Social Justice, Environmental Destruction, and the Trump Presidency: A Criminological View

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Michael J. Lynch, Paul B. Stretesky,
Michael A. Long, and Kimberly L. Barrett*

We represent three generations of scholars who study environmental crime, law and justice, and the enforcement of environmental regulations. Our work focuses on how the politico-economic organization of capitalism promotes ecologically destructive behavior by profit-driven corporations, exploits nature and human labor, generates ecological destruction/disorganization, and furthers the unequal distribution of wealth and ecological resources. With respect to how the Trump administration and proposed cabinet selections will affect social and environmental justice and any effort to study environmental crime by corporations, we expect a return to the conditions that existed during the G. W. Bush Administration and that some of us witnessed firsthand.

For starters, under the Bush administration the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reduced publicly available data relevant to the study of environmental crime and the enforcement of environmental regulations. For example, we were often frustrated to learn that environmental crime data that were available under Clinton’s EPA were no longer reported and/or had been removed from the EPA’s website during the Bush administration, and could now only be obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Moreover, the Bush administration’s emphasis on market-based solutions to improve environmental performance pushed environmental regulation research away from examining state interventions, thus curtailing criminology’s potential (albeit generally conservative) contributions to the study of environmental issues.

As we enter the era of the Trump administration, we expect to once again encounter problems gaining access to important environmental data. Notably, we believe we will see EPA budget cuts impact the availability of environment-related crime data. After all, conservative politicians often view data reporting and environmental regulation as pointless burdens for corporations and businesses. Trump has made no secret of his belief that environmental regulation—much of which deals with reporting requirements—is economically harmful to business. Consider for example the following exchange between Donald Trump and Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday (October 15, 2015):

Donald Trump:  Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace. Every week they come out with new regulations. They’re making it impossible —

Chris Wallace:  Who’s going to protect the environment?

Donald Trump: They—we’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.

Far from being a disgrace, in our view environmental protection is a necessary part of ensuring that the ecosystem is protected for future generations, and that ecosystem inhabitants—from humans to wildlife—are protected from the ecologically destructive behaviors of corporations. It is no disgrace to take environmental concerns seriously and to pass and enforce regulations that protect public and ecological health. Rather, the disgrace is believing that if left to their own, corporations will protect the ecosystem. In fact, the history of environmental regulation is a demonstration of how the state, as a representative of the people and public health, must force corporations to protect the ecosystem, countering their proven tendency to favor the bottom line over ecosystem health and stability.

Based upon Trump’s first statements on this matter, we believe the Trump administration will do away with important data reporting programs, producing a rupture in the historical record of important environmental data and a significant reduction in the enforcement of environmental regulations. It should also be noted that, even when environmental data are collected, EPA appointees can limit access to those data. One example of this problem was reported by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in their review of mercury emissions rules during the Bush administration.  Citing numerous sources pointing toward “unusual” approaches for crafting mercury pollution regulations during the Bush administration, the UCS noted that “political appointees at the EPA completely bypassed agency professional and scientific staff as well as a federal advisory panel in crafting the proposed new rules.” The Washington Post reported that the “Bush administration’s proposal for regulating mercury pollution from power plants mirrors almost word for word portions of memos written by a law firm representing coal-fired power plants.”

We can certainly expect similar tactics during the Trump administration as Trump appointees, many of whom will push efforts for environmental deregulation as a mechanism to expand economic production, will ignore relevant research on this subject [such as the association between improved environmental corporate performance and increased corporate financial performance demonstrated over a 35 year period (1975–2011) by Elisabeth Albertini (2013)]. We can expect that the ideology of economic growth rather than science will guide the Trump administration’s environmental policies, and furthermore that those policies will benefit the owners of large-capital industries rather than the populace base that supported Trump.

One of the most critical issues we face is the Trump administration’s (already apparent) misperception of science, its indifference to what scientists know about things such as climate change, pollution, and public health, and its insistence on “making America great again” by returning to the conditions of an earlier era—long ago banished by the globalization of corporate capitalism—that relied on reduced environmental regulation and increased fossil fuel production and consumption. Besides Trump himself, his proposed cabinet includes climate skeptics, fossil fuel industry executives, and political leaders from states with strong fossil fuel connections.  This is similar to what happened with G. W. Bush’s cabinet; thus, in contrast to the idea that a Trump presidency will be unique because it is influenced by Washington outsiders, we already see tendencies that have characterized prior administrations. (By the way, for those who think that federal policies are too restrictive, let us remind them that US EPA has failed, through decades of policy, to meet the federally mandated requirements of many federal laws, including, for instance, the provision in the Clean Water Act to make US waters fishable and swimmable by 1985, a provision that has yet to be met since that legislation was passed in 1972.)

Trump’s proposed cabinet includes several officials who will adversely affect environmental policy and enforcement, and therefore the quality of the US ecosystem. As head of EPA, for instance, Trump proposed Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma. Pruitt’s position on the EPA is similar to Trump’s. For instance, in 2014 Pruitt’s office told the New York Times: “It is the job of the attorney general to defend the interests and well-being of the citizens and state of Oklahoma … This includes protecting Oklahoma’s economy from the perilous effects of federal overreach by agencies like the EPA.” Pruitt denies the existence of climate change (calling it a hoax or fraud), and at one time he announced his intent to force the Obama administration to repeal ALL of its newly imposed environmental regulations. In the pursuit of this goal, Pruitt has sued the EPA on various occasions in an effort to: limit the Regional Haze Rule, which regulated air quality in National Parks; rescind ozone pollution restrictions; cancel EPA coal-fired power plant mercury emission regulations (the Clean Power Plan); and limit the Waters of the United States rules and regulations. None of these suits have been successful, and thus one could argue they have been a waste of taxpayer dollars as Pruitt strived to protect the interests of his wealthy supporters, including the oil lobbies that have funded his political career (e.g., he received funding from Harold Hamm of Continental Resources, a fossil fuel company, and later joined a suit by Continental, Oklahoma Gas & Electric and the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance against climate change regulations). Pruitt has sued the federal government on many other matters, and has also sued California over its caged hen egg-laying rules (California Proposition 2)—an issue that seems hardly related to the governance of Oklahoma. As Kenneth Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted, the selection of Pruitt to head EPA should be considered unusual in light of his “clear record of hostility to the EPA’s mission.” For instance, as Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt sent a letter that challenged EPA estimates of air pollution caused by energy companies in Oklahoma; the letter was signed by him but composed by employees of Devon Energy who had donated money to his campaign.

