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Senior Staff

SEPTEMBER 25, 2019

It’s 8:12 a.m. when I stumble into my American Politics lecture. As I sip my hot coffee, I quickly grab an aisle seat in the enormous lecture hall, trying to tune into the class. We’ve been covering federalism, and today the professor brought in an example from the news: the Trump administration is trying to revoke California’s restrictive auto-emission standards.

My heart sinks.

Over the past few months, a lot has been happening in environmental news. BOOM, Scott Pruitt is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency until BOOM, he’s not and now it’s Andrew Wheeler, a former fossil fuel lobbyist, then BOOM, the Amazon is burning and BOOM, bye-bye Paris climate agreement; BOOM, metal straws are cool; BOOM, we’re repealing more Obama-era environmental protections and BOOM, we’re striking for the climate.

As a girl who grew up loving “The Lorax” and giving trees bear hugs, this is hard to process. The power of the EPA has diminished. And, as American politics have rapidly polarized, this trend will continue at all levels of government. Some state governments, such as in California, have well-funded programs able to properly implement regulations. But it is our voices, the voters of America, that matter most in this issue. We must try, work, strike and do more in order to see public opinion become law.

Strong, state-level environmental practices are not currently the norm. Because the EPA currently seems to be lacking centralized power to enforce federal environmental protections, this is bad news. The U.S. has become a patchwork of different environmental protections. The EPA has a federal budget of about $8.8 billion; California’s Natural Resources Agency and Environmental Protection Agency have a combined budget of $11.3 billion. The majority of states are not properly equipped to combat a global issue like climate change, and arguably might never be.

A climate action movement faces serious roadblocks, as in some areas of the country environmental regulation is unpopular. Dislike is generally economically motivated; thousands of Americans are employed in the automobile industry or are involved in the extraction of fossil fuels. To them, stricter mandates could mean losing their jobs. Although this is hopefully changing, some politicians seem to be more invested in deregulating the oil and gas industries than in creating “green” jobs, effectively blocking these Americans from other viable, eco-friendly occupations.

So, candidates representing these communities at the federal, state and local levels often rail against the EPA and seem to make no effort to bolster existing environmental infrastructure. At the same time, climate change has become an increasingly important political issue. Bernie Sanders made it an integral component of his presidential campaign in 2016, and now in the lead-up to 2020, candidates have detailed environmental plans and some participated in a climate crisis town hall meeting.

Because of the enormous spread in the level of environmental concern across the country, each time federal power shifts from one party to the other, so do our policies. The carefully negotiated Paris Agreement faltered when Trump came into power, but many Democratic presidential candidates have promised to reenter the agreement if elected. Moreover, the Trump administration’s threat to California’s auto-emissions standards will be highly contested. But even if California loses its lawsuit deciding if the state has the authority to set its own standards for tailpipe emissions, many automobile manufacturers would likely stick with the current Californian benchmarks. Come 2021, Americans may have a Democratic president, who likely would restore the Golden State’s ability to set its own emissions standards.

There is no one “American” environmental view. Although it is generally easy to regard the law as a solid standard for what is “right,” in the case of environmental policy this can be dangerous. The present laws, and the politicians who make them, should not act as our moral compasses. We should act as theirs.

This flippy-floppy, wishy-washy, factional approach to environmental policy is not only detrimental to ecosystems in the United States, but also to the education of the American public. Inconsistent reports from administration to administration, for instance on the possible effects of climate change (Trump’s EPA has been rolling back environmental protections, deemphasizing their long-term importance), makes climate change science harder for the average citizen to trust. The data has been politicized.

The best way to roll back this effect is for the public to take back environmental policy. Increasing advocacy nationwide will bring the environment to the forefront of American politics, while at the same time aiding people’s understanding about why advocacy is important. Despite widespread scientific consensus that climate change is in fact happening, much of the public is not yet versed in the most effective ways to mitigate it. Turning education into action is America’s next step.

Our actions, our decisions and our voices should dictate what environmental policy should be, as opposed to this four-to-eight year partisan cycle. We communicate what governmental action we believe should be taken, as we did in the recent climate strikes.

But even more can be done. While electing politicians with pro-environmental agendas is important, so is holding elected officials accountable. The plans those politicians preach must be transformed into action.

At the same time, communities without “green” opportunities need to know that they have a place in an environmental society. Our planet is being transformed, and every aspect of this transformation will slam each and every single organism on this planet, regardless of political affiliation. It is up to us to take the necessary collective action, we the people of the United States.

Katherine Shok writes the Wednesday column on environmental politics and justice. Contact her at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

SEPTEMBER 26, 2019


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