Trump Lambasted On Climate Stance

Panelist questions scarcity of solar panels here

President Trump was repeatedly scorned by a full house at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Tuesday as the first Hamptons Institute discussion of 2017 focused on climate change and how to combat it.

Introduced by the actor Alec Baldwin and moderated by David E. Rattray, the editor of The Star, the event’s three panelists encouraged those in attendance to act individually and collectively, and to remain optimistic despite already visible manifestations of climate change and increasingly ominous warnings from scientists.

Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the gathering that in the nearly 50-year history of her organization, “I can unequivocally say this is the worst we’ve ever seen it,” with respect to the Trump administration’s denial of climate change and embrace of fossil fuels at the expense of a transformation to renewable energy that is well underway in other countries. “I can go through the several dozens of actions that this administration has already taken” in undoing progress made by the previous administration, she said, along with “the very disturbing signs that we’re seeing also from the legislative branch.”

These, she said, “represent twin threats that we’ve had in the past, but I don’t think we’ve had it quite at this level of magnitude.”

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, said that recent travel around the world illustrated that “people know the climate is changing, people accept the scientific evidence, people think it’s a serious problem, and people are trying to do things about it.” Returning to the United States, however, was “like going through some weird ‘Twilight Zone’ episode.”

Alex Soros, founder of the Alexander Soros Foundation, lamented “a president that is engaging in policies that are out of whack with the majority of the American people.”

That disconnect, the panelists said, is partly a result of democracy: Changes in the executive and legislative branches of government inevitably bring changes in policy. Another factor, Ms. Oreskes said, is the fact that climate information comes from scientists, “and I can tell you they’re terrible communicators. They don’t like to personalize things.” Consequently, climate change remains an abstract and distant concept, she said.

Regardless of federal policy, however, a majority of Americans recognize that climate change is real and man-made, Ms. Suh said, and there is ample cause for optimism even in the face of regressive policies at the federal level. Several states — and not just California and New York — are taking aggressive action to sharply reduce carbon emissions and implement a clean-energy infrastructure. “I think we are continuing to make progress regardless of the man that’s in the White House,” she said.

In New York, Ms. Suh said, there is a direct correlation between the Public Service Commission’s Clean Energy Standard and the South Fork Wind Farm, an offshore installation that Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island company, hopes to construct approximately 30 miles from Montauk. She credited Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for acting to transform the state’s electricity generation to clean and renewable sources.

But, she told Mr. Rattray, “I can’t help but get triggered. When you say ‘Deepwater Wind,’ I think ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ ” a reference to the largest marine oil spill in history, in which some 4.9 million barrels of oil were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “The reality that this administration wants to actually open up development, to actually expand that type of deepwater drilling, will have direct impact on coastal communities, like the one that we’re sitting in right now.”

Concerned citizens can look to the year 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act and the federal Environmental Protection Agency was established, for inspiration, Ms. Oreskes said. “Nixon was acutely aware that the American people wanted this,” she said. “He was responding to the pressure of public opinion. That’s where we all come in.”

Many leaders, she said, are in fact followers. “We need to make sure that our congressmen, our senators, our local representatives, and our president hear from us, because they do respond to what they think voters think are going to do at the next election.”

Ms. Suh told the audience to take heart in the millions who have taken to the streets to protest the Trump administration, many of them first-time activists who “felt like they needed to stand up and speak out. . . . People want to know what they can do. It’s not just about calling a congressman or signing a petition, it’s what they can do in their own communities, in their own states.” A “movement moment” is upon us, she said.

With that in mind, Ms. Oreskes noted her surprise at the scarcity of solar panels on rooftops in East Hampton despite the affluence of many of its residents. For less affluent people, the up-front installation costs are a barrier, she said. “We need to think about micro-financing to help working-class families, middle-class families make that up-front investment. But in a well-off community, I think there’s no excuse for not having solar panels on your roof. . . . And it’s something you can do tomorrow.”

Another way individuals can lessen their impact on climate change, she said, is to reduce or eliminate beef consumption. Animal agriculture, according a report by the Worldwatch Institute, is responsible for at least half of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Mr. Baldwin asked the panelists what larger-scale, immediate actions could be taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“Stop subsidizing all fossil fuels,” Ms. Oreskes said, and cease construction of fossil-fuel infrastructure, “because every pipeline, every export terminal is committing us to 30, 50, 75 years of continued fossil-fuel use.”

Mr. Soros advocated an executive order banning hydraulic fracturing, the practice known as fracking, in which natural gas or oil is extracted from the earth, and a return to America’s positive engagement with the world. These, he acknowledged, are unlikely during the Trump administration.

“We should be moving to electrification of the vehicle,” Ms. Suh said, and be moving quickly to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

“While we are in this time of great, great distress, don’t ever forget that you can make a difference,” she said. “It really is the basis of how we’ve always made progress in this country.”