Unfortunately, It Isn’t Just Trump

By Mike Koetting October 31, 2019

After two and three-quarter years of Donald Trump, I have finally found an issue on which we agree: California should not be allowed to set its own emission standards. The idea of each state setting its on emission standards is, frankly, nuts. Car manufacturers could not sensibly conform to a whole menu of requirements.

Of course, my agreement with Trump is limited in scope. The solution is not to forbid California from making its own standards, but to adopt the California standards for the nation. Instantly. These have already been negotiated with several large auto manufacturers.

Trump has no interest in this. He’s invested in wanton relaxation of standards. On this issue, for instance, he has already dumped Obama-era standards on emissions—even though the Department of Transportation (DOT) concedes that this could add about 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide this century.

This post, however, is not about how appallingly wrong-headed this. It is and there are plenty of people already pointing that out. Rather this post will take a look at the various reasons he gives because, as is often the case with Trump, his arguments hold up a mirror to the country’s worst angels.

“Whose Problem Is This?” – Climate-Strike Die-In, Bangkok

Regulations add costs/cost jobs

Trump regularly returns to this, as do many of his Republican enablers. Guess what? While it is not as linear as detractors suggest, regulations are more likely than not to add costs. Afterall, if it were cheaper to do whatever is being regulated against, the regulations wouldn’t be necessary. The issue of jobs is more complicated. Some regulations cost jobs, some regulations create jobs, some jobs disappear for other reasons but it gets hung on regulations, and so forth.

But the central issue under both of these is the same. Fixing the environment is going to cost money. Probably a whole lot of it. It is very hard to imagine that we can do what needs to be done without making real sacrifices. For all the bold talk, the evidence of people being willing to step up to these costs is scant. Several polls show support for environmental action declines precipitously when the discussion mentions price increases or “sacrifice”.

A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that while more than 75% of all Americans think environmental issues are a major problem or a crisis, fewer than 4 in 10 think it will require major sacrifices to address. Moreover, their idea of sacrifice tends to focus on taxing rich people, not themselves. While taxing rich people is a fine idea, this is not going to be sufficient. As the New Republic puts it:

Whether the money to address environmental issues comes from higher federal taxes on Americans, or taxes on private companies that pass down the costs to consumers, it doesn’t really matter. We will feel it, and it will hurt. There is no avoiding this pain—and we’re not just going to feel it in our pocketbooks, but in our personal lives. Along with transitioning to a renewable-energy economy, any truly meaningful climate plan is also going to drastically reduce industrial meat production, expand public transportation, end our reliance on cars, and change the way cities are planned and built….It will be much more than just an annoying inconvenience.

I don’t believe Americans are even close to understanding this. -Reviewing the evidence, David Leonhardt wonders if there is any policy big enough to matter that will gain sufficient public acceptance to be enacted.

An Indonesian child holds a placard that says "there is no planet b."

“Our House Is on Fire” – Climate Strike Indonesia

Even those of us who are worried get a little queasy if we make ourselves think about the carbon footprint of flying (one flight is greater than the entire annual carbon-footprint of people in many countries) or the internet (the carbon footprint of which will soon outstrip the entire aviation industry) or our love affair with meat (which has an astoundingly awful footprint). These vary in impact but they are not trivial parts of a very big problem. Presumably it can be solved, but I’m not sure how without greater willingness to make personal sacrifices.

We’re not stopping people

This argument is the libertarian one: forbidding California from making lower emissions requirements doesn’t keep people from choosing to abide by them. If auto-makers want to achieve them, these regulations won’t stop them. True, but even if everyone did follow a voluntary guideline (not that you can find much support in economic history for that happening), there are two problems.

First, we aremoving toward a crisis point. One of the jobs of government, embodied to some extent in the president, is to rally the nation to face up to national crises. Imagine how the Second World War turns out if Roosevelt says: “Well, we are facing some enemies, but I think the enemies’ strength has probably been exaggerated. So we are going to maintain business as usual, but maybe, if you’re worried, you can chip in and try to help the effort.”

Second, there is no substitute for national institutional commitment. People try to take solace in the number of individual localities or businesses that have announced they are going to try to hit various targets. These are good things. But they simply cannot substitute for the absence of the most powerful country in the world on the leadership stage, let alone make up for the loss of focused talent and resources that a properly aimed government could bring.

That said, there is no evidence the people of the U.S. have yet made this a major issue. There was virtually no mention in the 2016 presidential election, 2018 was about healthcare, and Jay Inslee’s campaign—which was specifically tied to the need for environmental commitment—didn’t last much longer than a snowball subject to global warming.

Other countries are worse offenders

Pretty much true. But if this is unpacked, the underlying message is—“Who the hell do you think you are wanting the same standard of living as we have?” We live in a world that has many people in it who want to live like the developed countries. Their options for getting there are environmentally problematic, but it is hard to argue they shouldn’t be allowed. However, for better or worse, there is only one planet. Trump’s assertion that the future is not global is not that much different from arguing the earth is flat. Migrants, hurricanes, droughts, animals and ocean species and wildfires remind us with increasing frequency that we are all inter-connected.

Our options are to dramatically lower our carbon footprint—either by reducing our standard of living or accelerating appropriate technology— so that less developed countries have carbon room to grow; or to provide massive aid to developing countries. I don’t see much political support for either of these.

It doesn’t make any difference

This is the most insidious argument. At its worse, you get the DOT report justifying the roll-back of Obama standards, where they admitted their model predicted catastrophic changes, but noted that the particular change would make such a small addition to that amount as to not be worth worrying about.

The less egregious version of this is the willingness of each and everyone of us to excuse some environmental excess as “so little that it doesn’t make any difference.” Or our annoyance at anyone who seems to be too much of a “purist”. Sure. Given the magnitude of the problems, this attitude is understandable. But the question is: where do we draw the lines? If all but the most outrageous can be justified because the problems are so big, are we already doomed?

In short…

While many of us are furious atTrump’s handling of environmental issues, the nation is a long way from making a Jay Inslee level of commitment.  Greta Thunburg is asking the right question.

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here and say you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?

Maybe the problem isn’t all Trump.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “Unfortunately, It Isn’t Just Trump”

  1. It’s obvious that human activity is at the root of climate warming. That was the point of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book “The Sixth Extinction”. Our grandkids (& their offspring) will pay the price, not us. If you’re content c/ that, just do nothing.


    1. Actually..if you want to address this doing “something” won’t be enough….you’ve got to do “something really big”. I believe it is possible, but it’s going to take one hell of a lift….from the entire world working more or less together


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: