President Trump’s epic meltdown at his Thursday news conference continues to get widely panned in the press. The fallout from the Michael Flynn fiasco continues. The administration’s bungles and disasters are piling up as high as Trump’s imagined Mexican border wall. Trump’s approval just slid further in Gallup, down to an abysmal 38 percent.
And yet, this afternoon, Scott Pruitt was narrowly confirmed by the Senate to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Because of the relevance of the EPA’s mission to efforts to combat climate change — and because of Pruitt’s deep hostility to that mission — this could have enormous ramifications over the long haul.
Which is another reminder that, while the messy drama and Trumpian antics may create the impression that the administration is consumed in chaos and incompetence, Democrats are going to lose a lot of fights to come — often to great consequence.
The vote came after Democrats held the Senate floor for hours overnight and through the morning to criticize Pruitt as a pawn of the fossil-fuel industry and to push for a last-minute delay of his confirmation….Pruitt’s confirmation marked a serious defeat for environmental advocacy groups, which wrote letters, waged a furious social media campaign, lobbied members of Congress, paid for television ads and sponsored a series of public protests to keep the Oklahoman from taking the reins of EPA.
“Scott Pruitt as administrator of the EPA likely means a full-scale assault on the protections that Americans have enjoyed for clean air, clean water and a healthy climate,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in an interview. “For environmental groups, it means we’re in for the fight of our lives for the next four years.”
“The fight of our lives” is a good way to put it. Pruitt is very much in sync with much of the congressional GOP, both when it comes to hostility to environmental regulations, and when it comes to its widespread hostility or indifference to climate science.
This means that, via Pruitt, Republicans are now in a position to mount a serious challenge to President Obama’s gains in fighting climate change. There are many ways Pruitt can do this, but one of the most momentous could be his expected efforts to try to unravel Obama’s Clean Power Plan, an EPA rule that sets targets for states to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. That, in turn, is key to our ability to keep our commitments to the Paris climate accord, which in turn is important to creating the possibility of continued global cooperation to keep climate change from escalating to a point of no return.
Environmentalists will fight Pruitt’s efforts to undo the Clean Power Plan in court, and it’s possible the damage can be contained, or that continued private sector and/or state level innovation will mitigate it. But that might not happen. As Brad Plumer summarizes:
It’s hard to predict exactly how much [Pruitt’s] actions will matter. One possibility is that they won’t. Perhaps states will continue to shift away from coal and invest in renewables at a rapid clip, partly for economic reasons and partly because they know carbon cuts are inevitable. … Perhaps electric cars will continue to catch on, as battery prices drop.
But it’s also quite plausible that Pruitt’s tenure at EPA could derail momentum on decarbonization in a way that will have sweeping, long-term implications. Perhaps he works with Congress to strip away the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gases once and for all, so that no future president can act. Perhaps the U.S. fails so miserably to hit its emissions targets that other countries start winding back their own climate ambitions, leading to a hotter planet overall.
… it’s hardly inconceivable that decades from now, as the planet keeps warming, we could look back and see picking Scott Pruitt as one of Trump’s more momentous decisions.
One thing is clear: the U.S.’s international leadership role on climate change is now going to be put into reverse.
The big picture here is that Democrats are going to lose a lot of battles. Trump got Betsy DeVos confirmed as Education Secretary after an epic show of opposition by Democrats and liberals. He got Jeff Sessions confirmed as Attorney General after an outpouring of outrage and activism over the GOP’s blocking of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s effort to read Coretta Scott King’s letter on the Senate floor.
It’s still very possible, or perhaps even likely, that Republicans will repeal large chunks of Obamacare, and any GOP replacement is likely to kick millions off coverage, if one materializes at all. Republicans will likely be able to chip away at Wall Street oversight. They will likely push through a massively regressive agenda of huge tax cuts for the rich and possibly major cuts to the safety net. Next week, Trump is expected to roll out a new executive order restricting travel to the United States, and this one might survive the courts, though he may have to whittle it down substantially to make that possible. Trump will likely get his Supreme Court nominee confirmed, and he may get another one not long after that. Trump’s use of the White House to promote Mar-a-Lago, via high profile trips that cost taxpayers huge sums of money, will continue.
And now we’ve got Pruitt, who could substantially set back efforts to battle climate change, with untold long term consequences.
Yes, stopping the current version of Trump’s travel ban was a big victory. Yes, our institutions seem to be holding strong in the face of Trump’s authoritarianism. Yes, it’s possible that Republican efforts on various legislative fronts can be stymied. Yes, it’s possible that Republicans can be pushed into exercising more oversight on Trump, particularly if more stories come out about conflicts, or corruption, or the Russia connection. Yes, it’s possible that the administration’s incompetence may trip up Trump’s — and Steve Bannon’s — worst designs.
But we’re only one month in, and this is going to be long, difficult, and, at times, very, very dispiriting.