By David Wolfe
March 28, 2017

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump is expected to release an executive order that rolls back Obama-era environmental protections. This plan should worry anyone who cares about the environment or America’s economic future, as it takes the country backward in global climate change leadership. Instead of galvanizing public and private forces to meet today’s energy and environmental challenges, Trump will essentially surrender that responsibility to other nations.

The order will reportedly expand energy extraction on public lands and gut the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce emissions from outmoded and heavily polluting power plants and provide businesses with financial incentives for expanding new technologies such as wind and solar farms. Trump’s latest actions come on the heels of a proposed 31% cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget and a directive for the EPA to review motor vehicle energy-efficiency standards that were also put in place under Obama.

Trump’s climate and energy policy is based on the false premise that a world with safeguards for clean air and water and a stable climate is incompatible with economic growth. It reflects a fear of change, rather than a worldview that seeks to turn our environmental challenges into economic opportunities.

No one can argue that much of our economic growth during the 19th and 20th centuries owes to the discovery and use of fossil fuels. However, this is the 21st century. The costly impacts of fossil fuel extraction and burning have become apparent, and we are now on the brink of another and inevitable transition—one built on meeting our energy needs without the generation of planet-warming greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. Many economists have argued that this transition will not only reduce the negative consequences of unabated climate change, but will be an economic boon for those nations who lead the efforts.

What Americans need now is for their leaders to allow and facilitate this transition. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, political leaders did not attempt to squash this innovation to protect those industries producing lamps run on gas or whale oil. When Henry Ford came up with a more efficient way to manufacture cars, he was not thwarted by political leaders obsessed with protecting the horse-and-buggy industry.

These innovators’ visions are what “made America great” in the first place. Today, Washington should design policies that support coal industry communities during this time of transition. But it should also nudge the fossil fuel industry toward diversification and new business opportunities with clean energy technology and renewables. We need both private and public leadership that embrace a creative vision for the future, not nostalgia for the past.

For America to remain a global power, it must be at the forefront of the transition to clean energy. This will also spare the U.S. from the mounting costs of coping with the negative impacts of climate change on infrastructure, human health, and national security. Prior to Trump’s taking the White House, both Republican and Democrat administrations supported the National Climate Assessment effort, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in collaboration with other government agencies, to provide critical resources for communities and businesses to help cope with climate change risks, improve energy efficiency, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now Trump wants to strip these agencies of their climate change programs.

Regardless of the new administration’s position on climate change, the private sector is starting to take action. In 2015, more than 80 powerhouse U.S. companies became signatories of the “American Business Act on Climate.” These businesses, which include Walmart, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, pledged support for a strong international deal on climate change and committed to taking action such as prioritizing renewable energy options and pledging net-zero deforestation in their supply chains.

These companies recognize that climate change awareness and preparedness makes good business sense. The tech firms have opportunities in providing software to help communities and business leaders cope with climate change. As food producers, Walmart, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola are looking ahead to sourcing their products from locations not suffering from climate change. Instead, they are exploring new areas that might become more agriculturally viable due to climate shifts.

The same goes for the agriculture industry. Many farmers I know are not all comfortable with the highly politicized phrase “climate change” or convinced about its causes. However, they have come to recognize that they must cope with more extreme and less predictable weather than previous generations had to face. Farmers can no longer rely on the historical weather patterns for their region to tell them when to plant, what to plant, or how to grow it.

One promising development is climate-smart farming, which involves using digital technology and mobile apps to help farmers make decisions based on weather forecasts, satellite data, and field sensors that measure plant health. Investment in new research and infrastructure to support these initial climate-proof farming efforts will be essential for our nation’s continuing food security. But this funding is nowhere to be seen in Trump’s executive order or recently proposed budget to Congress.

 

In the absence of government support, business and community leaders are exploring creative solutions for coping with climate change. An example of a win-win strategy is the “Soil Health Partnership,” a collaboration among the National Corn Growers Association, Walmart, Monsanto, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and university researchers. It turns out that changing farming practices to increase the organic matter in soils not only increases crop productivity, but also buffers farmers from an increasing frequency of short-term droughts and flooding, and better captures carbon in the soil that would otherwise be in the air as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

While such efforts are mitigating climate change’s effects for now, they’ll eventually need the full support of the U.S. government if they hope to tackle this monumental challenge. And if the U.S. doesn’t lead the way in stopping global warming, other nations will fill the vacuum. China, for instance, appears ready to step forward in this role, and is already dominating the solar industry.

Fortunately, Trump’s executive order will have to overcome legal hurdles, during which time Republicans and Democrats can reflect on its implications. Reducing frivolous and unwarranted regulations is one thing, but we simply can’t afford another do-nothing Congress on climate change. Policymakers need to instead empower business and community leaders who are building climate change resilience and developing economically viable energy solutions.

David Wolfe is professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, and chair of Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future Climate Change Consortium. The views expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

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