Week 150: Trump Is Pro-Fence When It Comes to Immigration, Anti-Fence When It Comes to Protecting Kids’ Health

Plus, the solar industry pleads for mercy, and the president says he thinks about climate change “all the time.” Hmm.

December 06, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Coal plant photo: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur/Alamy)

Good Drones Make Good Neighbors?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed changes to fencing guidelines around power plants. The existing rule requires utilities to build fences to make clear the division between public land, where the law requires that air quality be measured, and private spaces, where it does not. The new proposal spares companies the trouble of building a fence. Instead, Trump’s EPA says a “no trespassing” sign would suffice.

This is an absurd relaxation of the rules—some power plants are built on sprawling properties where the plant itself is barely visible from the boundary. Putting up a “no trespassing” sign doesn’t guarantee that people will see it, and, even if they do, an average person wouldn’t assume that he’d be taking a great health risk by walking onto the property.

But the rules venture even further into the realm of absurdity. If the utility can’t even be bothered to put up and maintain signs, it can just have a drone circling around. But how does a drone indicate to a passerby that she is being exposed to potentially unhealthy air? Is that what you think when you see a drone?

The tragedy of all this is that some of these sprawling properties, where air quality isn’t regulated, are extremely close to schools and housing developments. Kids who are out walking their dogs could be wandering into polluted areas every day without any realistic way of knowing it.

Look for the drones, kids. Look for the drones, and hold your breath.

Slashing Solar Jobs

President Trump imposed tariffs on imported solar panels in early 2018, essentially pitting two parts of the industry against each other. Trump said the move would help domestic manufacturers of solar panels because products made by their foreign competitors would immediately be 30 percent more expensive. But other solar industry companies, ones that don’t manufacture solar panels—for example, installers of rooftop arrays and designers of industrial solar parks—stood to suffer. The most affordable panels suddenly became more expensive, driving up their customers’ costs and driving down their own profits.

There was also a side benefit for the Trump administration. Increasing the cost of solar panels would slow our nation’s transition to renewable energy, and that would give a boost to the ailing coal industry.

In the first days after the tariffs were adopted, anecdotal evidence began to trickle in that the tariffs could hit the solar industry hard. Some solar installers canceled plans to expand their workforce, while others were forced to lay people off. This week we got a more comprehensive view of the tariffs’ consequences in a study commissioned by a trade group representing the solar industry. The study suggested that the tariffs cost $19 billion in investment in renewable energy—and 62,000 solar jobs that would have otherwise been created.

That’s a lot of jobs by any measure. But if you’re looking for context, here’s the most poignant comparison: There are only about 52,000 coal mining jobs in the United States. The industry that Trump professes to love so dearly, the industry that he desperately tried to prop up with subsidies, employs 10,000 fewer people than he’s willing to see go unemployed in one of his protectionist gambits.

For Trump, coal jobs are precious American treasures. American solar jobs are collateral damage.

Trump Keeps Talking Climate

“I think about it all the time . . . and, honestly, climate change is very important to me,” President Trump said with a straight face on Tuesday, speaking to reporters at a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of a NATO anniversary celebration.

On any given day, it would be easy enough to rebut this claim. Trump has called climate change a hoax. His moves to prop up the coal industry and his attempt to freeze automotive emissions standards are just two of many examples of how his policies accelerate climate change.

But Trump’s words were especially absurd on Tuesday because his former National Security Council science guru was speaking just a few miles away on the very same day about the president’s climate denial.

“He’s very sympathetic to trying to get some more rationality into climate policies. Personally, he feels very strongly that way,” said William Happer, the physics professor and noted climate dissident at an event organized by the anti–climate science “think tank” the Heartland Institute. (“Rationality” is a dog whistle for climate deniers, who believe that 97 percent of climate scientists hold irrational views.)

Happer recounted his many efforts to combat legitimate climate science from within the Executive Branch. He attempted to organize a conference of climate change deniers to rebut the scientific consensus, only to be thwarted by White House officials whom Happer called “brainwashed.” He also claimed that the White House considered censoring, or even burying, the legally mandated National Climate Assessment because it diverged from the president’s public statements denying climate change.

Happer compared himself to Alfred Wegener, the scientist who was initially derided for supporting the theory of continental drift. “He was right, and sooner or later we will also be vindicated,” Happer predicted.

There’s just one teensy problem with this comparison. Wegener was a revolutionary—he developed a novel theory that ran counter to the conventional wisdom that continents were static. His research forced a scientific paradigm shift. If Wegener has an analogue in climate science, it’s someone like James Hansen or Svante Arrhenius—visionary proponents of the study of climate change who moved science in a new direction. Happer isn’t a revolutionary; he’s a reactionary. He’s resisting a paradigm shift that has already happened, and trying to move science backwards.

In other words, Happer is a perfect match for Trump—he wants to make science “great” again.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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