Vivian Thomson, former member of Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board and current Professor in the Departments of Environmental Sciences and Politics and Director of the Environmental Thought and Practice BA Program at the University of Virginia is the author of the forthcoming Climate of Capitulation. The book is about how power is wielded in environmental policy making at the state level, and how to redress the ingrained favoritism toward coal and electric utilities. Here she writes about the consensus among Americans over the issue of climate change and what that means for us under the current administration.
In this season of agonized discussions over America’s divisions, we should highlight areas of agreement. One conspicuous area of bipartisan consensus among voters and state politicians is the need to continue the US’s ongoing move away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy.
National public opinion polls by Yale University and George Mason University highlight similarities in the views of Democrats and Republicans on climate change. In 2013, by a margin of almost two to one, Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents supported taking action to reduce fossil fuel use. Only one-third of Republicans or Republican-leaning respondents agreed with their party’s position on climate change.
In March 2016, 70 percent of respondents supported strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, even if electricity prices might increase. In November 2016, 76 percent of all registered voters, including 90 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Independents, and 60 percent of Republicans said they approved of regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. This consensus extends to international climate agreements. Before the 2015 climate talks in Paris, 85 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans, and 71 percent of survey respondents overall agreed that reaching an international accord to limit global warming was important.
Two Republican governors of Texas, Rick Perry and George W. Bush, supported state incentives for renewable energy. By one estimate, if Texas were a nation it would rank sixth in the world in wind power capacity. Among the states that generate more than 10 percent of their electricity from wind are Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Texas, all of which President Trump counted in his “red” column.
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel power plants, simply reinforces existing energy trends, riding a wave away from coal toward improved energy efficiency and greater reliance on renewables. Bloomberg reported that in 2015 more Americans were employed by the solar industry than in either the natural gas/oil extraction or coal mining sectors. Coal mining jobs in the US have been on the decline since the 1980s. At the same time, coal-fired generation is not going away and, even with EPA’s rules, is expected to remain part of our electricity mix well into the 21st century.
President Trump says he wants EPA to focus on keeping our water and air clean. Among the largest co-benefits of reducing power plant carbon dioxide emissions are public health improvements from lower emissions of particulate matter and smog-forming pollutants. When I was a member of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board, which adopts the state’s air pollution rules, I estimated that the air pollution from one aging (now shuttered) coal-fired power plant in Alexandria, Virginia, was imposing at least $200 million in regional public health costs annually.
The mystery is why so many Republicans at the national level seem disconnected from these facts and from the views of their constituents. Campaign funds from fossil fuel interests and threats to oppose politicians who advocate reducing greenhouse gases have undoubtedly left their mark. Propaganda masquerading as science has always been a flimsy shield. Former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, an Indiana-born Republican who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has said too many Republican politicians seem eager to appease the party’s conservative elements.
The United States has grown wealthy and powerful in part because we spewed our greenhouse gases into the world’s shared atmosphere. The results of that pollution are now painfully evident. According to NASA, 2016 was the warmest year on a temperature record that extends back to 1880. Sixteen of the warmest seventeen years on record have occurred since 2001.
The late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins emphasized in her last column, penned in 2007, that, “We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders.” The people have decided that we must continue to reduce our greenhouse gases and maintain a steady course toward reliance on renewable energy. The people have decided that we should not abandon our responsibilities to the global community.
President Trump’s appointment of climate skeptics Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry to head the EPA and the Department of Energy contradicts the preferences of Republican and Democratic voters alike and flies in the face of scientific consensus and energy trends. In highly unusual public displays, hundreds of former and current US EPA employees openly protested Pruitt’s appointment because of his consistent opposition to EPA’s efforts to protect public health and welfare. One hopes for leadership, strength, and vision from the president. Those qualities are conspicuously lacking in the climate and energy policy arena.