December 22, 2017

Covering the environment in the age of Trump

Writing about the environment wasn’t always a breaking news beat.

Sure, there were wildfires and toxic spills. But those were exceptions, not the rule.

Environment reporting during the administration of George W. Bush meant keeping a close eye on the activities of Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who we saw centralize White House control over agencies in a way that hadn’t happened before. That administration was notorious for rewriting scientific documents before publication and holding frequent briefings with high-level agency employees.

And of course, there’s New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. With strong support from the oil and gas industry, she delivered on campaign promises to roll back environmental regulations during her very first days in office. And even as firefighters tried to hold back New Mexico’s largest wildfires in recorded history, rural communities were hit by drought and the state’s largest rivers dried, Martinez ensured that agencies rolled back climate initiatives—even a Climate Masters Class for the public—and avoided any mention of the region’s rising temperatures or why they are occurring.

Despite the hopes of many, the Obama administration didn’t necessarily champion environmental issues or the agencies and employees working on natural resources. “For the most part, except in recent months, it had been benign neglect,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, told me during that liminal time between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day. “Even now, what’s going on is somewhat uneven.”

Energy development on public lands boomed under Obama and environmental enforcement continued its decline during that administration. The crisis in Flint, Michigan underscored a lack of federal attention to local drinking water issues while, for the most part, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still focused on reviewing new development projects, rather than doing what Ruch called “deep science.”

But about a year ago, writing about the environment became a matter of hustling after perpetually breaking news about rules and regulations, executive orders and changes in how agencies mandated to protect human health or the environment operate.

As Donald Trump delivered his inaugural speech on a rainy Friday morning toward the end of January 2017, I streamed the inauguration and obsessively refreshed the White House website. Just a few minutes into the new president’s speech, the website’s transition appeared complete. All mentions of Obama’s climate change initiatives were gone. Over and over again, I pasted the old links into my browser and clicked. The links were gone.

Gone. Gone. Gone.

Within hours of the inauguration, the social media accounts for federal agencies sharply shifted messages. In 2016, many agencies, including NASA, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Geological Survey seemed to have ramped up posts related to climate change. On a regular basis, federal employees were posting about things like Arctic sea ice extent, drought, worldwide temperature and carbon levels and newly published studies related to climate. In the Trump administration, that outreach to the public on climate, especially from high-profile agencies like NASA and the National Park Service, slowed or stopped.

U.S. Department of the Interior

President Donald Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in March when the president signed his American Energy executive order.

The White House announced a federal hiring freeze within days. Trump’s cabinet appointments included the CEO of ExxonMobil and a state attorney general who repeatedly sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Immediately, the Trump administration set about rolling back the few gains made late in the Obama administration. As carbon dioxide hit levels unseen in 650,000 years and global temperatures continued climbing, Trump signed an executive order revoking and rescinding all Obama-era orders and reports addressing climate change and clean energy. He also ordered the EPA to review and revoke the Clean Power Plan, which required states to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. (In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed implementation of that plan, pending the outcome of a lawsuit against the EPA by utilities, the coal industry and 24 states.) Trump also rescinded guidance requiring federal agencies to consider the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions when performing environmental reviews, disbanded the Interagency Working Group on Social Costs of Greenhouse Gases and withdrew the group’s documents “as no longer representative of governmental policy.”

Trump directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review his agency’s rules, including one guiding hydraulic fracturing on federal and Indian lands. Zinke himself followed up with more orders of his own. One overturned a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, another directed an agency-wide review of all existing regulations, documents and policies that might hinder energy development and the third created a new committee to advise Zinke on royalties collected from mining and drilling on public lands and in U.S. waters. And of course, as many New Mexicans know, at the behest of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Trump ordered Zinke to review millions of acres of national monuments including two in New Mexico.

That all happened within just 100 days of Trump’s inauguration.

It’s important, however, to not lose sight of how people have come together.

People across the country marched in support of scientists earlier this year, including thousands of people in cities and towns across New Mexico. When the state Public Education Department tried to cut information about climate change and evolution from school science standards, New Mexicans across the state spoke up in indignation, and the department backed down. And people are probably more aware of Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments now than they were before Trump and Zinke set about reviewing them.

Laura Paskus

Earlier this year, we covered a summer camp that connects refugee children with NM’s wild places

Just in the past couple of months, neither the Trump administration nor Congress could stop 13 federal agencies from releasing a crucial assessment of climate change in America. And EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has even had to delay his plans to host a “red team-blue team” debate over climate change.

As a journalist, it’s my job to watchdog agencies and officials, to ensure they are upholding their duties to the public. As someone privileged enough to share what I learn with readers, I also want to assure you that within state and federal agencies alike, courageous people remain. These are people who are doing their best to protect air and water, to hold the line against unchecked development and to bring integrity and care to their work each and every day. For many, their jobs are difficult, however, and fear remains rampant within state and federal agencies alike.

At the same time that news about climate change, water, energy, wildlife and natural resources has become increasingly urgent, it’s also important to slow down and understand why these issues matter. Not in the cyber-universe of online petitions, Tweets and Facebook comments. But out in the real world, where rivers dry, forests burn, where farmers till the soil, where children explore their homelands and where people need clean air and water to survive.

It’s also important to have a little fun.

One of my favorite stories for NM Political Report this year focused on where to go hiking on Black Friday. Our readers shared their ideas and plans via Twitter (Finally! A worthwhile, and non-stressful, reason to look at social media) and people continue to call and email, telling me where they like to hike or hunt. (Keep doing that!) There is something to be said for the joy we find outside, and the camaraderie we feel when sharing our favorite places with others.

As we pass solstice and ready for a new year, it’s time to reflect on all that is changing in America right now—and where each of us fits into ensuring that there’s something left of this world for future generations. Sometimes that means having uncomfortable conversations, readying for battle or deciding to make sacrifices. And sometimes it means reaching out to new allies, looking at our friends and perceived adversaries face-to-face and listening to one another’s voices.

But whatever it means for you right now, in the darkness, I think we can all share a little light with one another.