Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump Further Endanger the Planet

On September 20th, in New York, while the United Nations General
Assembly was in session, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, spoke with a
group of reporters about how he might persuade President Donald Trump to
do something—anything—to address climate change. Efforts to get the
United States to remain in the Paris accords had not been going well,
Macron said. (Trump had announced his intention to leave, but, as a
practical matter, that will take time.) This was largely owing to the
fact, Macron added, that what the Trump Administration proposed—namely,
to renegotiate the accord—was “something we do not accept.” But Macron,
with his technically minded optimism, had a plan. Trump might never like
Paris because it was an “Obama deal,” and because he believed that his
voters were against it, Macron said, but those same voters were now
confronting the reality of climate change in the form of escalating
hurricanes. (This was the same day that Hurricane Maria made landfall in
Puerto Rico.) But Macron seemed to know that Trump likes to win. “I
think what we need is for President Trump to find something belonging to
him regarding climate, if you want my personal opinion of that.”

Fareed Zakaria, one of the journalists present, asked if Macron was
suggesting that Trump should be allowed to “declare victory”—so that he
could feel that doing something for the planet was a win for him. “Yes,
I’m fine with that,” Macron said. “What I want to convince him is to not
break what we have.” A few minutes later, Macron added that his own
definition of victory was just “to deliver,” without having to plant a
flag. “And now I think the best way to proceed with your President is to
find—to open, I would say—a solution where he can be the leader of
something new on climate.”

This raised another question: What if Trump’s basic agenda and goals on
climate were very different from Macron’s? The French President had an
answer for that, too. “You cannot be the leader of the free world” and
not deal with climate, he said. He believed that Trump could be “lucid”
about “the necessity to deal with this issue.” He was, after all, a
pragmatic man.

Those words had a dissonant echo on Monday, when the Trump
Administration announced that it would indeed do something about climate
change: it would make the situation worse. As had been expected, Scott
the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said at an event in
Kentucky that he would formally move to repeal what the E.P.A.’s Web
site referred to as “the so-called ‘Clean Power Plan.’ ” That plan had
been central to the United States’ commitment, under Paris, to reduce
power-plant emissions by an estimated thirty per cent in coming years.
Without it, there is no hope of meeting those goals even outside the
framework of the accord; the decision will have a negative effect on the
world’s chances of keeping the increase in global temperature below
certain calamitous thresholds, on America’s influence in the world, and,
as other countries move ahead on more sustainable technologies, on the
competitiveness of the nation’s industries. Pruitt put aside estimates
that the cleaner air resulting from the implementation of the plan would
have prevented tens of thousands of deaths from respiratory diseases.
The E.P.A. press release also celebrated the grand isolationism of the
move, saying that the agency, in calculating the costs of the rules,
would no longer account for certain “supposed global benefits.”

“The war on coal is over,” Pruitt said in Kentucky, where he was joined
by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Clean Power Plan, as he
saw it, had really just been “about picking winners and losers”—as if
the whole climate-change thing had been concocted as the result of a
grudge against fossil fuels (Pruitt’s past skepticism about climate
science suggests that he might believe this) or to help China triumph
(as his boss has implied). Pruitt complained that rules led to things
like lawsuits, which slowed down the economy. (The implementation of the
Clean Power Plan had already been delayed, as it happens, by a lawsuit
that Pruitt had helped bring as the attorney general of Oklahoma.)
Pruitt, one of several members of the Administration whose use of
private planes has come under scrutiny, further praised the move against
the Clean Power Plan in a broad paean to small government. “Let me tell
you something, the E.P.A.—and no federal agency—should ever use its
authority to say to you we’re going to declare war on any sector of our
economy. That’s wrong.”

As Pruitt spoke about winners and losers, wildfires were consuming
thousands of homes in Northern California, killing at least fifteen
people and scorching more than a hundred thousand acres. Puerto Ricans,
meanwhile, were still struggling to get clean water. Three weeks after
Hurricane Maria struck, the electric grid on the island is still largely
down; most of those who have power are getting it from diesel-burning
backup generators. As Jon Lee Anderson writes in a report from Puerto
Trump’s visit there last week did little to counter the residents’ sense
of abandonment. It may be hard to isolate the cause of a single storm or
fire, but the science makes it clear that climate change increases the
intensity and the frequency of both. If, as expected, Tropical Storm
Ophelia reaches hurricane strength later this week, it will be the tenth
consecutive such storm to become a hurricane—the highest number in more
than a century. (There have been five major hurricanes this year, and
three that hit land as Category 4 hurricanes—another record.) The Miami
Herald pointed to a different measure: the current accumulated cyclone
energy, which, it
is “254 percent higher than average with seven weeks left in the

In recent decades, Congress’s response to climate change, and indeed
that of the entire American political system, has been woefully
inadequate. This failure is often framed in passive terms: as
negligence, an overattachment to an oil-rich status quo, or a simple
unwillingness to deal with problems that seem far in the future. But, in
setting out to reverse the measures taken by the Obama Administration,
Trump has moved into the realm of the active facilitation of disaster.
Trump’s leadership had been “impactful and strong,” Pruitt said. “He had
the courage, the fortitude to say to the world in June of this year that
the Paris accord was wrong for this country, it was wrong for America.
He put America first and said to the rest of the world, We’re going to
say no.”

Last month, in New York, Macron also told journalists that he had the
sense that there were people around Trump who had doubts about
abandoning Paris. (And there are, including, at least at one point,
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.) When a reporter asked if he thought that
Trump shared those doubts, Macron’s eager energy seemed, for a second,
to flag. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.” The answer may be
clearer now.

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