Trump’s choice to head the Department of Energy is Rick Perry, someone who once said he would abolish the agency (in a well-known instance during a presidential debate in which he couldn’t actually identify the agency by name). Perry believes that climate change is an unproven scientific theory—scientifically speaking, of course, theories are proven by testing hypotheses, and a theory emerges when significantly related hypotheses cannot be rejected, but perhaps it is too much to ask that people placed in charge of federal agencies dealing with science should know such things. Perry, who has held the longest term of any former governor of Texas, obviously has deeply embedded connections to the fossil fuel industry (Texas is the foremost producer of fossil fuels in the United States), so one can easily imagine that his energy policies will favor fossil fuels over alternative energy, which is the same condition found in the Department of Energy during the G. W. Bush administration (headed first by Spencer Abraham, who was also part of Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force, and second by Samuel Bodman).

As the proposed head of the Department of the Interior, Trump named Ryan Zinke, a Montana congressional representative. In that role, Zinke will influence national policy related to drilling for oil and gas on federal lands and the construction of national oil and gas pipelines. He has already established a congressional voting record favoring the destruction of federal lands for fossil fuel exploration, supporting the Keystone XL pipeline (vetoed by President Obama), and removing protection for endangered species in order to promote the above policies. At one time a supporter of climate change policy, he now denies the science behind climate change, perhaps, as Tim Murphy implies on Mother Jones, after receiving political contributions from the fossil fuel industry.

Trump has also proposed Rex Tillerson to be the Secretary of State. Tillerson is the former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. Tillerson, at least, does not deny climate change and supports a carbon tax. However, his company consistently lobbies against climate change regulation and is being investigated by the State of New York for providing misleading statements about climate change.

Many other Trump’s cabinet nominees also deny climate change but will hold positions where perhaps climate change policies are less vital. One exception here is the nominee for the Department of Human Health and Services. For this office, Trump proposed Tom Price, a climate change skeptic who has signed a pledge from Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch Brothers, to oppose climate change legislation.

As green criminologists, our concern is that the changes to federal policy that we can expect from the Trump administration will be deleterious to the majority of Americans, to people in other nations, and to the health of the global ecosystem (not to mention the health of the US ecosystem), and that they will exacerbate environmental racism and environmental injustice in the United States. We anticipate:

  1. an increase in environmental pollution and in exposure to environmental toxics, which may be especially problematic in urban areas;
  2. diminished efforts to enforce environmental regulations against corporate polluters, creating a context in which corporations will increasingly violate pollution permits and regulations that are no longer enforced;
  3. an increase in the unequal distribution of pollution and exposure to environmental pollution in impoverished areas, communities of color, and Native American Indian reservations, which will aggravate the health of residents and will be exacerbated by a reduction in federal health care policy;
  4. reductions in penalties for corporations that violate environmental laws;
  5. a deterioration of air and water quality in the US, generating additional public health problems; and
  6. rising rates of animal extinctions, a trend already of scientific concern.

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References and Further Readings
Albertini, E. 2013. Does Environmental Management Improve Financial Performance: A Meta-Analytical Review. Organization & Environment 26(4): 431–57.
Bullard, R.D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Downey, L. and Hawkins, B. 2008. Race, Income, and Environmental Inequality in the United  States. Sociological Perspectives 51(4): 759–81.
Kosmicki, S. and M.A. Long. 2016. Exploring Environmental Inequality within US Communities Containing Coal and Nuclear Power Plants. In Hazardous Waste and Pollution: Detecting and Preventing Green Crimes, edited by Tanya Watt, pp. 79–100. New York: Springer.
Lynch, M.J., R.G. Burns, and P.B. Stretesky. 2010.  Global Warming as a State-Corporate Crime: The Politicalization of Global Warming during the Bush Administration. Crime, Law and Social Change 54(3): 213–39.
Lynch, M.J., M.A. Long, K.L. Barrett, and P.B. Stretesky. 2013. Is it a Crime to Produce Ecological Disorganization? Why Green Criminology and Political Economy Matter in the Analysis of Global Ecological Harms. British Journal of Criminology  53(6): 997–1016.
Lynch, M.J. and P.B. Stretesky. 2012. Native Americans and Social and Environmental     Justice: Implications for Criminology. Social Justice 38(3): 104–24.
Parenteau, P. 2004. Anything Industry Wants: Environmental Policy under Bush II. Environmental Law and Policy Forum 14(2): 363–404.
Stretesky, P.B., M.A. Long, and M.J. Lynch. 2013. The Treadmill of Crime:                      Political Economy and Green Criminology. Abingdon, UK:  Routledge.

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*Michael J. Lynch is Professor of Criminology in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida; Paul B. Stretesky is Professor of Criminology in the Department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University; Michael A. Long is Associate Professor of Social Sciences in the Department of Social Sciences at Northumbria University; and Kimberly L. Barrett is Assistant Professor of Criminology in the Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology Department at Eastern Michigan University.

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