The recent dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) oversight when it comes to industry regulations and the US environment, one of the Trump administration’s latest staggering acts, is being hailed as the moment we as humans condemned ourselves to a very dismal, dark, and likely hot future on this planet. Even officials from Exxon Mobil sent a letter urging Trump to to stay in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, according to which the US agrees to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below its 2005 level by 2025. (The new order makes reaching that goal highly unlikely, if not impossible.) Regardless of certain economically-influenced reasons for them doing so, oil companies are now among the chorus of voices pressuring the government to cut down on emissions because of climate change.
Oil companies. In what kind of dystopian future are oil companies the not-the-most-terrible factor, I ask you.
Ever since, the disturbing and enraging news just keeps rolling in: the administration has now also halted a rule aimed at reducing toxic wastewater from coal plants, citing that “the requirements set by the Obama administration are not economically or technologically feasible within the prescribed time frame.” And Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator himself, gave a speech at a coal mine (that was recently find contaminating local water with toxic materials, by the way) in which he declared the government’s “war” on coal is at an end — despite the fact that a recent report from the US Department of Energy shows that solar energy in the US employs more people than coal, gas, and oil combined.
As an American living in Germany for the past four years, however, I’ve observed a level of dedication to clean energy, recycling, and other environmental protection efforts that was beyond what I’d experience in the US — and I grew with a rabidly environmentally conscientious mother was has never owned a clothes dryer, and who recycles or reuses every piece of plastic and scrap of paper that comes into the house. For example, my apartment in Berlin’s electricity provider is one of many in Germany that provides energy only from renewal sources, and the recycling and bottle return systems here are startlingly efficient and accessible.
This lead me to believe Europe, and Germany in particular, is at the forefront of fighting climate change on a regulatory level, long-term — and would stand up for that in other ways too. I wondered: what can Americans learn from Germany and other nations in the European Union (EU) about how to combat these kinds of policies? Is there any oversight based on the Paris agreement that we can leverage to hold the government responsible to their promise?
The deeper I dug into it, the more I found that Germany is plagued by many similar industry hurdles, especially due to its waste management and industrial manufacturing sectors. In fact, in the 2016 Climate Change Performance Index, which scores and ranks countries based on their efforts to prevent dangerous climate change, Germany was ranked 22nd, it’s efforts considered only moderate. (For reference, no countries were ranked in the top three spots, as according to the report, “No country is doing enough to prevent dangerous climate change.”)
I decided to talk to Selina H. on the topic, a queer German chemist completing her masters in Technical Environmental Studies (fun fact: she also distills her own gin). The first thing she pointed out to me when I asked about regulations in Europe was the fact that EU abides by a law called the precautionary principle, which implies “that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk.”
That being said, she was quick to point out that Germany’s biggest barrier to climate change prevention and regulatory responsibility is waste.
“In direct combination with industry, it’s all about waste. There’s big business [in] waste.” she says. “We are the masters of incineration, which produces a lot of CO2. We build incinerators and export them. That’s why Germany has no real interest in recycling.”
The issue is inextricable, she notes, from the fact that most products are created to become waste. “Scientists are looking for ways to make recycling more efficient and cheaper, but then there must be product development to get ‘better waste’ which is easier and cheaper to recycle. As long as products are made as disposable products, we need waste incineration. The biggest problem is electro waste, because right now it’s impossible to recycle a mobile phone or TV.”
She cites a theory called cradle-to-cradle, which comes from a German chemist named Michael Braungart. “Right now, we have cradle-to-grave. We build something, you consume it, and then we throw it away. The important materials are just waste. With cradle-to-cradle, there will always be a circle. Everything will be biodegradable and you can use it for nutrition for plants, or you can recycle it. The idea requires a big change in waste treatments, like no more waste incineration. This is the biggest thing in Germany that’s wrong — there are almost no circles.”
This perspective, that waste is a dire underlying factor that touches nearly every aspect of climate change acceleration, is supported by a 2010 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that states:
At a global scale, the waste management sector makes a relatively minor contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, estimated at approximately 3-5% of total anthropogenic emissions in 2005. However, the waste sector is in a unique position to move from being a minor source of global emissions to becoming a major saver of emissions. Although minor levels of emissions are released through waste treatment and disposal, the prevention and recovery of wastes (i.e. as secondary materials or energy) avoids emissions in all other sectors of the economy.
