Current talk of the Green New Deal or the GOP alternative Green Real Deal notwithstanding, the political contrast between the first Earth Day in 1970 and this year’s Earth Day is stark. While some still debate Nixon’s environmental record, there is no ambiguity in president Trump’s. He is sounding the retreat, not leading the charge.
When the first Earth Day was proclaimed in April of 1970, Nixon was working on the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and before the year was over, Nixon would sign the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 into law. The Trump administration’s environmental outlook, however, is the mirror image opposite of Nixon’s.
Last month, the UN’s sixth Global Environment Outlook report, or GEO-6 for short, warned that environmental degradation is “endangering the ecological foundations of society,” and called for “bold, urgent, sustainable and inclusive action.”
At the White House, GEO-6 was dead on arrival, as the Trump administration was busy unveiling a budget proposal that would slash funds for fighting climate change and other environmental hazards.
GEO-6 identified “population, economic development, and climate change” as the principal “drivers” of environmental degradation. But instead of hitting the brake on those three drivers, the White House is hitting the accelerator.
World population, currently 7.7 billion, is projected to rise to 8.6 billion by 2030 and nearly 10 billion by mid-century. Noting that “long-term sustainability is incompatible with growing populations,” the GEO-6 report urges expanding access to contraception in the developing world, where 97 percent of the projected growth is expected to occur. But the president’s budget would cut U.S. support for international family planning assistance by more than half.
Gender inequality is a principal driver of high birth rates and rapid population growth in developing countries. Recognizing this, GEO-6 urges support for foreign assistance programs that advance the health and education of girls. But the president’s budget would cut State Department and USAID funding by 24 percent, almost certainly requiring major cuts in funding for girls’ health and education.
The GEO-6 report stresses the need to “decouple growth from negative environmental impacts.” But the Trump administration has slashed dozens of environmental regulations affecting air, land, and water resources, and it now wants to cut EPA funding by 31 percent.GEO-6 warns anthropogenic climate change, already well under way, will “amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems,” and it argues that world leaders must commit to bringing net greenhouse gases emissions to zero by mid-century. But Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Climate Accord and his deregulation of coal-fired plants are aimed at burning more coal.
Some world leaders are publicly supportive of environmental objectives, but fail to walk the walk. President Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t even talk the talk. His blithe dismissals of climate change and other environmental threats set him apart, starkly and tragically, from other world leaders.
So far, Congress has rejected Trump’s call for draconian cuts in EPA funding, but it has done nothing to stop Trump’s derailing of Obama administration plans for reining in greenhouse gases, including the phase out of coal-fired power plants.
We urgently need to change course. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned in releasing the GEO-6 report, we need “a significant shift in trajectory.” That will likely require change on the scale of the proposed Green New Deal, an approach that was rejected last month by Republicans and a handful of Democrats in the Senate.
There are, however, reasons for hope. A small but growing number of Republicans in Congress are acknowledging the reality of anthropogenic climate change, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, (FL-01). He recently unveiled his Green Real Deal proposal, and while it stops far short of what needs to be done, it’s a sign of a warming political climate. After Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg made an emotional appeal to the UN in December, student-led climate change protests have proliferated. A new global movement may be in the making.
The way forward on climate change does not require economic hardship. Just as the U.S. prospered while slashing automobile emissions and setting wastewater standards, we can also prosper while spurring swift reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by phasing in a substantial and economically efficient carbon tax. At the same time, we can slow population growth by improving access to family planning services at home and abroad. Doing these things today would improve the odds of brighter Earth Days ahead.
This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on April 22, 2019 on AlterNet