by Amy Davidson Sorkin · October 10, 2017
Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has announced that the Trump Administration will repeal the Clean Power Plan.
Photograph by Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty
On September 20th, in New York, while the United Nations General Assembly was in session, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, spoke with a group of reporters about how he might persuade President Donald Trump to do something—anything—to address climate change. Efforts to get the United States to remain in the Paris accords had not been going well, Macron said. (Trump had announced his intention to leave, but, as a practical matter, that will take time.) This was largely owing to the fact, Macron added, that what the Trump Administration proposed—namely, to renegotiate the accord—was “something we do not accept.” But Macron, with his technically minded optimism, had a plan. Trump might never like Paris because it was an “Obama deal,” and because he believed that his voters were against it, Macron said, but those same voters were now confronting the reality of climate change in the form of escalating hurricanes. (This was the same day that Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.) But Macron seemed to know that Trump likes to win. “I think what we need is for President Trump to find something belonging to him regarding climate, if you want my personal opinion of that.”
Fareed Zakaria, one of the journalists present, asked if Macron was suggesting that Trump should be allowed to “declare victory”—so that he could feel that doing something for the planet was a win for him. “Yes, I’m fine with that,” Macron said. “What I want to convince him is to not break what we have.” A few minutes later, Macron added that his own definition of victory was just “to deliver,” without having to plant a flag. “And now I think the best way to proceed with your President is to find—to open, I would say—a solution where he can be the leader of something new on climate.”
This raised another question: What if Trump’s basic agenda and goals on climate were very different from Macron’s? The French President had an answer for that, too. “You cannot be the leader of the free world” and not deal with climate, he said. He believed that Trump could be “lucid” about “the necessity to deal with this issue.” He was, after all, a pragmatic man.
Those words had a dissonant echo on Monday, when the Trump Administration announced that it would indeed do something about climate change: it would make the situation worse. As had been expected, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said at an event in Kentucky that he would formally move to repeal what the E.P.A.’s Web site referred to as “the so-called ‘Clean Power Plan.’ ” That plan had been central to the United States’ commitment, under Paris, to reduce power-plant emissions by an estimated thirty per cent in coming years. Without it, there is no hope of meeting those goals even outside the framework of the accord; the decision will have a negative effect on the world’s chances of keeping the increase in global temperature below certain calamitous thresholds, on America’s influence in the world, and, as other countries move ahead on more sustainable technologies, on the competitiveness of the nation’s industries. Pruitt put aside estimates that the cleaner air resulting from the implementation of the plan would have prevented tens of thousands of deaths from respiratory diseases. The E.P.A. press release also celebrated the grand isolationism of the move, saying that the agency, in calculating the costs of the rules, would no longer account for certain “supposed global benefits.”
“The war on coal is over,” Pruitt said in Kentucky, where he was joined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Clean Power Plan, as he saw it, had really just been “about picking winners and losers”—as if the whole climate-change thing had been concocted as the result of a grudge against fossil fuels (Pruitt’s past skepticism about climate science suggests that he might believe this) or to help China triumph (as his boss has implied). Pruitt complained that rules led to things like lawsuits, which slowed down the economy. (The implementation of the Clean Power Plan had already been delayed, as it happens, by a lawsuit that Pruitt had helped bring as the attorney general of Oklahoma.) Pruitt, one of several members of the Administration whose use of private planes has come under scrutiny, further praised the move against the Clean Power Plan in a broad paean to small government. “Let me tell you something, the E.P.A.—and no federal agency—should ever use its authority to say to you we’re going to declare war on any sector of our economy. That’s wrong.”
As Pruitt spoke about winners and losers, wildfires were consuming thousands of homes in Northern California, killing at least fifteen people and scorching more than a hundred thousand acres. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, were still struggling to get clean water. Three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, the electric grid on the island is still largely down; most of those who have power are getting it from diesel-burning backup generators. As Jon Lee Anderson writes in a report from Puerto Rico, Trump’s visit there last week did little to counter the residents’ sense of abandonment. It may be hard to isolate the cause of a single storm or fire, but the science makes it clear that climate change increases the intensity and the frequency of both. If, as expected, Tropical Storm Ophelia reaches hurricane strength later this week, it will be the tenth consecutive such storm to become a hurricane—the highest number in more than a century. (There have been five major hurricanes this year, and three that hit land as Category 4 hurricanes—another record.) The Miami Herald pointed to a different measure: the current accumulated cyclone energy, which, it noted, is “254 percent higher than average with seven weeks left in the season.”
In recent decades, Congress’s response to climate change, and indeed that of the entire American political system, has been woefully inadequate. This failure is often framed in passive terms: as negligence, an overattachment to an oil-rich status quo, or a simple unwillingness to deal with problems that seem far in the future. But, in setting out to reverse the measures taken by the Obama Administration, Trump has moved into the realm of the active facilitation of disaster. Trump’s leadership had been “impactful and strong,” Pruitt said. “He had the courage, the fortitude to say to the world in June of this year that the Paris accord was wrong for this country, it was wrong for America. He put America first and said to the rest of the world, We’re going to say no.”
Last month, in New York, Macron also told journalists that he had the sense that there were people around Trump who had doubts about abandoning Paris. (And there are, including, at least at one point, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.) When a reporter asked if he thought that Trump shared those doubts, Macron’s eager energy seemed, for a second, to flag. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.” The answer may be clearer now.