Column - Hard times for environmentalists

FOR my inaugural article in 2017 I was not contemplating on writing anything on the newly inaugurated president of the United States. Best not to contribute towards the overwhelming negative commentary, I thought. That was before he declared himself an environmentalist; leaving me with little choice.

To me, an environmentalist is a person with a passion for the environment and works tirelessly and unwaveringly towards finding solutions that protect and conserve our natural resources. From the accounts I describe here, Trump hardly qualifies to call himself that.

First, he is a climate change sceptic who infamously called it a Chinese made hoax. He has pledged to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Going by the pace with which he is issuing executive orders that seek to "honour" his campaign pledges, the nay to Paris Executive Order is surely looming.

In September last year the US (perhaps more accurately president Obama as Congressional approval was never sought on the carbon cut plan) had pledged under the Paris Agreement that it would reduce emissions between 26% and 28% compared with its 2005 levels by 2025. With China also coming on board with the carbon emission cuts, the Climate Agreement received the much needed shot in the arm when two of the world's largest polluters ratified the agreement.

Whether US commitments under the agreement would ever be implemented (partly or wholly due to its unpopularity and/or its legality), was already in question nationally but with impending future action to withdraw formally that question will now be moot.

Climate experts have argued that despite the Paris Agreement's national collective pledges to reduce emissions; these targets still won't limit the rise of global temperature to below 2 degrees. If one of the world's biggest polluters opts out of its commitments, it severely undermines global efforts to prevent the planet from hurtling faster towards a catastrophic rise in global temperature. It has to be said, I have yet to come across an environmentalist that claims climate change to be phony science. Till now that is.

Second, the president insists the wall goes up immediately. The much talked about wall is meant to deter illegal immigrants but in reality deters a whole lot more than that. The wall, proposed to be made of concrete and over 50 feet high, will halt the migration of wildlife across the border between US and Mexico. Many species (some endangered and some vulnerable to extinction risks) live in the region along where the wall is proposed. These include species such as cougars, the jaguar (almost extinct), ocelots (severely endangered), big horned sheep and grey wolves. Not only does the wall fragment these species' habitats but prevents migration for food and breeding purposes thereby propelling these species towards possible extinction.

The US Fish and Wildlife Services had indicated in a report that the wall will cause adverse impacts to "111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory birds, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands".

Surely an environmentalist would immediately commission a full blown federal environmental review of the proposed wall's environmental impacts? But what the president did in fact was push out an executive order (for action by the White House Council on Environmental Quality) that seeks to expedite environmental reviews and approvals for high priority infrastructure projects.

He states in the order: "Too often, infrastructure projects in the US have been routinely and excessively delayed by agency processes and procedures." Certainly an environmentalist places priority on necessary environmental processes, time consuming as they are, over a quick turnaround time on "yes" or "no" to build something?

The let's-build president also issued an executive order that would revive two oil pipeline projects that would extract and transport hundreds of tonnes of petroleum and crude oil i.e. the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL projects. The latter is a transboundary project involving Canada, which Obama cancelled for many reasons including the fact that the project would fly in the face of the US's climate change agenda that sought to reduce carbon emissions. When Obama refused to issue a Presidential Permit for the Keystone Pipeline project, Trump (still a Republican candidate at that time) had tweeted "Thousands of jobs, good for the environment, no downside!".

I am pretty sure a crude oil extraction and transportation project that is estimated to release 24.3 million tonnes of CO2 per year can't be an environmental upside! The Dakota Access pipeline is expected to release 50 million tonnes of CO2 per year and poses an environmental threat to water resources supply for consumer and agricultural use in the event of an oil spill or leak. The cultural impact of the pipeline is a major issue as the proposed pathway of the pipeline affects cultural and sacred sites of the Native Indian communities. A full environmental report was apparently never conducted and it remains to be seen if any will be commissioned. This is after all an "environmentalist" who was quoted as saying "environmentalism is out of control".

Ansel Adams, the late American nature photographer and environmentalist once quipped, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment". I find it more horrifying that we have to now fight an "environmentalist" to save the environment.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena. Comments: