Climate and Environmental Policy in Trump’s First 100 Days: A Summary through a Gender Lens
By Gabriel Chan | May 19, 2017
Of all the actions President Trump has taken in his chaotic first months in office, moving to roll back the previous administration’s environmental and climate rules may have the greatest impact on future generations. Against the overwhelming evidence, scientific consensus, and trends in public opinion, Trump threatens to dramatically reshape climate and environmental policies – many of which will lead to disparate outcomes for men and women.
The Trump Administration has made announcements and taken actions to slow or repeal Obama-era environmental protections related to coal mining waste, clean water, oil and gas drilling, vehicle emissions, and power plant carbon dioxide emissions. By some estimates, Trump rolled back 23 environmental rules in his first 100 days. The Administration has also removed information on climate change from EPA websites, proposed a budget that would significantly cut back federal funding for environmental protection and clean energy research, made significant cuts to the scientific advisory boards to the EPA, and nominated individuals with notable anti-environmental regulation positions for key regulatory positions.
Why Coal Jobs?
The nominal motivation for Trump’s environmental agenda thus far has been to support employment in the U.S. coal sector. As he signed the March 28, 2017 executive order “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” President Trump was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and 12 coal industry workers (see photo below). Trump seemed to enjoy asking the coal workers, “You know what this says?” He answered his own question: “You’re going back to work.” The moment appeared to begin fulfilling a promise Trump repeated during the campaign that coal miners would “start to work again” and be “proud again to be miners” if he became president.
Image by Inside Climate News
The coal industry, however, is one of the least gender-balanced sectors in the U.S. economy—it comes as no surprise then that every coal worker who stood behind Trump during the signing of this Executive Order is male. Of the 279 industries that the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles gender ratios for, coal mining ranks 278th (behind only logging) with a 4% female workforce in 2016. Jobs classified as “support activities for mining” (all forms of mining, not just coal mining) are a bit more balanced, at 13.4% women. The mining sector’s gender imbalance permeates the mining sector. According to a 2014 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the mining sector employs the fewest women on its boards among all industries, with “women occupying only 5 per cent of the board positions of the top 500 global listed mining companies.”
The gender imbalance of the coal mining industry is not a new issue. In fact, one of the earlier workplace hiring gender discrimination lawsuits brought forward under the 1964 Civil Rights Acts came in 1978 from the Coal Employment Project, an advocacy group seeking to end “the blatant employment discrimination which … exists in the coal industry” so that women might claim “economic equality in the coal fields.” The group’s efforts are credited with raising female employment in the coal sector to 830 by 1978, and increasing that figure five-fold by the mid-1980s.
As more women entered the coal mining industry in the late 1970s, sexual harassment became pervasive. One study found that, in the early 1980s, 54% of female miners had been propositioned by a superior at least once and 17% had been attacked physically. The Coal Employment Project again played a role in addressing the issue by participating in the landmark 1986 Supreme Court case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the case that first recognized workplace sexual harassment as a violation of the Civil Rights Act. Yet gender discrimination in the coal sector persists. It was only this year that Mach Mining, L.L.C. settled a $4.25 million gender bias case that had reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.
Trump’s moves to reverse environmental and climate policies and bolster the coal sector employment also ignores much larger losses of employment in many other sectors, including the retail sector, which had a loss of some 89,000 workers in the last quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017 (that’s more than the total employment in the coal industry – see figure). The irony of rolling back environmental regulations in the name of increasing coal sector employment is that these actions will in all likelihood be ineffective for this goal. The economics of energy decisions have changed dramatically in the past decade as the costs of natural gas and renewables have plummeted, and yet coal workers have remained highly politically significant.
Figure originally published in the Washington Post
Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate, recently published a piece offering several possible explanations for this puzzling political significance. Bouie concludes:
Work is gendered and it is racialized. What work matters is often tied to who performs it. It is no accident that those professions dominated by white men tend to bring the most prestige, respect, and pay, while those dominated by women—and especially women of color—are often ignored, disdained, and undercompensated … The story of our outsize concern for coal and manufacturing, or rather our indifference to the collapse of retail, is inescapably the story of how worth, value, and citizenship are still tied to those traits we can’t control.
