Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | November 18, 2016

Pursuing Sustainability and Climate Action in the Face of the Trump Presidency

As the shock of the U.S. election turns to analysis and even resistance, observers have begun the depressing task of assessing the potential risks and damage that a Trump administration promises for environmental policy in the U.S. and globally. These range from the overwhelmingly pessimistic to the it might not be the apocalypse. [UPDATE December 9: The ongoing dumpster fire of the Trump transition is not generating anything in the way of hope that it won’t be too bad–specific to environment and climate change, the proposed appointment of Scott Pruitt, a climate denier and vociferous critic of the Clean Power Plan as well as reports that the transition team is seeking to identify civil servants who advised the Obama administration on climate policy signals that we are likely face some of the worst case scenarios for environmental protection.] There aren’t many   any that claim everything will be okay. This essay certainly won’t either. However, there are a number of insights from the study of environmental politics that can, at least, point the way towards an active strategy for protecting the environment and moving forward on issues like climate change in the face of what seems to be an inevitable assault on U.S. domestic environmental institutions and policy and global environmental governance.

Most post-election analyses are rightfully examining the institutional, legal, and regulatory changes that we can expect from a Trump administration both within the United States and globally. Briefly key concerns include:

  • The almost certain withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change or at least failure to uphold the commitments the U.S. made in the Paris Agreement.
  • A related pledged withdrawal of funding for any global climate action, including the adaptation funds that are a crucial part of attempts to secure and maintain support from the Global South.
  • A gutting of the E.P.A. and its oversight, monitoring, and enforcement capacity for environmental regulations in the U.S, foreshadowed by the designation of a leading climate skeptic to head the E.P.A. transition.
  • Cutting off funding for renewable energy research in the U.S. (federally).
  • Abandoning or reversing the Clean Power Plan.

The fears that these policy changes could come to pass are well founded because they are all within the purview and authority of the executive branch (especially with a pliant Congress, which some of the more far reaching goals enunciated by the Trump campaign would require). U.S. environmental policies and regulations are sticky, but it is unclear that they can withstand the sustained and active undermining that Trump promised in his campaign. This is undoubtedly scary and the biggest threat to sustainability, environmental protection, and action on climate change that I have seen in my lifetime (and certainly the most explicit attack on these values and goals).

The diagnosis of the potential threat is thus relatively clear; the necessary response for those seeking to ameliorate the damage and keeping moving on climate change is, unfortunately less so. To think about a way forward, it may help to be clear (even pedantic) about why an assault on the institutions, regulations, and legal rules put in place to protect the environment and guide policy making at both the domestic and global levels is so frightening.

The underlying concern is not for those formal institutions themselves, but rather for the loss of their effects—that without those rules, laws, institutions, and agreements the behavior of individuals, corporations, and governments will change in a way that makes it more difficult to achieve sustainability, fight climate change, deal with pollution, and more. For some individuals, corporations, and governments, this is undoubtedly true—legal rules, laws, and global agreements stop them from doing harm to the environment and/or offer powerful incentives to act in a sustainable manner. The attack on and perhaps loss of important formal institutions and rules for protecting the environment, promoting sustainability, and acting on climate change is therefore an enormously dangerous potential result of Trump’s election. [UPDATE December 9: Given the announcements of the last two weeks, this should no longer be treated as a potential result, it is the likely result and everyone that cares about sustainability and climate change should start from this baseline assumption. Expect national level institutional protection for the environment and action on climate change to. be. gone.]

Yet, fortunately, formal institutions, national laws, and international agreements are not the only tools available for pursuing environmental protection and action on climate change. Substantial research in environmental politics explores attempts at promoting and even enforcing environmental protection and sustainable action in the absence of any (or any effective) national regulations or global agreements. The development of norms (applicable to individuals and collective actors like governments and corporations) and the emergence and functioning of non-state or private governance mechanisms are also means of guiding behavior in response to environmental problems and crises—providing both authoritative proscriptions for environmentally destructive activity and incentives for more sustainable actions.[UPDATE December 9–The new baseline assumption mentioned above means that this is what we have to work with and it will require significant effort to maintain in the face of national level opposition.]