Environmental chemistry and air pollution are also topics Selina focuses on from an academic research perspective. When I ask if the EU is going to meet the targets they set out in the Paris Agreement, which is a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030, based on the steps all member countries are taking now, she answers with a flat, “No, never.”
She then goes on to say, “There are so many different agencies who have to work together: the lobby, the industry, the state, the scientific community. The development of it it takes time.”
The concern of course, is that we don’t have time. We should be alarmed by the fact that there are no consequences laid out in certain terms about what will happen if countries don’t meet their targets: though the environmental repercussions that start to manifest will be consequence enough. When I express this, Selina responds, “I don’t know if even a punishment would work. It’s just the people. It’s the people on the street who [need to] push it and bring it more into focus. That’s missing, and that could change a lot. It’s always the answer.”
The hope, then, is that Europeans are galvanized by what’s going on in the US, and being more vigilant in their own countries. Selina reinforces this. “It’s good for us. We see [it] on Facebook, or in the news, and it’s like, ‘Ok, the system can change. Be aware.’ Because all over Europe, the right wing party is a big thing right now. We have to have an eye on it. Frauke Petry, one of the the leaders of the [right wing party in Germany] AfD, is a chemist. And she is very similar to Trump, saying that there is no real climate change, and it’s fake news. I was shocked. People get shocked, they open their mouths, they start fighting. I think this is the good part in the whole tragedy. People have an opinion. Then there will be regulations and things will change.”
Here’s How You Can Fight this Proposal (and Climate Change) Now
Leave a Public Comment on the Federal Register (Deadline: May 15th)
All proposed regulations go through a mandatory evaluation and consideration period, where the body proposing the regulation, in this case the EPA, seeks “input on regulations that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement, or modification.” During this period, ANYONE can submit a comment to the Federal Register. That means you!
Here’s the listing where you can find all the details on the proposed EPA rule, as well as the link to submit your own comment. The submission deadline is May 15th.
Not sure what will make your comment most effective? Regulations.gov provides a great overview of what to include. For example:
1. If you disagree with a proposed action, suggest an alternative (including not regulating at all).
2. Identify credentials and experience that may distinguish your comments from others.
3. When possible, support your comment with substantive data, facts, and/or expert opinions.
4. Consider including examples of how the proposed rule would impact you negatively or positively.
5. Comments on the economic effects of rules that include quantitative and qualitative data are especially helpful.
Get Involved with Watchdog Organizations
The more deregulation that comes in from the top, the more we’re going to need to work on a grassroots level with organizations that conduct independent research and help make it possible to apply legal pressure for legislation on a local level. One such US-based organization Selina highly recommends is Food & Water Watch: they’re a public interest group that helps communities all over the country organize and fight for healthy food, clean water and sustainable energy on a local level. Current campaigns include resisting pressure to sell and outsource public water systems, and banning fracking. (They also have an affiliate organization abroad, Food & Water Europe.)
Another is the Natural Resources Defense Council. Founded in 1970 by a group of law students and attorneys, the NRDC combines its two million members and online activists with the expertise of scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates to affect lasting change in the form of protections and regulations across a variety of issues. Not only do they have a very helpful Trump Watch feed that helps you track the administration’s environmental action, they also provide a wealth of information on topics like how to turn your city into a climate sanctuary.
Create Less Waste
A good experiment to start with is is keeping all of the waste you create over the course of a weekend, or week. So anything you would normally throw away (wrappers, napkins, plastic, etc.), keep it (maybe wash some of it off first). At the end of the time period, sort through it all. What are the ways you can eliminate some it? For some inspiration, take a look at this zero waste grocery store in Berlin. You can also learn more about the cradle-to-cradle philosophy, and find certified products via their Products Innovation Institute.
Electro waste, as Selina points out, is a huge issue. Especially in Europe, much of it gets sent to other continents, like Africa, where people burn it to salvage the copper and other parts they can resell. Instead, find an organization that accepts old electronics as donations. Or, in some cases, sell your electronics back to the company you bought them from — Apple has a buy-back program, for example.
Learn or Invest in Clean Energy Management
Ok, so this is maybe not for everyone, but it’s going to be a big topic in the coming years. One of the current barriers to the making wind and solar energy available to everyone in a lot of countries is that fact that it can be unpredictable. Most current energy grid systems aren’t setup to handle the kinds of surges solar or wind energy can produce. (Some countries, in fact, end up selling off what they don’t need.) What that says is that we need more people to design and build systems and update the grid to be able to handle the influx of energy. The more options we have, the less reliant we will be on coal, gas, and oil.