Science

Everything Is Endangered

Trump’s nonsensical attempt to move us back to inefficient lightbulbs is just the beginning.

A gradually dying lightbulb
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pureradiancephoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Last Wednesday, the Trump administration announced its plan to roll back efficiency standards for lightbulbs. This would halt the slow-moving process of phasing out inefficient incandescent and halogen lightbulbs in favor of LEDs, through legislation that was passed with bipartisan support in 2007 under George W. Bush and has widely been considered successful by basically everyone except the people who make the old lightbulbs. LED lighting is credited with reducing household energy consumption, a reduction that’s only expected to continue as we swap more bulbs. It’s a largely painless change for consumers—the new bulbs last much longer, and we can all hope that someday American innovation will solve the new bulbs’ distinctive coloration problem. In other words, the lightbulb is no straw, or, at least, it hasn’t been.

There’s no guarantee the announced rollback will happen—the new plan is likely to be challenged in court. That’s happening to a lot of Trump’s deregulation policies, because, as Richard L. Revesz has persuasively argued in Slate, the Trump administration has been consistently sloppy in its legal reasoning, a pattern that has undermined its ability to implement its preferred policies. Still, the lightbulb maneuver and a variety of other moves in recent weeks make it clear that the administration is still willing to fight on all environmental policy fronts, regardless of the eventual outcomes.

In late August, the Trump administration released its plan to roll back methane emission regulations. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide in terms of the damage it does as a greenhouse gas. As with lightbulbs, the new plan targets a policy that has been relatively popular—even some major energy companies don’t support Trump’s proposed rollbacks. This set of dynamics also echoes the ongoing battle over car emission regulations that unfolded this summer—the Trump administration would like to lower those too, and again, the car companies they are designed to benefit have taken up arms against the rollbacks. That’s because certain states with very large car markets, most notably California, already have higher efficiency standards, and splitting the market would make things more complicated for car manufacturers. Uncertainty is actually a bigger enemy for automakers than tight regulations—it’s more expensive for them to be constantly adjusting in response to changing standards than to just know what to expect and to be able to plan for it. And who would have predicted that, in the year 2019, anyone would be advocating to make car emissions standards less aggressive, rather than more?

But this is the administration’s message on environmental issues: No one can be certain about anything. Expectations and limits that seemed secure are now subject to review or reversal. We’re not just stalling out on environmental progress, which would be costly enough; we’re being dragged sporadically and unpredictably backward. Instead of planning for the future, environmental advocates are forced to defend the past. Meanwhile, over it all hangs the president’s long-stated intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement when he can, in November 2020. (His yearslong promise to withdraw has already obliterated the chance that America will make good on its nonbinding commitment to reduce emissions.)

Undermining a global agreement to combat climate change is not enough for Trump. In late August, as the Amazon was burning, Trump told his agricultural secretary that he should figure out how to remove the logging restrictions that currently apply to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which just happens to be the world’s largest intact temperate forest, by this fall. An anonymous former Trump staffer told the Washington Post that forest policy is “an obsession” of the president’s. Trump thinks that lifting the ban would help the state’s economy, and Alaska’s Republican governor and Sen. Lisa Murkowski agree. But whether it would provide a net boost is a matter of debate: As the Post noted, the restrictions to logging help bolster the habitat that creates the nearly $1 billion salmon industry as well as sustain the state’s lucrative tourism business, both of which might make the action a net loss, economically. And that doesn’t even account for the less quantifiable role the forest plays as a carbon sink in this age of climate change or as a habitat for creatures like grizzly bears and bald eagles.

The Trump administration doesn’t care much about the inherent value of wildlife. In mid-August, the administration announced its plan to weaken the Endangered Species Act. These policies, which were first floated in the summer of 2018, are scheduled to take effect this month (though they will also likely face challenges in both the courts and in Congress). Among other things, they will make an astonishing change to how a species’ eligibility is determined. Historically, and currently, a species’ eligibility for the list is determined simply by an assessment of the species’ health and the threats to its continued health. For the first time, the Trump administration would like regulators to assess how much protecting a species could disrupt economic interests before deciding whether to list it. Basically, it’s an argument to only protect threatened species when it is abundantly obvious that doing so won’t cost us much.

Over the past few weeks, Democratic primary candidates have gathered to talk about climate change, as the most important issue facing any president taking office in 2020. It’s easy to look at the current administration and lament that these are four lost years—four enormously costly lost years—in which no progress on environmental policy has been made, or will be made. But the reality is much darker. In this period in which we really should be collectively figuring out how we will take on the task of reducing our carbon emissions, we are instead saddled with an administration that would like to pull us in the exact opposite direction: the direction of polluting more rather than less, of pilfering more and protecting less, of valuing industrial needs more and biodiversity less. There’s no real need to brace for future environmental catastrophe—they’re making a whole new batch right now.