“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, once said.
The reason Muir’s quote became famous is that it has been repeated — with good reason — for generations. His organization, the environmental group he founded in San Francisco in 1892, should keep this quote handy for, say, the next four years.
That’s because if President-elect Donald Trump is held to his tweets, his administration will open up a can of whoop-ass on the planet that will spin Muir in his grave faster than a climate-change-induced hurricane. Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, spoke by phone with SF Weekly on the elemental challenges that California — and the world — may face after Trump takes the oath of office next month.
Frankenstein’s monster’s mentality of “fire, bad” may work in campy horror movies, but it’s not exactly sound science. The truth is that the U.S. Forest Service is just coming to terms with the natural and important role that fire has in sustaining healthy ecosystems.
The USFS cites “climate change, the growth of communities into wildlands, and the buildup of flammable vegetation” as modern problems that have exacerbated wildfires all over the West, including California.
“Climate change means a drier climate, less snowpack, and more powerful and intense fires,” Brune says. “And we need more money for fire prevention, not just money for fighting fires.”
This education on how to properly manage fire needs to continue — and it needs funding from the federal level to do that. Effective stewardship of natural resources demands leaders who are open to cutting-edge science and willing to see the interconnectedness of all species. On top of that, understanding fire in California while denying climate change is like trying to understand the lit match without the struck flint.
Brune adds that a federal bill awaiting approval — the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act — would change how wildfire funding is allocated, allowing more money for prevention measures such as thinning and removing the fuels that lead to such strong wildfires. But it already faces strong Republican opposition, led by a president-elect who knows more about burning through millions of dollars than any kind of fire management policy.
Trump has already pledged to reduce funding to study sea-level rise, and his disinterest in understanding the complexity of California’s drought is downright scary. “We’re gonna solve your water problem,” Trump told a group in Fresno in May, according to a KQED report. “We’re going to get it done, and we’re going to get it done quick. That one’s an easy one. Don’t even think about it.”
“The cluelessness and recklessness that Trump has shown so far will be a big threat to California’s water supply,” Brune explains. “You can’t solve a problem if you don’t understand the problem.”
San Franciscans need to look no further than the end of the San Francisco International Airport’s runway for proof of climate change’s effect on sea-level rise: A sea wall is crumbling and urgently needs a $60 million fix.
Although Brune counts Sen. Dianne Feinstein as an important ally, the Sierra Club does not support a bill proposed by Feinstein — the California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act — which would attempt to maximize the delivery of water through the San Joaquin at the expense of native plants. The $600 million plan includes building dams, too, a painful echo of the Hetch Hetchy project that John Muir unsuccessfully fought against.
“We can’t just focus on slowing the rate of damage,” Brune says. “We will have to resist the Trump administration’s assault on our environment while reminding the public that strong environmental protection means better welfare for a larger section of the public.”
No matter how cool The Donald looks with a hard hat on his orange head and a pretend shovel in his small fists, the dollars don’t lie: Green energy has a brighter future than coal does, and sharp business minds — not just science eggheads — have recognized that fact.
“More than 50 coal companies have gone bankrupt in the U.S. alone,” Brune notes. “In the last 30 years, clean energy has become cheaper than fossil fuels. Clean energy just makes economic sense.”
Myron Ebell, the director of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute who was tapped to lead Trump’s EPA transition team, is taking aim at all of President Barack Obama’s climate-change policies over the last eight years, including the Clean Power Plan, which would close more coal plants in favor of clean energy. (Brune describes Ebell in direct terms in a mass email to Sierra Club members: “He’s one of the single greatest threats our planet has ever faced.”)
Although coal mining may not be an immediate threat to California, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — using pressurized liquid to crack open rocks and extract oil or gas — is already happening in the state, and Trump is intent on increasing it.
“The Sierra Club will support Monterrey in its decision to ban fracking,” Brune declares. “Where fracking is taking place in California, we will force polluters to take responsibility for any environmental damage.”
Most believe that President Richard Nixon created the EPA in 1970 due to political pressure — and many believe Trump will try to make good on his own political promise to dismantle the agency.
Getting rid of the EPA may become as practically and politically feasible, as, say, building an enormous wall between two countries or throwing political enemies in jail à la the KGB. But Brune believes Trump can make the agency impotent by naming as its head a climate-change denier who would undermine, and refuse to enforce the safeguards that have improved air quality over several generations.
“The next president will have a lot of power to delay, weaken, or rewrite many environmental protections,” Brune says. “But that power is not absolute, and not one person went to the polls thinking, ‘I want more air pollution!’ or ‘I want contaminated drinking water!’ Not only did Trump lose the popular vote, he did not receive a mandate to undermine the environmental legacy of our country.”
Early indications of Trump’s plans have not been encouraging. Bob Walker, Trump’s space policy adviser, told The Guardian in mid-November that he wants NASA to focus more on space exploration than “earth-centric science.” The only problem with that simple idea is that NASA’s $2 billion satellite system has been studying the Earth closely and producing tangible evidence of climate change.
Everything is “hitched to everything else in the universe.” Come the New Year, we will discover if the president is willing to spend the time, energy, and money to understand and appreciate Muir’s philosophy — or whether he will pick it apart, hitch by hitch, tweet by tweet.