COURIER Illustration (Denzel Boyd)
COURIER Illustration (Denzel Boyd)

After spending four years fighting efforts by the Trump administration to roll back protections, groups now want the Biden administration to make it clear climate is a priority.

This year has brought record-breaking wildfires, hurricanes, and heat that stretched well into the fall, making it clear in an already apocalyptic-feeling 2020 that the effects of climate change are upon us. 

Environmental groups have also faced their own historic year of sorts, fighting–and winning–numerous court battles against the Trump administration. But with President-elect Joe Biden headed to the White House soon, advocates say they can shift their focus from defending already-established policies to actually fighting climate change.

The sheer magnitude of how much our climate has changed has been years in the making. But the process has only been sped up by the more than 80 environmental protections and regulations attacked by the Trump administration. During this time, environmental groups have been put on the defensive–instead of moving towards their goals of clean water, slowing the effects of climate change, and protecting wildland and animals, they have had to turn their attention to maintaining regulations that were already in place. 

“There was truly nothing that we were able to work on with the Trump administration,” said Bob Irvan in an interview with COURIER. Irvan serves as the president of the environmental group American Rivers. “There was no interest from this administration to work on anything positive for conservation; they were only intent on dismantling our bedrock environmental laws and protections.” 

Jacob Malcolm, the director of Defenders of Wildlife, said it was much harder to coordinate with federal agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, and they often worked to avoid additional attention from the Trump administration. Instead, the group turned their attention to the courts. 

“We have spent a lot of time these last four years in the courts and on Capitol Hill to try to limit the damage that has been done,” Malcolm said. “I think you’ll find that we, and not just Defenders, but the broad community has done a pretty good job at this because the law has been on our side.”

And that has meant that many of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back protections have been thwarted by existing laws. 

“The Trump administration hasn’t followed the law a lot, and when you got into court with the fact that [a company] broke the law in 17 different ways, well it makes for an uphill case for them,” Malcolm said. 

Nathaniel Keohane, who serves as the senior vice president for climate with the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that same fact: the law was on their side. 

“The latest thing I heard was that if you look across regulatory areas, including the environment but also more broadly the Trump administration lost over 80% of the court cases they brought,” Keohane said in an interview with COURIER. “So in other words if you think across attempted to roll back regulations, attempts to challenge authorities, attempts to challenge what the states were doing Trump lost more than four out of five of those cases.” 

That means environmental groups like his can go into President-elect Joe Biden’s term in office with many environmental standards in place. 

“Not all of them, of course,” Keohane said, “there were some high profile repeals like the Clean Power Plan but most of the standards are in place and that’s really important. We’ve been holding the line.” 

Over the last four years, often in court, the groups have been able to improve maps on endangered species, protect the Clean Water Act, and implement new legislation to protect rivers in states like Oregon, California, and Montana. In another example, American Rivers went head-to-head with the Trump administration in court after they tried to replace Clean Water Act regulations with looser guidelines. The environmental group won a nationwide injunction to suspend the rule. 

With the Biden administration less than 50 days from taking over the White House and executive branch, the groups foresee friendlier dialogue and far more support in their future. 

“Of course it’s never simple to get things done,” Irvin said, “but what I can say is that we will have an administration that is actually interested in a conversation with the environmental community and recognizes the existential threat of climate change.”

The three groups were in agreement that the first step for the Biden administration is to set the tone for environmental policy over the next four years by making it clear that it is a top priority. They explained that by making climate change a key issue Biden can encourage faster progress. Each group also said they were pleased to see John Kerry appointed to be special ambassador on climate. 

“I think one of the things I’m most looking forward to in the Biden administration is seeing leadership back in place,” Malcolm said. “Having someone like Kerry with the gravitas he carries is really encouraging.” 

Keohane said it was a shift for the Environmental Defense Fund to have positive news to respond to.

“Kerry is an amazing choice and I think we had forgotten how good it feels to scramble in response to good news,” he said. 

Biden has said that in some cases, he still supports fracking, a process of extracting oil from the ground by injecting liquid at high power. That disappointed many environmentalists, but Irvine noted that Biden’s comments made it clear that he is interested in transitioning from fossil fuels and environmentally-damaging extraction methods to clean energy and a cleaner economy. 

“I think this is realistic on his part,” Irvine said. “It’s going to take time [to transition to clean energy] and while we’re in the process, there is going to continue to be a need for natural gas, in particular as a bridge to clean energy and that is produced through fracking.”