Turning anger into action

Jan. 12, 2017, 12:57 a.m.

When I wrote about my sadness in the aftermath of the election, I noted that with time, I would be ready to channel my anger into action. I envisioned that this transition would take a few weeks. But only a few days after Nov. 8, a text from a high school friend spurred me out of my sadness.

“Courtney, we need to talk … about the environment.”

“Yeah, let’s do that soon … while it’s still around,” I responded.

Although environmental issues were largely neglected in the presidential campaign season, they are undeniably tied to the election’s outcome. While we are approaching a point of no return on global warming, our country has just elected a man who calls climate change a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Trump’s pledge to restore the coal industry would threaten domestic emissions-cutting measures, and he has expressed scorn for international climate negotiations such as the Paris Agreement of 2015. Ironically, the US presidential election coincided with the UN Framework on Climate Change’s follow-up conference in Marrakesh, where the delegates proceeded as normal despite the knowledge that everything could unravel if the US backed down from its leadership role.

Overwhelmed with the ugliness and disappointment that the election had brought about, my friends and I sought some sort of concrete action. Learning about and limiting the irreversible devastation that Trump’s presidency could pose to the environment seemed like a good place to start. Unsurprisingly, plenty of people at Stanford had similar questions and ambitions. On Nov. 29, the law school hosted a panel on environmental policy under a Trump administration. My friends and I snagged some of the last available seats before the event became standing room only. The panelists emphasized that dismantling EPA rules takes much more time and political energy than Trump’s Twitter feed would suggest — but withdrawing from international agreements, stripping research funding and total inaction were all within the realm of possibility. At the time, Trump had not yet nominated someone to head the EPA, but the panelists concurred that Trump’s pick would signal the direction of environmental policy with the new administration. At least one of the panelists doubted that Trump would spend the political capital to appoint a climate denier, but that ominous possibility loomed. Just over a week later, it became a reality.

On Dec. 7, Trump named Oklahoma state attorney general Scott Pruitt as his pick for the Environmental Protection Agency. To quote Senator Ed Markey, “Scott Pruitt would have EPA stand for Every Polluter’s Ally.” Not only does Pruitt have longstanding ties to the fossil fuel industry, but he has also spent much of his career fighting the agency he has been selected to lead. Pruitt, along with over two-dozen other attorneys general, is currently suing the EPA over its ability to regulate greenhouse gases as outlined in the Clean Power Plan. To make matters worse, Pruitt would be the first EPA administrator of either party since the 1980s to reject the scientific consensus on climate change. Pruitt’s claim that the facts on climate change are “far from settled” is entirely incompatible with the EPA’s commitment to act according to “the best available scientific information.” A man who has called himself a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” on his own LinkedIn page cannot be entrusted with the EPA’s simple yet critical mission: to protect human health and the environment.

During winter break, I decided to stop bemoaning this development and to do something meaningful. After a bit more research on Pruitt and the mission of the EPA, I organized contact information for the entire Senate and noted every Senator’s environmental voting record as indicated on the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard. After drafting templates for phone calls and letters, I mailed and called every Senator who has not publicly denied anthropogenic climate change or who has not already come out in support of Pruitt. In my research and writing, I put a lot of effort into tailoring my messages to the particular Senators and emphasizing the relevance of sound EPA policies not only for the environment, but also for public health, economic opportunity and national security. For those who did not have strong environmental voting records, I did some background research on the Senator and reframed the importance of climate change in terms of his or her priorities. For example, the Department of Defense identified climate change as a threat to national security in 2010, so I included this detail in letters to Senators who had devoted much of their careers to national security concerns. Using the hashtags #PreventPruitt and #ProtectEPA, I advertised my campaign and got a group of friends to make phone calls too.

Perhaps, as one family member suggested, I am barking up a dead tree. With so many controversial Cabinet appointments, Democrats may not see Pruitt as the most crucial nominee to oppose. From a numbers perspective, preventing Pruitt will be an uphill battle; it only takes a simple majority to confirm a Cabinet-level appointment, and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already come out in support of Pruitt. Cynics will say I am wasting time, ink and paper to do little more than fuel my ego and claim a commitment to activism. But friends, acquaintances and mutual friends from all over the country shared my message on Facebook, asked for phone call templates and expressed gratitude for my efforts and commitment, even with the knowledge that my goals are less than likely to be achieved.

I can live with the doubt that my ambitions will be realized, but I cannot resign myself to silence simply because the new administration does not share my convictions and priorities. Accepting the election results does not mean accepting the vision for America that Trump has articulated. His victory may have made some of us feel powerless, but that does not absolve us of the power and responsibility to take action for the next four years, no matter how futile it may seem.

Writer’s note: As a starting point, I encourage you to join me in calling and mailing your Senators and urging them to oppose any Cabinet or Cabinet-level nominations that you find unacceptable. If you are interested in a phone call template and letter regarding the proposed EPA administrator, please email me by the end of the week. His hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 18.


Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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