Trump’s Environmental Agenda
Trump’s actions in his first 100 days have jeopardized the international pledge made by the Obama Administration to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025. Already, the Trump Administration has discussed federal actions that would increase annual greenhouse gas emissions by 530 million tons – and Trump has already proposed specific actions that would have about half of this impact. The below chart gives the context for these figures. The Obama pledge (blue line) would have been a significant departure from historic emissions (grey line) and from “business-as-usual” (or “reference”) emissions (dotted-gray line). But discussed (red line) and proposed (orange line) Trump Administration policies would put the U.S. far off track from the Obama trajectory. (See here for calculations).
Figure originally published in Climate Advisors
The key Obama policy the Trump Administration has threatened is the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP would have reduced U.S. greenhouse emissions by an estimated 233 million tons per year by 2025, but Trump’s executive order instructed the EPA to review the rule with an eye to revision or suspension. Undoing the CPP will be extremely complicated for administration lawyers, but has been a top priority for the president and his newly-appointed Administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt (who sued the Obama EPA over the CPP, the exact rule he would now be responsible for enforcing).
Local Air Quality
There is some irony that, in the short run, the greatest impact of repealing the CPP would not be on climate change but on local air pollution. The CPP is the result of a Supreme Court ruling that mandated that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases because of their contribution to global warming. But burning coal to produce electricity simultaneously creates greenhouse gases and local environmental pollutants, notably particulate matter and ozone. Therefore, it’s impossible to reduce one without reducing the other. When the Obama-era EPA conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the CPP (the study appears to have been removed from the EPA’s website, but is available through some university websites) it found that, in most models, the health benefits of reducing particulate matter and ozone pollution would be at least as important and possibly even more significant than the climate benefits.
How does gender equity figure into a discussion about cleaner air? The answer appears unclear. While there is some scholarship examining gender differences in local air pollution impacts, studies have come to different conclusions, particularly with respect to whether gender differences in health responses to air pollution can be attributed to “socially derived gendered exposures, to sex-linked physiological differences, or to some interplay thereof.” There are fairly clear divides in the impacts of air pollution along socioeconomic and racial lines, however, and early evidence shows that gender plays a role in how people understand and respond to the health impacts of outdoor air pollution.
Global Climate Change
Telescoping out to look at global climate change, it must first be noted that U.S. federal policies, even before the Trump Administration, were already inadequate for staving off the worst effects of climate change. Avoiding climate change requires global cooperation, because its causes and impacts are global; once coal, oil, and gas are burned anywhere in the world, the emitted carbon-dioxide disperses around the globe in a matter of days. So Obama’s climate rules could not have, in themselves, stopped climate change. But they were essential in building trust with other large-scale polluting countries, like China and India. The biggest climate impact of Trump’s first 100 days may actually have been in damaging the U.S.’s reputation and ability to lead the rest of the world.
The goals of the historic 2015 Paris Agreement are now dangerously close to being out of reach. There is an apparent significant rift within the President’s inner circle whether the U.S. will even remain a party to the Paris Agreement—and as one of the countries with the greatest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. signaling disinterest in the Agreement could unravel other counties pledges too.
At the global level, there is increasing scholarly agreement and international policy action to mediate the linkages between gender equity and climate change.
Most studies have focused on developing countries, where overall climate impacts are likely to be most acutely felt. In this area, one of their overarching themes has been the notion that climate change vulnerability can be exacerbated by multiple dimensions of inequality, including gender, age, race, caste, ethnicity, and disability. Women’s vulnerability is argued to come as a result of their greater dependence on natural resources, less ready access to independent sources of finance, and a painful trifecta of repressive social practices, underrepresentation in decision-making, and inadequate legal protections.
Researchers also point to the disproportionate death rate of women in natural disasters as evidence of gender differences in climate vulnerability. For example, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (a natural disaster unrelated but potentially analogous to climate change impacts), the death toll among women was three to four times higher than among men. In a study comparing the death rates following natural disasters in 141 countries over 22 years, researchers found that while natural disasters did reduce life expectancy for women significantly more than for men, this difference was importantly mediated by women’s socio-economic status. From this, the researchers conclude that the gender differences in vulnerability to natural disasters could be largely explained by social structures and norms. This finding provides strong motivation for a more holistic approach to climate change policy in the context of sustainable development, for example by developing coherent policy strategies that work across individualized “Sustainable Development Goals.”
Such strategies capitalize on the synergies across goals by, for example, reducing climate change impacts by taking action to reduce gender inequity.
