Trump’s executive order: proving Pope Francis right

Laudato Si’ has a lot to say about President Trump’s nod to fossil fuels. But maybe not the way we're thinking.

“There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.” + Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 188

President Donald Trump did again today: provoking rounds of applause in some corners and cries of despair in others. For those of us at environmental regulatory agencies, there was a lot of head shaking and head nodding as details of his executive order hit the wires.

Among other acts, the Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth strikes down a number of climate and energy-related executive orders signed by President Obama. It requires agency reviews of a selection of energy and emissions-related regulations, and, importantly, it demands that federal cost-benefit analyses follow 2003 standards set by the Office of Management and Budget, “which was issued after peer review and public comment and has been widely accepted for more than a decade as embodying the best practices for conducting regulatory cost-benefit analysis.”

It opens the door to leasing federal lands for extracting coal and other fossil fuels, disbands the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases, and nixes a number of reports of that group, removing them from holding any privilege of governmental policy.

And as it does all this, it notes that it is "the policy of the United States ... to the extent permitted by law, [that] all agencies should take appropriate actions to promote clean air and clean water for the American people, while also respecting the proper roles of the Congress and the States concerning these matters in our constitutional republic."

To get to what all this has to do with Laudato Si’, let me first share a few personal observations as an engineer with almost three decades of environmental regulatory experience—of late dealing with climate change.

Dueling Orders

How was President Trump able to wipe away so much of President Obama’s climate-related legacy? Ironically, because the former president quite often used the very tool Trump used today: the executive order. Such forms of rulemaking can bypass Congress and get things done quickly, but they can be replaced as easily as pen touches paper.

Here's the problem: chances are the next decade or so could see dueling policies by such orders and counter orders, unless we can build sound, bipartisan eco- and energy-related laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Such laws bring foundational authorities that cannot be easily undone. But for something akin to a Clean Climate Act, we need sound relationships and dialogue—which is exactly what Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si’.

“A healthy politics is sorely needed, capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia. It should be added, though, that even the best mechanisms can break down when there are no worthy goals and values, or a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society.” Laudato Si’, 181

Being part of the review:

President Trump's order calls for “reviews” of other forms of governance, such as regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan "and Related Rules and Agency Actions.”

You’ll see lots of language like this in the order:

Review of the Environmental Protection Agency's "Clean Power Plan" and Related Rules and Agency Actions. (a) The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (Administrator) shall immediately take all steps necessary to review the final rules set forth in subsections (b)(i) and (b)(ii) of this section, and any rules and guidance issued pursuant to them, for consistency with the policy set forth in section 1 of this order and, if appropriate, shall, as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind the guidance, or publish for notice and comment proposed rules suspending, revising, or rescinding those rules.”

In other words, the president’s administration, and the powers that elected him, are saying they want a say in the countries eco-rules and regs. Now, given the tone of the voices advising the president on these issues, it’s likely that the administration will be pushing for suspending or rescinding clean energy laws, rather than just lightly revising them.

But, given the public nature of the processes called into being by the executive order, Catholic ecologists can have their say. In one form or another, we can boldly encourage that noble and generous society that Pope Francis talks about.

“Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term. That is why, in the absence of pressure from the public and from civic institutions, political authorities will always be reluctant to intervene, all the more when urgent needs must be met.” Laudato Si’, 181

Entering into dialogue—for real

Many cheering supporters of the president’s executive order represent segments of society that might say they’ve been railroaded by the Democratic powers that ruled in Washington the past eight years. Rightly or wrongly, they may also say that finally there’s someone in the White House listening to them.

This begs a question. Do we as ecologists really stop and consider—or talk to, really talk to—the men and women impacted by our polices? Or are they simply "polluters" and not worth our time?

Last week, the USA-based Catholic Climate Covenant held a special webinar on transitioning from fossil fuel economies to renewable energy ones. Its goal was to consider the workers in the coal industry—the real men and women and families that have to find work when coal mines are idled. This excellent contribution by the Covenant—considering the people who earn a living from fossil fuels—is exactly what we need more of. It’s exactly what Pope Francis asks of us in Laudato Si’. And if there had been more of this kind of relationship-building within the political machinery of Washington D.C. and around the United States this past decade or two, there may not have been the fury of an unheard populace that rose up and gave their support to Donald Trump, the one man, they say, who seemed to be hearing their concerns.

Dialogue, the pope tells us, saves souls and planets. Looks like he's been proven right. That said, we’ll need to double down on real dialogue going forward.

Yes, there are powerful and willfully self-centered business interests that yearn only for short-term profit rather than a healthy environment and the long-term boom of renewable energy. There are ideologues in this administration that do not accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change. And there are politicians who wish only to rise in power rather than consider the common good. Or they have a different notion than many of us about what is the good.

And yes, sometimes the answer to such threats to our common home are political rallies and the usual protests we’ve been seeing from the left since November.

But frankly, I’m looking for another way.

There is no doubt that we climate and eco-advocates have lots of work ahead of us. I only hope that as we go forward, we don’t make the same mistakes that helped get us in this divided reality in the first place.

“Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.” Laudato Si’ 231

Photo: Flicker/Michael Vadon

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.