Implications of the Trump Administration’s Policies: Climate Change, Environment and Global Health

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Assistant Professor at Occidental College in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department, Mijin Cha, and Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health and also Chair of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Lawrence A. Palinkas, presented on the implications of the Trump Administration’s policies on select law and health topics.

The USC Law and Global Health Collaboration began a timely conversation on environmental and climate change with two notable leaders this field. Mijin Cha is an assistant Professor at Occidental College (Oxy) in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department.  Her research focuses on the nexus of inequality and climate change, with a particular focus on transitioning fossil fuel workers and communities to a clean energy economy. Prior to coming to Oxy, Prof. Cha worked for many years for public policy organizations and think tanks. Lawrence A. Palinkas is the Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health and chair of the Department of Children, Youth and Families in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. He also holds secondary appointments as professor in the departments of anthropology and preventive medicine at USC.

To better organize thinking around the “full scale assault” of the Trump administration on the environment, Professor Cha began her talk by introducing three buckets: roll back of existing regulations, implications of inaction, and analysis of current events. She noted a few groups tracking policy initiatives and rollbacks (New York Times article, “52 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump”) and several broad roll backs including: Queen Power Plan (sets green-house emissions on power plants) and withdrawal from the Paris Accord (while largely an international symbolic action nonetheless of relevance). Some other immediately harmful, impactful roll backs are related to energy efficiency measures and fossil fuel infrastructure (i.e. Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone) that will serve to increase our reliance on fossil fuels, continue on our carbon-heavy path, and ultimately delay progress towards a clean energy economy. She also noted roll backs with changes in emission requirements and misuse of cost-benefit analysis to make it appear that reductions in emission measurements would be highly expensive. Additionally, less regulation of green-house gases leads to the idea that carbon dioxide is not pollution and it dilutes the seriousness and consequences of air pollution.

All of these rollbacks ultimately present the grim reality of our current situation. It is clear that with this administration we’re moving towards and increasingly depending on fossil fuels with increasingly less regulation. The implications for this, sadly, are extremely severe even as compared to other public health issues. When environmental damage is done (i.e. polluting a water source), then it is impossible to go back and fix it. Consequently, the best course of action is to prevent this damage from happening in the first place. Prof. Cha then discussed ideological roll backs. Assaulting actions to stop these efforts by labeling these as ideologies (i.e. being an “environmentalist”) is something that the Trump administration has done frequently and actively. Furthermore, as compared to previous administrations, the Trump administration is far behind on actions already in the works such as: collecting on civil penalties for environmental infractions, consent with and agreements with businesses to enforce existing environmental regulations, and the release of relevant data such as deaths related to pollution. All of this inaction is supported by deliberate understaffing and corruption within the EPA. Scott Pruitt, for example, has taken funds delegated for environmental crimes and used them for his own 24 hours a day personal security.

Prof. Cha spent some time explaining how the current administration is largely comprised of “oil and gas dudes” and the larger term impacts this is having. Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the EPA, for example, previously sued the EPA fourteen times for clean power plants and initiatives that he thought would hinder oil and gas production. Whenever he (and others) use the terms, “freeing the energy economy”, understand that it essentially means “drill and mine everywhere.” Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, has no science, energy and policy background. As one example, she noted that he wants to subsidize coal plants. Market forces on their own would not make coal favorable, however, when subsidized, it shifts the market favorably towards coal and increase reliance on fossil fuels. In addition to subsidizing coal, a recent bill proposed would repeal the tax credits for solar wind which would make solar and wind energy production unreliable and expensive. Lastly, Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, has control of all federal land and has made strides to minimize land that is protected. All of these individuals deny climate change and related human influences.

Although this current situation is depressing, there is a silver lining. Legal actions, such as compliance actions, reinstatements, climate change lawsuits, are concrete ways to move forward at the federal level. Additionally, there are state and local actions. Coastal and arid areas on the East and West Coast are being active in creating meaningful local goals. For example, there is an initiative in the US to adhere to the Paris Accord as led by 210 mayors and 10 governors. The governor in New York, as simply one example, announced a Clean Climate Careers Initiative which increases public solar energy, decreases emissions, and will produce 40,000 climate changes professions by 2020, and invest 1.5 million dollars. Prof. Cha finished up by reminding the audience to stay vigilant in these current times and to focus on local/state initiatives in particular as a way to move forward.

Professor Palinkas took the stage next and delved deeper into the health implications of all that is happening. He highlighted short term/proximal implications for health and wellness. He cautioned that the true long term global effects of the current administration will be unknown for quite some time, even as environmental morbidity and mortality is surely on the rise. Whether through oil and gas or burning coal, air pollution will increase asthma and respiratory disease incidence rates. Rolling back the Clean Water Act, for example, is likely to lead to more incidents similar to what happened in Flint, Michigan. We’re more likely to see higher rates of cancer due to exposure to carcinogens, cardiovascular disease due to environmental toxins and stress from living in deteriorating, harmful environments.

Additionally, all that Professor Cha spoke about leads to huge tolls at a human level. Usually on the news, we see images of the oil spill, however, there is much more that also affects people happening behind the scenes: including, for example, increased levels of stress with clean up, and unequal distribution of job opportunities that amplify the stress already associated with environmental destruction. Another impact of environmental disasters is the tearing of the social fabric: the government is not necessarily forthcoming about actions (i.e. hurricane in Puerto Rico) and this leads to greater stress, community tension and exacerbation of pre-existing social inequalities. And at an individual level, increased rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety, drug/alcoholic abuse, domestic violence, and problematic child behavior can all be linked to environmental destruction. Globally, increasing acidity in the ocean, raising ambient temperatures, and soil changes all lead to disease outbreaks and vector borne diseases. Additionally, increased rates of drought and agricultural changes can lead to developmental problems with children (such as stunting). Prof. Palinkas noted that politically, we’ve lost great international standing by withdrawing from the Paris Accord. He emphasized that regardless if it is a long term or short term impact, the most vulnerable sectors of society are always at greatest risk.

The discussion was opened. Questions from the audience touched on environmental justice, inequality, decision making, activism, research funding, and the “narrative” on climate change. Focusing on the links between local and global work and to support equality in these troubled times, Prof. Cha recommended a focus on local level practices, adjusting inequality and working towards creating a level platform to obtain clean energy. Prof. Palinkas encouraged grass roots efforts to address environmental challenges at the community level.

The USC Law and Global Health Collaboration would like to thank both Prof. Palinkas and Prof. Cha for their valuable time and expertise.

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