Strategy Session

Keeping environmentalism alive during a Trump presidency

East Sustainability
From left to right: Andrew Revkin of ProPublica, Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. (Fred Bernstein/AN)
From left to right: Andrew Revkin of ProPublica, Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. (Fred Bernstein/AN)

What now?

Will environmentalists be able to make any headway in the next four years? That was the theme of a discussion moderated by veteran environmental reporter Andrew Revkin (now of ProPublica) at the offices of BeEx (Building Energy Exchange), a group dedicated to improving the environmental performance of buildings. The panelists were Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

“Is there a way you can see for environmental groups to engage the new administration, or is it going to be completely antagonistic?” Revkin asked. Bystryn answered that, at least with moderate Republicans, the conversation should be about the economic impact of various responses to climate change. “I’m not sure the ‘are you a denier or not a denier’ gets you anywhere, particularly in this administration. If you stick with ‘you’re either with us or against us,’ you’re locking yourself into a situation where you’re not going to move anybody.”

And could there be common ground between environmentalists looking to build wind and solar “farms” and an administration committed to creating infrastructure?   According to Gerrard, “That could be a ray of hope, but [Trump] probably means oil and gas infrastructure.” Revkin thought there was a chance that upgrading the electricity grid, which is antiquated and vulnerable to hacking, might pass the new administration’s test for infrastructure projects.


Conservation, as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was a constant theme. “The best energy is the energy we don’t use,” said Revkin, who referred to reductions in energy use as “negawatts.” The trouble, he said, is that politicians gravitate to high-profile projects. “You can cut a ribbon for a new power plant. You can’t cut a ribbon for negawatts.”

Gerrard was pessimistic about conservation as public policy during the Trump years. “People going into the cabinet have as one of their objectives maximization of use of fossil fuels, which makes them not interested in efficiency,” he said. But Bystryn replied that “what the members of the new administration really want is to make money,” which suggests they might be willing to invest in renewables if the return on investment is there.

As for the possibility of a national carbon tax—which some environmentalists see as the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—Gerrard again seemed doubtful.  “The only prospect is if it were part a macro budget deal, as a way to solve the deficit [by bringing in new tax revenue]. But it’s not clear that the new administration cares about the deficit.”

Revkin reported on a conversation he had not long ago with Bill Gates, who said that that resistance to conservation explains why he is focusing on new modes of energy production. “If it’s zero-carbon energy pumping into the system, it can be a leaking balloon and it doesn’t matter. That’s why I’m focusing on the big initiative,” Gates said, according to Revkin.

But one questioner worried that “talking about innovation becomes an excuse for not taking action” in the present.

Revkin responded that “it’s not an either/or issue.” He said innovation can extend beyond technology. “The biggest factor in reducing New York City’s water usage was installing individual water meters.” Similarly, he said, when it comes to conserving fuel, “People’s views change when they see a picture of their house with heat leaking out everywhere. Using those pictures to educate people is a kind of innovation.”

If the federal government steps away from enforcing environmental regulations, the onus may shift to state and local governments. “We have an election coming up in New York City next year,” said Bystryn. “We should make clear that the mayor’s climate agenda is critical and force him to make that more visible. Similarly with the governor.”

Gerrard discussed an investigation by state attorneys general into whether Exxon misled its shareholders about its climate change initiatives. Investor disclosure laws are a tool, he said, that can be used to hold companies accountable. “I think it’s important for people to support their states in these actions.” He recommended using the “state and local legal levers” to make buildings more efficient. “Traditionally the real estate industry has fought back.  So we need citizen activism to push back against pushback.”

The conversation repeatedly turned to whether nuclear power has a place in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Gerrard said, “The economics of it are just horrible. It’s the most socialist of all energy forms. It requires massive government subsidies at every step of the way. It amazes me that a lot of people on the right favor nuclear power.  That’s mostly because it’s a macho technology, I think. Not because it’s economical.”

Revkin, a longtime reporter for the New York Times, seemed unsure if climate change would ever get the attention it deserves from the public and from politicians. “I’ve spent 30 years writing articles in the presumption that if people are given more information they will change.” But, he reported,“among liberal Democrats climate change has finally climbed to number 6 on their list of priorities. Number 6. And that’s liberal Democrats.”

One problem is that groups focused on climate change, which is a global concern, and groups with local environmental agendas, don’t always see eye-to-eye.  Scenic Hudson, dedicated to protecting Hudson River Valley views, may disagree with advocates of wind turbines in New York State. “If you love wind power, you’d better like transmission lines,” he said. “Because energy has to get from point A to point B.” Conversely, groups concerned about climate change might support fracking, which does its environmental damage locally, because natural gas burns much cleaner than the coal it generally replaces. Bystryn said that while New York has banned fracking, it might be “unwise” to try to stop fracked gas from coming into the state, as some have proposed, because “renewable energy is not ready yet to take its place.”

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