US state legislatures seek climate action despite Trump pullback

A conference of elected officials from across the US to discuss emerging environmental issues begins on Friday.

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    The US ranked 27th of 180 countries scored on key indicators in the Environmental Performance Index in 2018 [File: Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu]
    The US ranked 27th of 180 countries scored on key indicators in the Environmental Performance Index in 2018 [File: Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu]

    Washington, DC - After more than two-and-half years in power, the Republican administration of President Donald Trump has tried to use reductions in environmental regulations to promote energy dominance in the United States and dismantle efforts to address the climate crisis.

    The government's push to roll back the environmental regulations, however, has met strong pushback in the courts by environmental groups, as well as counter moves by state governments which have been stepping in to compensate for the lack of federal government action.

    Indeed, amid a vacuum of leadership at the national level, the US state legislatures are beginning to pass new, tougher environmental protections.

    "Climate is really top of mind for everyone, particularly now that the administration has announced they are pulling back," said Jeff Mauk, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators (NCEL), which on Friday is convening in Nashville a conference of elected officials from across the country to share information.

    "States are feeling even more urgency to act on climate. We are hearing that from people in both parties who are interested in that," Mauk told Al Jazeera.

    "This is coming from a heightened consciousness amongst the voters. Constituents are really prioritising this and we are hearing a lot of people responding and making that their top priority."

    'Complicated picture'

    The US ranked 27th of 180 countries scored on key indicators in the Environmental Performance Index in 2018 produced by Yale and Columbia universities in cooperation with the World Economic Forum.

    Within that aggregate ranking, there is a mixed picture. The US was first in drinking water but did not score well on biodiversity and species protection.

    Air quality, while generally good in the US, has declined recently after many years of steady improvement, according to a study by the American Lung Association, which found more cities had higher levels of soot and smog, largely because of higher temperatures associated with three of the hottest years on record, 2015 to 2017.

    The Lung Association's latest State of the Air report adds to evidence that rising temperatures will make it harder to protect human health.

    US president lauds his administration's environmental record (02:36)

    These studies, however, do not fully capture the effect of Trump's assault on environmental policies put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama, according to some experts, who say it may be years before the consequences are fully understood, particularly as US courts put a pause on changes to rules.

    "It's a complicated picture because regulatory change itself must follow a process and that includes opportunities for litigation and so, the administration puts forward proposed changes and they get batted back in the courts," Lynn Scarlett, vice president for policy and government relations at The Nature Conservancy, told Al Jazeera.

    Reversing course

    The Nature Conservancy is tracking 83 proposed regulatory or administrative actions by the Trump administration that seek to roll back existing or forthcoming environmental protections.

    "Under these ... years of the Trump administration, there are some attempts to reverse course in climate, in air quality and in species protection," Scarlett said.

    For example, Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a broad attack on protections in the Clean Water Act that, if successful, would make water pollution in the US substantially worse, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

    The EPA has proposed revisions to the 2015 Clean Water Rule that would exclude more than 18 percent of streams and half of all wetlands from protection.

    The agency wants to make it easier for wastewater plants to release partially treated sewage during rainstorms. It has sought to postpone indefinitely pending regulations designed to avoid and minimise hazardous substance spills.

    "The environmental record of this administration is by far the poorest of any administration I can recall," Nat Keohane, senior vice president for climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Al Jazeera.

    "You've got an administration that is systematically trying to attack some of the bedrock clean water, clean air, environmental health protections for the American people," Keohane said.

    Automakers' moves

    The Trump administration is also threatening to reverse years of progress in the EPA's efforts to cut carbon pollution from power plants.

    In June, the agency issued a rule repealing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, drawing a court challenge from the NRDC.

    "President Trump's dirty power scheme would do nothing to address the rising economic costs and the increasing dangers wrought by climate change. Instead, it would give polluters free rein and doom future generations to a dangerously hostile world," the NRDC said in a statement.

    Separately, Trump's EPA is trying to halt progress on tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks that yield better fuel economy and cleaner cars.

    US cars and trucks averaged 10.5km per litre in 2017. The rules Trump is trying to block would have pushed that US passenger fleet average up to 15.7km per litre by 2025.

    Responding to that, four of the world's largest automakers - Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW - reached an agreement in July with California to continue complying with the Obama-era tailpipe emission standards. Thirteen other states are considering similar moves.

    "You've got a dynamic where even as the administration seeks to roll back some of those policies that were put in place by the Obama administration, in many cases the sectors that one might think would be cheering them on, are actually saying they don't want that," Keohane said.

    "The automakers understand the importance to their customers and they understand that, regardless of this administration, the world is very clearly heading towards a clean economy, a low-carbon economy, and they want to be part of that rather than moving backwards," he added.

    At least nine state legislatures have been setting targets for 100 percent renewable or carbon-free energy, while as many as 10 state legislatures are considering carbon pricing plans. And there is robust discussion about building electric vehicle infrastructure, according to NCEL.

    "The states really are the laboratories of democracy when it comes to thinking ahead on environmental policies, and then when enough states have taken action, then the federal government feels the need to respond to have some uniformity," Mauk said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News