Article by Stacy Shelton for Community Science Forum: Changing Environmental Governance Landscape
Before the 2016 election, I was a law clerk in the Vermont Superior Court's Environmental Division, contemplating a way to stay in the Green Mountain State and practice law. I also thought I might not have the stomach for litigation, with the courtroom face-offs that TV dramas love to feature. That all changed once the votes were counted. I had to join the fight. To me, that meant returning to the South where our environmental protections are particularly fragile.
In October, I joined the Southern Environmental Law Center as an associate attorney in the Atlanta office. SELC uses the power of the law to champion the environment across six states. We litigate, but we also lobby, and we work with a variety of partners to strengthen environmental laws, scrutinize government action, and stop abuses. While the Trump Administration poses an obvious threat to our natural resources as it seeks to rollback protections, so do the politicians in our state Capitols. We have to engage the fight on both the federal and state levels.
During the last change in Administrations, I made another transition, which gives me some insights into this one. In 2009, I left my job as a newspaper reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and joined the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. At the time, President Obama had been in office only six months. Many of my new federal colleagues expressed relief that they could finally openly discuss and explore the impacts of climate change on animals and plants, and seek funding for the work. During my five years as a public affairs specialist for the Service, one of my duties was to uncover climate change stories. For example, to combat the loss of sea turtle nests to the rising sea, our biologists in South Carolina started moving them further up the beach as soon as they were laid. A butterfly in Florida became one of the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act based in part on the threat of climate change, in the form of rising sea levels. This was possible because President Obama made it clear that climate change was a priority. The details of how to address it were up to the career leaders within the Service.
The Trump Administration is turning the clock back to the Bush era, when scientists were reluctant to openly discuss climate change and seek answers. This president is skeptical of climate science and views environmental protections as job killers. Those dangerous views are trickling down, because no federal agency leader wants to be at cross purposes with the president's agenda. Those who are don't last long. Ask Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General who refused to enforce Trump's immigration-related executive order. She lasted only 10 days on the job.
The real harm to our environment will not come at the hand of Congress, which is mired in political stalemates. The real harm will come from federal agencies, where the battle over our environment will be won and lost through agency regulations and enforcement actions. The regulations, which are already being rewritten, determine how agencies interpret federal law and what actions are illegal. But even when the law is clear and an industry violation is obvious, an agency can decline to enforce, effectively nullifying the law.
For those of us fighting for clean air and water, and the conservation of our diverse ecosystems, the challenge is to stay vigilant and find the resources to stave off the attacks. We are commenting on proposed changes to federal regulations, challenging permits, and litigating when appropriate. With this Administration calling the shots, success will be measured by how much doesn't get done.
Photo: The Wind River Range, Wyoming. Photo by Margie Cohen.