Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune wore an expression of indignation as he articulated a post-election message for Sierra Club’s 2.4 million members: Acknowledge the pain and alienation you feel over Donald Trump’s victory and then gird yourself for a fight.
Brune gathered with other national environmental leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. When they scheduled the press conference before the election, they expected it to be a celebration of Hillary Clinton, who had pledged to make clean energy and addressing climate change a priority. Instead they mourned the major threat the environment faces. “Make no mistake; the election of Donald Trump could be devastating for our climate and our future,” said Brune, after declaring solidarity with women, minorities and religious groups who were similarly dismayed by Trump’s win.
Like many other people, environmental leaders were stunned by a presidential election that defied the polls and put into power a man who calls climate change a hoax and has vowed to do away with the Environmental Protection Agency, take the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement and cancel President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and much of the rest of his climate legacy.
Despite a huge gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on climate change, the issue was not prominent during the campaign. Journalists moderating the presidential debates failed to ask even one question about it. Trump has yet to articulate his environmental agenda. As a result, “we don’t know what he stands for,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director, NRDC Action Fund, the political arm of Natural Resources Defense Council.
Perhaps the clearest view of Trump’s energy and environmental agenda came on the day in July when he seized the nomination. He made a contradictory pledge to save coal while also bolstering natural gas—the main reason for coal’s downturn.
Despite the lack of detail from the president-elect, GOP Congressional leaders assert that Trump’s election is a mandate to undo President Obama’s environmental initiatives. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, said in a statement that the election proves that Americans reject the Paris Agreement and the rest of Obama’s climate change legacy. He predicts Trump will fill the vacant Supreme Court seat with a conservative who will help kill the Clean Power Plan. After Tuesday’s election it’s guaranteed that President Obama’s climate legacy “will be remembered for being built on hollow commitments,” Inhofe says.
But environmental leaders underscore that Trump’s pronouncements cannot change the fact that the planet is heating up – intensifying wild fires and floods, making habitats inhospitable for plants and animals, raising sea levels and threatening public health. Nor can the election change the fact that coal is being outcompeted in the marketplace by wind and solar power. And states such as California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado are moving forward on clean energy and climate policies.
The environmental leaders make no attempt to sugarcoat their defeat. League of Conservation Voters, NextGen Climate Action, the Sierra Club, EDF Action, the NRDC Action Fund and Environment America collectively spent more than $100 million on the 2016 election in large part to elect Clinton and help green-minded Democrats take control of the Senate. Still, the environmental leaders claim some important victories in the election and reelection of governors who are committed to lead their states to combat climate change—Montana’s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock was re-elected even though his state went for Trump. Washington GovernorJay Inslee also was re-elected. Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor of North Carolina, has declared victory, although his lead is so slight that a recount has been called. These governors will continue the trend of recent years, with states and localities taking the lead on climate action as the U.S. Congress has been gridlocked, environmentalists say.
With Republicans retaining control of the House and Senate, the environmental leaders do not expect any near-term legislative wins but they stress that the Democrats they helped to elect to the Senate — including Nevada Senator-elect Catherine Cortez Masto, who will be the first Latina senator, and California Senator-elect Kamala Harris — will block legislation that would be damaging to the planet.
Some hold out hope that once in power, Trump will drop his anti-environment agenda. Anna Aurilio, the D.C. director for Environment America, urged Trump to work with environmentalists to promote clean energy, and the good jobs it will bring, and help America meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels.
But if he doesn’t, Aurilio said, environmentalists will do what they did after the 1994 elections, when Republicans took charge of the U.S. House. Led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is now rumored to be a top pick for Secretary of State, they tried to do away with the EPA and weaken protections for clean air, clean water and public lands. Aurilio brought along a prop from that battle: a small red stop sign with the words “stop the rollbacks.”
Aurilio recalled how environmentalists went to congressional districts of House Republicans, educated people about the GOP onslaught on the environment and helped then-President Clinton force Republicans to give up their anti-environment agenda. “This election, nobody went to the ballot box voting for dirtier air and dirtier water,” she said. As in the mid-1990s, people will not support an effort by Trump and the Republicans to weaken environmental protections, she says. “So we have to mobilize.”