Paul Wapner was a pioneer in this field exploring how actors in civil society actors (especially environmental NGOs ) can use a number of strategies to pursue sustainable communities and societies and forge environmental protection victories without government action. He analyzed NGOs’ use of market leverage, targeting campaigns to shame specific corporations in order to catalyze broad change in industry sectors (think Starkist and Dolphin safe Tuna). He explored how NGOs empowered communities with knowledge to build social capital and the ability to pursue environmental protection at the local level. He also demonstrated how NGOs raise general “ecological sensibility” by bearing witness to environmental damage and the corporate behavior that causes it. All of these mechanisms operate outside the boundaries of formal institutions and legal rules. They empower those interested in environmental protection with specific strategies for addressing specific behaviors and changing the underlying zeitgeist that ultimately shapes political calculations.

Another robust strand of research (e.g. Bernstein and Cashore, Clapp, Auld) explores the emergence, legitimacy, and effectiveness, as well as challenges, of attempts to govern issues like deforestation and fishery depletion through the establishment of standards of behavior. These standards are developed by NGOs and corporations (sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively) and seek to shape both corporate activity (restricting their behavior though standard setting) and individual choices (providing eco-labels to inform consumers about the sustainability of the business practices that went into producing their purchases). While some of these standard setting exercises work in conjunction with governmental regulations, others are entirely voluntary. They depend on some of the same dynamics that Wapner conceptualized—e.g. market leverage is used to get corporations on board and they depend on ecological sensibility driving consumer demand for ‘eco’ friendly products—to generate authoritative rules in the absence of formal governmental institutions.

Specifically in regards to climate change, a range of scholarship analyzes the experimental, transnational, subnational, and private climate governance that emerged in the 2000s when there appeared to be an abject failure to respond to climate change through multilateral channels and when the U.S. was obstructionist. This literature explores how and to what effect NGOs, corporations, cities, and states/provinces are able to take significant action on climate change outside the context of national regulations and formal global agreements. This activity has expanded significantly over time. There are debates about the effectiveness of this kind of action, but the research is shows that these kind of initiatives have the potential to sustain and advance action on climate change even when the national state and global processes are failing.

To be very clear, this research does not collectively conclude that national policy and international agreements are useless or unnecessary, but they do offer ways of conceiving of tools for pursuing environmental protection and action on climate change when national policy and international agreements will not or cannot do the job. This body of research suggests a possible action agenda in an era dominated by hostility to environmental protection and global environmental cooperation from the United States.

First, let’s not be naïve. Formal rules and institutions and agreements are of crucial importance and worth fighting for. The research briefly outlined above all points to tools that can be used in the absence of national regulation and multilateral agreements, but we can make the most progress on environmental issues when national policy, international agreements, and other mechanisms (private, subnational, transnational) work together. So those who care about the environment should fight to maintain institutions and regulations and laws wherever possible.[UPDATE December 9–Just engage this fight in the knowledge that it is likely a rearguard action at best given what we have seen come out of the transition process].

Ask Senators to oppose the appointment of an avowed climate denier to be head of EPA. Urge governors and state legislators to not rollback renewable energy policies even if the Clean Power Plan evaporates. Work to convince lawmakers that global commitments to climate finance, adaptation, and cooperation are in the U.S. interests even if the administration does not see it (if for no other reason than because China certainly sees it in their interests). Outside the U.S., the focus needs to be keeping the pressure on other governments to not use the U.S. backsliding and obstruction as an excuse to delay action on the Paris Agreement—and fortunately as the latest climate meetings come to a conclusion, there appears to be unity on moving forward with or without the United States[UPDATE December 9–A bit of good news on the international front is that no other countries seem to be discussing (at least publicly) a lessening of commitments to the Paris process in the wake of the election.]