Solutions to address climate change are also likely to have important gender differences due to the important role that women hold in resource management and agriculture, where they contribute an estimated 60-80% of agricultural production in the developing world. These sectors are critical for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. And while gender imbalance has begun to influence the practice of international development, efforts to “mainstream” gender in international climate policy are still in their early stages (see more here).
Again, Trump’s actions and inactions have not yet fundamentally altered the trajectory of climate change. Still, they have not yet shown any respect to social inequality, either. The Obama Administration had begun to give voice to more gender-responsive climate policies, and important moves like the establishment of the USAID’s Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI), founded in 2010, are being rolled back. One of the “guiding principles” of the GCCI, detailed in its 2012 strategy document, was to “utilize gender-sensitive approaches across climate programming.” The GCCI also was quite progressive in its efforts to integrate climate change across USAID’s full development portfolio, including in relation to gender equity. One example of how the initiative integrated climate change and gender equity shows how the GCCI and two other State Department programs, Power Africa and the Young African Leaders Initiative, brought together a gender-balanced group of African leaders for a six-week program to catalyze clean energy in Africa. One fellow of the program, Fatima Oyiza Ademoh of Nigeria, credits the GCCI program for helping introduce her “to a whole new dimension: the economic and technical aspects of gender issues in large- and small-scale energy projects.” Ademoh stated that the GCCI-supported workshop was “immensely useful for me to think about as I develop [my own] mini-grid projects in rural off-grid communities in Nigeria. It will help me develop a more gender-responsive business model as I scale up my business.”
Trump’s proposed “skinny” budget would eliminate all U.S. funding for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Green Climate Fund (GCF).
The GCF, formed in 2010, is a key body for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, intended to be the primary vehicle to facilitate the pledge made by developed countries to, by 2020, mobilize $100 billion per year toward developing countries’ climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. As of March 2017, $10.3 billion had been pledged to the GCF, $3 billion by the U.S., which has only actually deposited $1 billion, including a dramatic, last-minute deposit of $500 million in the final three days of the Obama Administration. Now the remaining $2 billion of the U.S. pledge is unlikely to materialize, decreasing the global availability of GCF funds by nearly 20%.
For example, the GCF requires all partners who propose and implement GCF-funded projects to document their gender policy and gender expertise. This requirement has already catalyzed change: Deutsche Bank developed its first-ever gender policy, which observers attribute to its desire to participate in the GCF. Much is yet to be seen as to whether the GCF’s progressive gender policy will translate into greater gender equity and more sustainable climate investments, but President Trump’s efforts to disengage from the fund will mean that the U.S. will lose capacity to shape practices moving forward.
Room for Hope?
Important actions against the Trump Administration’s signals of disengagement from global climate change efforts offer signs of hope. Thousands of protesters marched in Washington, D.C. and across the country in support of greater environmental protections. States have largely maintained their environmental commitments, with some, like California, proposing even more stringent environmental policies in direct response to federal rollbacks. And major companies have voiced their preference for continuity in U.S. engagement in international climate policy and for slowing down environmental deregulation. Countervailing forces to Trump Administration rollbacks are also taking shape internationally. Just prior to Trump’s inauguration, China announced a plan to invest $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020.
Climate change impacts are not felt over 100 days, but over the course of decades.
The full impact of the Trump Administration is yet to be seen. Smart leadership is needed to design policies that account for vulnerable populations and give voice to marginalized groups at the front lines of environmental harm. The U.S. has never been close to perfect in this regard. But at the same time that the U.S. cedes international leadership on climate policy to the next group of leaders—whether they be U.S. states, other countries, or civil society groups—the challenge of addressing environmental problems is becoming even greater. Groups beyond the White House should find ways to put the international community’s focus on the key intersectional issues affected by climate and other environmental policies and must press the issue of fairness in environmental policies by centering the differences in environmental impact across income, race, age, and, as highlighted here, gender. Highlighting the connections across these multiple dimensions will help build broader coalitions of action and drive the world to solutions that benefit populations justly.
Gabriel Chan is an Assistant Professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
Photo of female farmer in Bhutan, one of the world’s “hot spots” where 7 in 10 families depend on agriculture, by Asian Development Bank
 Notably the coal mining sector ranks last out of all 279 industries tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the combined workforce that is either Black or African American, Asian, or Hispanic or Latino.