On the environment, Californians fight back against Trump

Gov. Jerry Brown speaking
Anna Vignet/File

A year ago, there were two.

One, a diplomatic, thoughtful, composed intellectual. The other, an impetuous showman with a taste for turmoil.

Both were vying for the most powerful job in the world. Now, just one has a spot in the Oval Office.

“President Donald Trump,” they call him.

He makes callous phone calls and scribbles his thorny signature across half-baked executive orders. He smooths his orange palms across the old English wood of the Resolute desk: the Oval Office bureau refined by Camelot, tamed by The Great Communicator, polished with the audacity of hope.

And he tweets. Oh, he tweets.

During his short tenure, just under 300 days, Trump has presided over a period of political chaos. Firings by the month, dysfunction in the Capitol, Russia investigations, natural disasters, lies, gaffes and disturbances have managed to sweep across world headlines and dominate the American psyche.

But amidst the cacophony, Donald Trump has had quieter personal successes, particularly with his international and environmental agendas.

“During his short tenure, just under 300 days, Trump has presided over a period of political chaos.”

On the environment, he has paved the way for climate deniers and science skeptics to hijack the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and use bureaucracy as a political tool for censorship and deregulation. (The climate change EPA web page is still unavailable.) He has led millions of Americans to doubt the basic concepts of truth, facts, evidence and science. He has dismantled America’s global climate change agenda by taking steps to formally withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. National Geographic keeps a running list of environmental assaults committed by the Trump administration as a way of monitoring the national government’s anti-science crusade.

On foreign policy, Trump’s scattered vision of the world — full of “America First” rhetoric, disregard for postwar precedents and institutions, praise of dictators, criticism of allies and condemnation of diplomacy in favor of Twitter provocation — has heavily diminished U.S. standing abroad and has allowed for nations such as China to step into leadership roles, particularly on climate change.

Like his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s international and environmental decisions will have consequences that extend decades beyond his presidency. That is where his legacy lies.

California: A poster child

As Washington diminishes American credibility and environmental commitment both at home and around the globe, there is still hope for functional democracy, sound leadership and a future where environmental protection and international collaboration are valued in California.

According to former California State assemblyman, president of Children Now and campus political science lecturer Ted Lempert, California has been setting the national standard for many decades on environmental leadership.

“Certainly, Gov. (Jerry) Brown has been a huge leader on environmental issues — he was pushing an environmental agenda back when he was first governor … in the 1970s,” Lempert said. “(Republican) Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a significant leader in the field, too.”

Lempert noted that, in the past, important pieces of California legislation have informed policies in other states as well as at the federal level. In 2012, the Obama administration implemented a set of stringent national fuel economy standards, which were based on California’s AB 1493, authored by then-state senator Fran Pavley in 2002.

California’s environmental leadership is possible not just because the state is one of six in the nation with a Democratic trifecta (where the state legislature and governor are of the same party), but because Californians — as a whole — have chosen to make climate change a priority.

“We’re talking about science, about how to protect the planet — it really shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

— Ted Lempert

“In California, at least, there’s been a fair amount of bipartisan agreement that (the environment) is important,” Lempert said. “We’re talking about science, about how to protect the planet — it really shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

In July 2017, Brown signed into law an extension of California’s cap and trade program until 2030.

“(With) the recent cap and trade vote earlier in this year,” Lempert said, “a lot of Republicans voted for it.”

Brown hits the town

Given California’s political clout and rank as the world’s sixth largest economy, it’s no surprise that Gov. Brown has been active for many years in national and world politics. But only recently has he been dubbed America’s de facto environmental ambassador as a result of his blunt assurances that California will fill the leadership void left by Trump.

Recently, Brown announced the creation of a Global Climate Action Summit that will take place Sept. 12 to Sept. 15, 2018, in San Francisco. The summit invites world leaders and environmentalists from every background and industry to the Bay Area to discuss climate change.

“We need people that represent the whole world because this is about the whole world,” Brown said in a video statement about the summit. “(Trump) doesn’t speak for the rest of America.”

Over the next two weeks, from Nov. 4 to Nov. 14, Brown will be in Europe attending events, panels and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, as he reaffirms U.S. cities’ and states’ commitments to goals set by the Paris agreement. Brown has already met with a multitude of world leaders over the past few months, including China’s Xi Jinping, and in September 2017 he worked with Quebec and Ontario to integrate California’s and Canada’s cap-and-trade programs by linking reduction targets and encouraging clean energy innovation.

Civil society

Like Brown, countless nonprofits, activists and civil society groups in California continue to advocate for science and environmental health, despite Donald Trump’s contrary motives.

Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project, or IMMP, has been working on local, national and international environmental issues since the 1970s. IMMP is part of the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit in Berkeley established by environmental icon and the first executive director of the Sierra Club, David Brower.

According to Palmer, the Earth Island Institute was established as a bottom-up organization where new ideas and cutting edge environmental contributions can be made while minimizing bureaucracy and red tape.

Palmer has dedicated his life to defending dolphins, whales and the greater ocean community. He is deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the planet.

“(The administration) has taken direct attacks on environmental regulations with regards to pollution. They’re trying to review protected areas such as national monuments and marine sanctuaries to see if they can open up currently-protected areas to oil drilling,” Palmer said. “They’re clearly (against addressing climate change), they’re weakening the effort to go toward alternative energy sources and they’ve been generally destructive toward environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act.”

