No doubt, many in the environmental movement were looking forward Monday night to the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. During her campaign, Clinton said she would continue to push for action on climate change, expand solar capacity by 700 percent and push for $30 billion for coal communities hurt by a move away from fossil fuels. But Donald Trump’s surprise victory on Tuesday turns all that on its head. The new President-elect has said he will accelerate fossil fuel extraction, appoint a well-known climate change skeptic to head the EPA transition team, abandon Obama’s plan to cut greenhouse gases, and pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. So how can the environmental movement adapt to this new political landscape? For some perspective, we turned to Pittsburgh’s Patty DeMarco, who has been working as an environmentalist and environmental educator for more than 30 years.
The Allegheny Front: So, let’s get right to the big question: Where does the environmental movement go from here?
Patty DeMarco: Well, the laws of nature are not negotiable and climate change is progressing rapidly. And the deterioration of fundamental environmental systems that support our clean air, fresh water and the fertile ground—and the biodiversity of species that we depend on for our life support—are going to be under threat. One of my frustrations with this campaign has been that we lost the opportunity for a broad discourse on climate change. So I think we need to be very much more aware of environmental education among the general populous.
LISTEN: Where Does the Environmental Movement Go From Here?
AF: Many of the people who voted for Donald Trump responded to his assertion that he would bring jobs back to Americans. This is something we have covered a lot, for instance, with people who work in the coal industry who feel left out. So how can environmentalists engage in conversations with people who may feel alienated by what they feel are liberal values or environmental values?
PD: Well, if you’re going to have an economy that’s based on renewable and sustainable systems, you need to have something beyond fuel switching and technology. You need to have reinvestment in communities that are dependent on those extractive industries so they can reshape how they do their work and how they live. And I think we have done a poor job in helping people visualize how a sustainable economy would actually work. If you look at transitions, like, for example, moving from horse and buggy days to the days when you had mechanized cars, think of all the infrastructure that had to change and the things that were done to expedite that. You had to pave the roads; you had to have a whole fuel supply system. We have not attended to the infrastructure supporting a renewable and sustainable energy system, and that would provide a tremendous number of jobs. Trump has said he wants to rebuild our infrastructure—perhaps on a different model than we might if it were sustainable infrastructure. But I wonder whether Congress will have an appetite for that kind of government investment program just because it’s a Republican president proposing it.
AF: So you’ve been working on environmental issues as an educator and activist for a long time. Do you take any solace in taking a longview of this election?
PD: I do actually. I think one of the things that will happen as a result of this election is that a lot of people who sat it out—either out of spite or out of feeling like it doesn’t matter what they do—have suddenly realized, ‘Oh, I sat here. And look what happened.’ I also think that both parties are going to have to examine what is the voice of the actual people. Bernie Sanders raised that voice with thousands and thousands of students who’ve never been involved in politics. They were motivated and came out and felt engaged, and they were basically slapped aside. They feel disillusioned and disowned, but that energy is still there. And we need to listen to that, if we’re going to make a more environmentally and socially just economy happen. You know, we need to rebuild an economy that is based on inclusive communities, where the people that do the work matter. If you talk to miners, for example, it’s a long, proud tradition—it’s a culture. And they didn’t feel like they mattered.
AF: So personally, where do you go from here? Does this election change how you approach your work?
PD: Oh, sure. I’ve called for the revolution already. I think we have to be prepared to stand in front of the shovels in our national refuges and on our federal lands. I think like the Standing Rock Sioux have been doing on the pipeline—that should be leaching across this country. I think a million person march to the White House on Earth Day would not be amiss. I think a million people holding “Save our Earth” signs at the inauguration would not be amiss. I think you have to be willing to call elected officials into account for everything. I think this is a wake-up call for people that complacency isn’t the answer and that giving up is not fair to our children. You don’t have four more years. You have to start tomorrow—today—to plan for the two-year election and build the leadership from the people who have the biggest stake in the future, which is our young people. Some of these old gray hairs need to get out of their chairs and make space for my students who are passionate and informed and care a lot. And we need to look at the people who have been working down to the bone to keep their families fed and housed and clothed, and respect their tradition of hard work and find a way to make them feel like they matter. These are people that you see every day, and you have to treat them with respect. And that, to me, is the most important thing we need to do after this election: Be good to each other, and respect and value each other.
Patty DeMarco is an environmental educator and author of a forthcoming book about sustainability in Pittsburgh.