POLITICS
10/24/2018 05:23 pm ET

States Shift Focus To Pollution Victims As Trump Nears 2 Major Climate Rollbacks

The Trump administration's plans to weaken vehicle and power plant emissions rules could soon become reality.
Downtown Los Angeles shrouded in smog on a September afternoon.
FREDERIC J. BROWN via Getty Images
Downtown Los Angeles shrouded in smog on a September afternoon.

A bloc of states opposed to the Trump administration’s rollback of two major federal rules designed to cut climate-changing emissions are ramping up their ongoing challenge to the deregulatory effort ― and spotlighting the victims of increased pollution.

On a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the group of 19 states would file a joint comment opposed to the White House’s proposed rule to weaken fuel economy standards. The Trump administration’s plan would clear the way for vehicles to spew an additional 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2030 ― the equivalent of Canada’s entire annual emissions.  

The joint comment is expected to highlight the uneven impact that emissions from vehicles have on poor neighborhoods and communities of color. The states are slated to file the remarks by Friday, when the comment period for the proposed rule ends.

“They tend to bear twice the level of traffic density, so those people in those communities will be disproportionately exposed to higher levels of air pollution,” Madigan said. “If we freeze the current standards, in essence, the administration is further endangering people living in those communities.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is spearheading the effort to challenge the Trump administration's climate regulat
ASSOCIATED PRESS
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is spearheading the effort to challenge the Trump administration's climate regulatory rollbacks. 

The states plan to file similar remarks on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to gut a signature Obama-era rule on power plant pollution ― which would allow for increased pollution that could cause 1,400 premature deaths per year. The second joint comment is set to be filed by next Tuesday, when the comment period on the other draft rule ends.

“We certainly will be doing all we can to make the claim that we have to act quickly and we cannot backslide,” Becerra said.

He added, “It’s not just an issue of climate change; it’s about the health of families and the future we leave for our kids.” 

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In turning the focus of the deregulatory fight onto the marginalized Americans most likely to suffer the health impacts of increased emissions, the attorneys general are adopting rhetoric long pushed by climate change communication scholars and progressive advocates eager to break out of the tired binary debate over whether global warming is real or not.

People living below the poverty line are exposed to 1.35 times more particulate matter than those living above it, according to a landmark EPA study released in February. The air that people of color breathe on average contains 1.2 times more particulate matter than that inhaled by the general population. Black people, in particular, are exposed to 1.54 times more pollution.

The NAACP released a report in February that found black people are on average exposed to air that is 38 percent more polluted than that breathed in by white people, and they are 75 percent more likely to live in neighborhoods abutting industrial sites.

It’s not just an issue of climate change; it’s about the health of families and the future we leave for our kids. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra

The states’ challenge to the Trump administration’s proposals is likely to go beyond environmental justice arguments.

As part of its auto emissions proposal, the White House moved to revoke the latest special waiver granted to California to set its own stricter air quality standards, as provided under the Clean Air Act. The state’s heavy reliance on automobiles, coupled with the enclosed topography of sun-soaked Los Angeles, its biggest metropolis, makes it uniquely vulnerable to smog. Eight of the nation’s 10 most polluted cities are in California. The state has received a series of special waivers over decades. They received little attention until 2007, when the EPA rejected California’s request to set higher carbon dioxide emissions standards. The Obama administration granted that waiver two years later. Now the Trump administration has renewed the legal brawl.

Becerra said the administration has “no legal authority” to revoke California’s waiver.

A bombshell United Nations climate report, released three weeks ago, found that world governments need to cut emissions in half over the next 12 years to avert the most cataclysmic effects of global warming. The attorneys general argue that added urgency gives legal heft to their challenges.

“We think we can prove that not only did the federal agencies act arbitrarily and capriciously, but they are grossly derelict in their duties by not trying to move the dial forward by trying to make progress cleaning the air and environment,” Becerra said. “The situation continues to get worse and requires action now, not for us to stand pat or backslide.”

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