President-elect Donald Trump dropped a lump of coal into the stockings of environmentalists with his nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The selection of Pruitt, who joined a coalition of state attorneys general in suing the agency he’s been nominated to lead over its Clean Power Plan, and who represents a state with a robust oil-and-gas industry, is seen by critics as a full-blown assault on President Barack Obama’s climate legacy.
“For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs,” Trump said in a news release from his presidential transition team announcing the pick, which went on to say that Pruitt “will reverse this trend and restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe.”
Over the weekend on Fox News Sunday, the president-elect called himself “open-minded” on whether climate change is actually happening, adding, “I’m somebody that gets it and nobody really knows. It’s not something that’s so hard and fast.” But asked directly whether he intended to destroy Obama’s legacy on climate change, Trump said, “I don’t want to do that at all. I just want what’s right.”
Predictably, industry organizations, such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, reacted with glee, saying in a press release that “Pruitt will be a strong advocate for sensible policies that are good for our environment, as well as mindful of the need for affordable and reliable electricity.”
Earthjustice, which describes itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit environmental-law organization, is among the environmental groups that reacted with alarm to the Pruitt nomination.
“Every American should be appalled that President-elect Trump just picked someone who has made a career of being a vocal defender for polluters to head our Environmental Protection Agency,” said Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen in a statement on its website. “He has fought Environmental Protection Agency pollution limits on toxic substances like soot and mercury that put us all at risk for increased cancer, childhood asthma and other health problems.”
Many of those health issues, including asthma, disproportionately affect African Americans, partly because so many carbon-spewing power plants are in black communities. African-American children were 10 times more likely to die from asthma than white kids between 2012 and 2014; and black women were 20 percent more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic whites in 2014. About 68 percent of blacks live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.
Disasters also affect many people of color, from the African Americans who suffered through the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to blacks in Los Angeles, who are nearly twice as likely to die from a heat wave than other residents in that city, according to the report “The Climate Gap” (pdf). The same "Climate Gap" study found that five of the cities with the worst smog problem also have the highest densities of people of color and low-income residents.
“We know who pays the price for pollution from coal, oil and gas, and that is people in low-income communities and people of color,” Bob Dean, with the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, tells The Root. “[These are] people who find themselves on the front lines of environmental hazard and harm. They see it first whether it is in the river … or the air. … People like that mother in Flint, Mich., who wonders how to find clean water … like A.C. Cooper, who’s trying to make a living on the Gulf Coast finding shrimp for people to eat and worried about oil pollution.”
The NRDC released a poll last year showing that two-thirds of African Americans see global warming as a serious problem, and 83 percent support setting the first-ever limits on carbon production from coal- and gas-fired power plants under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The survey also found that most African Americans think that as the nation reduces carbon pollution, it will drive the use of renewable wind and solar energy, and that would create new jobs.
But Trump has called global warning a hoax perpetrated by China, which China, of course, denies. The president-elect also vowed, in his first-100-days policy plan released Nov. 21, to cancel what he calls “job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy—including shale energy and clean coal—creating many millions of high-paying jobs.”
Trump told Fox News Sunday that he needs to balance regulations with the fact that businesses in China and in other countries don’t have to deal with the same level of environmental restrictions faced by their competitors in America.
On his transition website, Trump has vowed to get rid of the Clean Power Plan, which is currently the subject of a court battle. EPA-head nominee Pruitt is part of a coalition of 28 state attorneys general suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan.
Trump also says he’s still studying the Paris climate agreement—a pact that commits nations to curb the global rise in temperatures and is backed by the U.S. and other countries—saying he doesn’t want it to put America at “a competitive disadvantage.”
There are concerns at the Energy Department, where Trump’s transition team has asked for the identification of employees who have been involved in international climate negotiations or have worked on efforts domestically to cut greenhouse gases.
But environmental expert Michael Dorsey, a three-time appointee to the EPA’s national advisory committee, notes that the details of the president-elect’s climate-change policy are unclear so far. Trump’s plan, as listed on his transition website, includes opening onshore and offshore leasing and ending what he calls “the war on coal.” But Dorsey tells The Root that the nation’s top five coal companies are in various stages of bankruptcy.
“So the idea that you can revive coal in America is a long shot at best,” Dorsey says, adding that even if the Trump administration does nothing about current climate-change policy, the nation is well on the way to cleaner energy.
“Last year, for the first time in human history … we saw more dollars flow into solar and wind for the generation of electricity and energy than fossil fuels … and that trend is continuing,” Dorsey says. “So if nothing is done, the current trajectory is the increasing build-out of renewable energy to protect public health, to protect the environment, to improve the economy and to fortify national security … because it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.