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Trump’s dirty environmental policies will echo for ages

September 3, 2018

As the world watches the legal twists and turns of the Trump administration, something far more consequential is happening. Long after Trump, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and the rest are forgotten, the inhabitants of Earth will still be dealing with climate change. And policies the president recently announced are going to make the problem worse for us and put future generations on track for disaster.

A couple of weeks ago, Trump began relaxing automotive fuel efficiency standards that require automakers to improve fuel efficiency of cars over the next decade. Now, Trump is replacing former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a policy that reduces emissions from electric power plants.

By the EPA’s own analysis, these actions by Trump reverse policies that were addressing climate change.

To understand how climate is affecting you today, consider the miserable summer we’ve experienced. Climate change is one of the reasons it’s so hot. So, it follows that it’s driving up your air-conditioning bill, as well as the bill for businesses you rely on. Like higher oil prices, this increased expense ripples through the economy and takes money out of your pocket.

Climate change also causes more extreme rainfall — like what we saw during Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast about a year ago.

In some places, Harvey dropped 60 inches of rain in a few days, quickly inflicting $50 billion in damages. Several recent scientific analyses have confidently concluded that climate change turbocharged the storm, and observations have confirmed scientific theories that heavy rain events are becoming more frequent.

Sea-level rise, another result of climate change, is also costing us money. Addressing this problem will require big, expensive infrastructure projects. Public funds are now being used to build sea walls to protect oil facilities on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The irony is palpable — the people who are literally responsible for the problem are getting a free ride to adapt to the impacts. Not so the ordinary people. Neighborhoods that used to stay dry now flood frequently, destroying real estate value.

In some Houston neighborhoods, for example, residents are being forced to raise their houses at significant expense. Those who can’t afford it are forced out, leading to a huge loss in personal wealth. In other neighborhoods, new houses are required to be built several feet off the ground, raising the costs of new construction.

And this doesn’t come close to fully assessing the costs of burning fossil fuels for energy. Air pollution from power plants and cars kills millions of people around the world every year, including tens of thousands in the U.S.

By 2030, Trump’s dirty power plan could, by the administration’s own admission, kill up to 1,400 Americans every year. In addition, the Trump administration estimates the plan would lead to 120,000 new cases per year of what it describes as “exacerbated asthma,” 48,000 missed school days, 48,000 missed workdays and 300,000 “minor-restricted activity” days by 2030.

It’s a depressing and, given the cost of lost productivity, expensive list.

There are also steep nonmonetary costs. When the temperature hits 100 degrees in the summer or if air pollution becomes unbearable, it will become a risk to leave your air-conditioned, air-purified indoor space. The inhabitants of that future — a future not that far away — may be virtual prisoners who cannot go outside on summer days.

Why would a politician propose a policy that is so detrimental to the well-being of his constituents? The answer is that polluting pays handsomely — for the polluters. The money not spent on environmental protection goes straight to the polluter’s pocket. The other winners are career politicians, who receive enormous political contributions from these same businesses to ensure that the companies can continue to pollute. Everyone else not profiting from pollution, though, loses.

It’s important to realize that climate change we’ve experienced is just a taste of what’s coming. The global climate has already warmed about 1.8 degrees since the Industrial Revolution. Warming over the coming century will be several times what we’re already feeling. When you look at the impacts that are already occurring with a moderate amount of warming, it is clear that there’s a train coming and we’re standing on the tracks.

We should do the smart thing and move, but Trump is trying to tie us to the tracks.

Andrew Dessler is a professor of atmospheric sciences and the Reta A. Haynes Chair in Geosciences at Texas A&M University.

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