“(The administration) has taken direct attacks on environmental regulations with regards to pollution.”

— Mark Palmer

Internationally, IMMP is known for its extensive network of inspectors and nonprofits allies, all aimed at upholding and promoting environmentally sound policies through an international framework. IMMP established the world’s Dolphin Safe tuna program, which created worldwide sustainable fishing standards to protect dolphins from being chased, netted and killed by tuna fishing fleets. Ninety-five percent of the world’s tuna companies now choose to comply with these guidelines.

“It is that cooperative effort which has brought us some very significant successes for the protection of the environment,” Palmer said.

While IMMP has benefited from some of the Trump Administration’s policies, such as abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which Palmer said placed trade priorities above the environment — almost all of Trump’s environmental decisions remain harmful to global dialogue.

“When we go to the Japanese and say, ‘You should stop whaling,’ … they look at us and they say, ‘Well, what your president is doing is terrible (for) global warming, so you’re as bad as we are,’ ” Palmer said.

The worst part?

“They’re right,” Palmer exclaimed.

More work to do

Even as California serves at the forefront of environmental leadership, there is still much work to do. For the East Bay, in particular, environmental justice and sustainability issues persist regardless of political debates in Washington or Sacramento.

Andrés Soto, UC Berkeley alumnus, environmental justice activist and Richmond Community Organizer for the nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE, is a tireless advocate for the East Bay.

Soto and CBE have spent years resisting pollution and exploitation of East Bay communities by the Chevron Richmond Refinery, the largest oil refinery in California and the single largest greenhouse gas emitting facility in the state. Notorious for its 2012 fire that made thousands of residents ill, the refinery continues to pose threats to locals and the greater environment. Despite being Richmond’s largest private sector employer, only 5 percent of Richmond residents actually work there.

Fighting for a healthier, more sustainable environment is more than just demanding fines from corporations or passing laws like cap-and-trade, which Soto insists does not go far enough.

“Fines for these guys are lunch money,” Soto said.

And, dangerously, “cap-and-trade creates a commodity out of pollution,” he added.

For Soto, leadership and environmental justice are about getting into one’s local community or running for office. (Supporting candidates who resist corporate money and have a progressive environmental vision works, too.)

“(Chevron is) not just polluting our air; they’re polluting our politics,” Soto noted.

But even with challenges, Soto celebrates environmental successes when possible. Through the Chevron Environmental and Community Investment Agreement, a solar farm will be installed on one of Chevron’s 60-acre brownfield sites in Richmond. Chevron would never have agreed to these solar panels if not for the work of CBE and the efforts of resilient activists, Soto said.

“(Chevron is) not just polluting our air; they’re polluting our politics.”

— Andrés Soto

Power of the people: A handbook

Perhaps one of the greatest shifts in American society since Donald Trump’s election last year has been the spike in protests and grassroots movements. The March for Science in April 2017 is an example of the power of democracy.

According to Kristen Ratan, the lead organizer for the San Francisco March for Science, the San Francisco March for Science attracted five times the amount of people expected and was one of the highest turnout marches in the nation. Marchers came from diverse backgrounds: families, scientists, children, academics, technology experts, college students, EPA employees worried about losing their jobs.

“No one anticipated the event (to be) as big, as enthusiastic and as seamless as it was,” Ratan said.

Ratan stressed the importance not just of activism, but of having access to reliable information in order to resist the Trump Administration’s anti-science rhetoric.

“Whenever possible, try to go directly to scientific literature and speak to scientists who did the work around an issue. Ask them directly,” Ratan said. “They actually publish their work and a lot of that work is openly and freely available for anybody to read.”

If this is not possible, Ratan said the next best thing is to look for credible, well-established sources with in-depth investigative reporting such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Atlantic.

“That doesn’t mean a lot of mainstream media, frankly. They’ll pick up on something that’s sensationalist about a scientific report but not focus on the true nature of the report,” Ratan explained.

On an organizational level, Soto recommended the “triad” approach implemented by CBE. A triad is made up of community organizers who are integrated in local communities, lawyers who deal with legal intricacies and lawsuits, and science researchers who provide data.

Meanwhile, Palmer suggested specialization.

“I encourage people to focus,” he said, “so that you pick an issue rather than running off and trying to fix everything.” Once an environmental issue is selected, Palmer believes that persistence is key.

Lempert recommended that constituents make the most of their political system by registering to vote and getting to the polls. This is especially important for millennials, who he said do not have high enough voter turnout numbers.

“Don’t be silent,” Lempert added. “Reach out to your elected representatives. Even if your representative has been good on (environmental issues), push them harder.”

“One thing that I took away from the March for Science was that it was almost all millennials.”

— Kristen Ratan

Ratan agreed that millennials are critical to the climate change fight.

“I know people are probably feeling some amount of fatigue around activism and it just seems like an onslaught of bad news everyday, but small actions do add up,” Ratan said. “I have enormous confidence in millennials. One thing that I took away from the March for Science was that it was almost all millennials. It was unfamiliar territory for many of them, but they embraced it. This is what ultimately is going to make a change for the next generation.”

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.