We’re On Our Own: California’s Environment and a Trump Presidency

December, 2016

Exerpted from an article originally published online by KCET.org, reprinted with the author’s permission. 

Commentary: It’s always a bad sign when the most hopeful argument you can come up with is that maybe the person you’re worried about doesn’t actually mean what they say. It’s a rationalization that props up bad marriages and keeps people in bad jobs, the kind of argument that prompts therapists to offer aphorisms like “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.”

Based on what Trump has told us about himself thus far, we should expect the views of scientists and other experts to be deprecated in policymaking, likely to an unprecedented degree. Science denial doesn’t just affect policy on climate change—without scientific accuracy, there is no environmental protection. Deny science and you deny sensible environmental policy. We can assume that despite the best efforts of career agency staff, the federal government will increasingly be AWOL on protecting the environment. 

If there’s any glimmer of silver lining in all this, it’s that California has plenty of examples of how it can protect the environment when the feds don’t. On many occasions, as previous administrations fell short in their environmental protection obligations, California has taken the lead to set sane environmental policies.

While gridlock on the Hill thwarted federal policymaking on climate change, for instance, California passed landmark greenhouse gas reduction laws including a carbon cap-and-trade program, an increasing commitment to decarbonize the state’s power supply, and a gubernatorial plan to cut vehicle fossil fuel use in half by 2030.

Want another example? As the feds worked to strip Endangered Species Act protection from gray wolves, California listed the wolf as Endangered under California Endangered Species Act.

Another: The National Environmental Policy Act, the nation’s farthest-reaching environmental law, requires that federal agencies research and describe the likely environmental impact for a range of different versions of projects they’re evaluating. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) does the same, but then also requires the lead agency evaluating the project to choose the least-damaging version.

In arenas from waste reduction to water pollution, California has routinely done the federal government one better at environmental protection, for decades. The state has even signed quasinational agreements with other governments, like its pact to harmonize the cap and trade market with four Canadian provinces, that have made California a major international player in environmental protection.

It’s not that California has a perfect green record. Far from it, as evidenced (for example) by our current governor’s repeated attempts to erode CEQA’s power. The decades-long push to reengineer the Delta for the benefit of agribusiness likewise shows that California’s government can be every bit as venal as the feds.

There are also ways in which a recalcitrant Trump White House could work to undo Golden State moves to protect the planet. Trump could order the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make it very hard for California utilities not to buy power from coal-fired plants, for example. If California manages to craft a Delta environmental policy that protects wildlife, Trump could undo it all with a phone call to the Bureau of Reclamation. And if Trump really decides to pander to his core constituency, he could support ongoing efforts to privatize federal lands. There are 45 million acres of federal lands in California: almost half the state. 

And it would seem some in Sacramento are thinking along these lines already, not just in terms of environmental protection but of human rights as well. In a joint statement released the day after the election, California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon called the Trump election “clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California,” adding:

“California has long set an example for other states to follow. And California will defend its people and our progress. We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.” 

But at least we’ve got a model for how to proceed in the absence of the feds. When federal agencies from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Geological Survey to the Army Corps of Engineers find their environmental missions changed under Trump, it may come in very handy that California has some practice in going it alone.