national and global efforts to address climate change. However, the midterm elections tell us that policies are done at many different levels. While not always visible or discussed, highly effective counter-measures have been adopted and will be implemented in the future.

This article was originally published in French