Donald Trump has been in office only 68 days, and already I’ve passed the threshold from shock to boredom. His order to erase climate change from federal policy, preceded by a speech before captive members of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only seals the deal. I served at the EPA during President Obama’s first term, helping that agency and others prepare for the hazards of climate change. That work is serious and complicated and subtle. Trump, of course, is anything but. The man is as formulaic as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
First there’s the over-the-top infliction of trauma with blindness to reason. He’ll launch an executive order rescinding climate change policy! Forget the decades of studies and empirical data confirming an era of rising seas, heavier rains, and stronger storms. Science is for nerds with thick glasses. Only a “loser” would stop an expensive project just because there was a risk of climate-based harm. So license that nuclear reactor in a flood plain. Unroll that highway on the sinking shore. And forget the curlicue of regulations meant to catapult communities toward the job-creating industries of wind and solar, and that cut pollution, too. Real air is the kind you taste when you inhale.
The second part of the formula is to hide your laziness in something like a hopped-up executive order with lots of bark and limited bite. Executive orders, which can be issued by the president unilaterally with little review, are helpful in organizing activities and signaling priorities, but they rarely do much on their own. Trump can order the EPA to reverse its clean power regulations. He can order the Department of Energy to ignore sea level rise when it sites a nuclear facility. But EPA’s rules will take years of process and litigation to undo, if they can be legally undone at all. And federal courts are already insisting that federal agencies account for climate change in their environmental reviews. “So let it be written, so let it be done,” only works in the movies. Sad!
What Trump’s order does do, at least in the short term, is sow confusion and doubt. So what else is new?
The last piece of the Trump formula involves the strategic use of humiliation and shame. To the hundreds of dedicated staffers at the EPA who work every day to make sure our air and water are clean and that our children will lead long and healthy lives, Trump made them feel small. That’s shameful – and, at this point, so pathetically predictable. I know my friends at EPA can withstand the banality. They are professionals. They are proud that the policies they have designed and enforced have saved tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. They are serious people of substance. And their work is the opposite of boring.