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The Biggest Environmental Setbacks of 2017

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America’s environmental movement is having an Empire Strikes Back moment. From reneging on climate change leadership to rolling back regulations and opening up America’s public lands for business, the Trump administration has been almost shockingly effective at one thing this past year, and it’s hacking decades of environmental progress to bits.

Let’s have a look.

The U.S. abandoned its climate leadership

On the campaign trail Trump promised to “cancel” the Paris climate deal, the landmark carbon emissions treaty that was at the time embraced by nearly every nation on Earth (and even the last stragglers have since signed on). Five months after inauguration, Trump made good on that promise—sort of—when he announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the climate pact as part of a broader, extremely specious promise to “end the war on coal”.


I say “sort of” because technically, the United States can’t formally withdraw from the agreement for another three years. But the Trump administration can—and is—doing everything in its power to render that a moot point by unwinding Obama’s domestic climate change legacy, all the while ignoring international climate summits, or only showing up to hawk coal.


With the help of EPA head and climate change denier Scott Pruitt, Trump has begun the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan and other greenhouse gas regulations. Trump and Pruitt are even considering re-litigating the endangerment finding, the EPA’s 2009 determination that CO2 is a threat to public health and therefore must be regulated. That one, at least, is a long shot.

Regardless of how much more climate policy damage Pruitt and his ilk do, it’s clear that any meaningful actions to reign in greenhouse gases are going to have to come from cities and states for the foreseeable future.


Drill baby, drill

By this time last year, the “Keep it in the Ground” movement had racked up some major wins, including former President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, and his decision to freeze construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. All of that went to shit shortly after the new year.


Days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive memorandum aimed at advancing construction of both pipeline projects. The Dakota Access Pipeline was completed in short order, and the oil began flowing in June. Last month, the Keystone XL pipeline took a major step toward reality when the Nebraska Public Service Commission approved a route for it.


A State Department report concluded the Keystone XL wouldn’t have a significant impact on the climate, but environmental groups have contested that. There’s no environmental impact report for the Dakota Access Pipeline, yet. Regardless, both projects have become symbolic lightning rods for climate activists. The Dakota Access Pipeline has also faced stiff opposition from Native American tribes who see it as colonialist and worry about how it’ll pollute their lands.

What’s more, these pipelines are just the tip of the iceberg for the Trump administration, which has promised to “unleash” American energy production. In the last few months alone, the administration has opened up vast swaths of the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s North Slope to oil and gas leasing, shrunk two major Utah monuments (leaving them potentially open to fossil fuel extraction), and signed a tax bill that includes a provision to lease land in America’s largest wildlife refuge to oil companies.


The planet may be sweating, but it’s the dawn of a brave new era for petroleum.

Industry took the EPA by storm

Before he was EPA head, Scott Pruitt was Attorney General for Oklahoma, where he made a name for himself as, well, an industry shill who liked to sue the EPA over regulations. Pruitt has brought his allies with him to Washington, installing them in positions of power, favoring their input over that of scientists, and presumably, cutting deals with them from within his $25,000 sound-proof booth.


By the summer, just four months after taking office, Pruitt had moved to undo or delay over thirty environmental rules addressing everything from water quality to pesticides to mercury emissions to hazardous waste, a regulatory rollback legal experts say is unprecedented in the agency’s history. A tally that that includes environmental rules outside the scope of the EPA now stands at sixty. According to reporting by The New York Times, the regulatory rollback is being accomplished largely without the input of thousands of career EPA employees, but with the aid of lawyers and lobbyists backed by the fossil fuel industry, with whom Pruitt meets on an almost daily basis.


So much for draining the swamp, eh.

Science expertise got sidelined

It’s probably no surprise that the takeover of the executive branch by climate deniers has been accompanied by a sidelining of scientific expertise. A year into his tenure, Trump has yet to appoint a science advisor, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has become a ghost town. Meanwhile, folks holding fringe, unscientific views—on everything from climate change to vaccines to whether or not air pollution is really bad for youhave seen their voices amplified.


Even government scientists who still have jobs are finding their expertise ignored more and more often. In October, Pruitt, quoting the Bible, announced that scientists who receive EPA grants will no longer be allowed to sit on the agency’s science advisory board. In some cases, they’re finding it harder to attend conferences to speak about their research. That’s to say nothing of the fact that their findings have been slowly disappearing from the EPA’s public-facing website for months.

No wonder scientists are now leaving the EPA in droves.

Public lands are under attack

After weeks of hints, earlier this month Trump announced he’d be shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments by 1.1 million and 800,000 acres, respectively. It’s the largest rollback of national monument protections in U.S. history, and while some Utahans are cheering, many state residents and most outsiders are pissed. Everyone from Native American tribes to paleontologists to outdoor apparel companies is suing over the decision.


And yet, despite the backlash, there’s every indication this is just the beginning. Earlier this year Trump ordered Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review the status of all large monuments designated under the Antiquities Act since 1996. Zinke has already recommended shrinking two other monuments, Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, and modifying two marine monuments, Pacific Remote Islands and the Rose Atoll. All four monuments were established or expanded under Obama.


We’ll be paying close attention to the legal challenges to Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante in the months ahead. If Trump’s decision stands, it could set a precedent that makes it easier for him to use the Antiquities Act to modify or revoke even more monuments in the future.

Global carbon emissions started climbing again

After a three-year lull that left many wondering if our appetite for fossil fuels had finally cooled, global carbon emissions started rising again in 2017, according to two studies published last month. Damn.


Despite Trump’s climate agenda, emissions fell slightly in the U.S. and the European Union in 2017, but it wasn’t enough to make up for a surge in fossil fuel use in China and India, the world’s largest developing economies. But, as the same reports highlighted, folks in the U.S. still live the most carbon intensive lifestyle—by a long shot. Clearly, we’ve all still got work to do to turn this trend around.

Climate change kept getting worse

Amidst all of the regulatory rollbacks, abandoned pledges, and dog whistles to deniers, one glaring reality still managed to shine through in 2017: Climate change is very real, very scary, and very much here to stay.


While not the hottest year on record, 2017 will likely go down as one of the top three. Exactly as we’d expect it to, seeing as we’re still pouring forty billion tons of CO2 into the air every year, causing atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gasses to soar to new heights. The Arctic continued melting apace, with sea ice shrinking to its lowest point in at least 1,500 years. Sea levels continued to rise. A seemingly endless barrage of weather disasters, from the triple whammy of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, to the California wildfires that torched entire neighborhoods overnight, offered a preview of what a hotter, more crowded future might look if we don’t start building resiliency. And scientists continued to bring us news about all of the more subtle ways climate change will transform the planet, from thawing permafrost that could release billions of tons of additional carbon, to Antarctic ice sheets that may be far less stable than we had hoped.


Back in November, more than 15,000 scientists penned an open letter to humanity asking that we please wake up and smell the coffee. I believe they’re still waiting.