Second, let’s not be naïve again in another way. Fighting to save formal institutions and momentum behind global agreements might be (and perhaps is likely to be) a losing battle with the Trump administration and we should be clear eyed in our understanding that there will be significant and maybe even catastrophic set backs in climate law and policy. We cannot afford to rely on formal institutions and agreements for protecting the environment and pursuing action on climate change in this context. The research highlighted above, offers other pathways. Spending energy and resources developing those pathways—shoring up work already being done by civil society and subnational governments and expanding that work—could be a key focus moving forward. An action agenda could include:

  • Target cities and state/provinces Much of the progress we have seen on climate change has taken place at the subnational level. Cities and states/provinces have wide purview to act in ways that protect the climate and these levels of government are also closer to the public. Citizens can use that access to advocate for a progressive agenda on climate change. California will continue to push forward on renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Quebec and Ontario will move forward with their carbon markets. Cities acting alone and in transnational networks have pledged to move forward on implementing climate action in support of the Paris Agreement. All of these efforts are worthy of support and they can blunt the damage that national obstructionism in the United States might entail.
  • Organize within local communities and support local environmental organizations Raising awareness of local environmental issues and building support for the pursuit of sustainable communities can build the social capital communities need to address local environmental concerns. It also potentially has the ancillary benefit of growing the generalized support for environmental protection and action that can be directed in larger campaigns and efforts to advocate for actions in cities and states/provinces. A shift that makes pursuit of sustainability normal and taken for granted can have far reaching political consequences. Working at the grassroots level to achieve this can be an important strategy. [UPDATE December 9–As Kate Neville (@katejneville) reminded me, lots of these organizations are already working and are a great place to start.]
  • Raise awareness of privately developed sustainability standards and work to enhance their stringency To be effective, these standards and eco labels need to be credible and they need to be known and valued amongst consumers—they need both to get corporations on board, keep them acting within the standards, and to have environmental effect. Consumers need to be able to connect their drive to purchase sustainable products with credible signals of which products are sustainable. Retailers and producers need to be convinced that consumers will favor such products.
  • Connect Sustainability and Justice This is important in a number of ways, but let me highlight two. First, efforts to promote sustainability will be stronger when they are connected to other social justice movements—environmental protection and sustainability are not additional to social justice concerns, they are social justice issues. [UPDATE December 9–This essay is about sustainability and climate change, but the Trump transition team announcements signal significant attacks on social justice issues of multiple kinds. Building social capital and resistance in the sustainability area should be done in ways as to connect to other areas of social justice.] Second, pursuing sustainability inherently creates losers or at least the perception of loss. Whether we are talking about workers in the oil patch of Alberta, pipeline workers in the US, or the vast array of employees of the industries associated with the manufacturing, selling, and maintenance of gas-powered cars, the necessary massive shift away from fossil fuel based energy and economic systems will cause dislocation. Such a transition will be contested widely and vociferously by some of these communities—it is no surprise that coal country supported Trump. We must recognize the necessity of supporting communities that rely on bringing fossil fuels out of the ground when we pursue the imperative of keeping fossil fuels in the ground. We must have a better answer for residents of Fort McMurray than “we’ll get the tar sands operation up and running as soon as possible” when they are devastated by the kind of forest fires that climate change makes more likely. We must have better alternatives available for unionized workers supporting pipelines in the face of Native Americans protesting to protect their water sources and lands.

The action agenda suggested by research in environmental politics is undoubtedly challenging. It is easier to pursue environmental protection and action on climate change with the formal, legal tools and institutions of a national state and functioning multilateral governance. We have to face the reality, however, that in the near term we may not have this luxury. Further, environmental problems and especially the climate crisis will not wait for a return of U.S. leadership on the environment. The world is already significantly behind where it needs to be to head off the worst effects of climate change and time is short. We need to use all the tools at our disposal and environmental politics scholarship gives us a sense of what we have to work with to guide and shape sustainable behavior in the absence of strong governmental action. Let’s put those tools to use.


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