Man vs. Land: The US Decision on Climate Agreement Has Historic Roots and Permanent Impact

Even as President Donald Trump continues his first-ever foreign trip to the Middle East and Europe, nations across the globe are awaiting his delayed decision on whether or not the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change that is signed by 196 countries.

His choice for inclusion or withdrawal will impact billions of people around the world — especially those in the most economically vulnerable countries. Trump recently said he will wait until after the G7 Summit — comprised of leaders of Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — in Italy later this month to announce his decision.

History paints a dark picture of historical, political, cultural and economic alliances that inform the complicated relationship between politics and the environment.

In 2005, Congress enacted an energy policy law that included the “Halliburton loophole.” This provision allowed energy companies to trademark the chemicals they use in the fracking process as “proprietary” and keep them sealed from public knowledge.

The move exempted the fracking industry from the safety regulations of the Safe Drinking Water Act (orig. 1974) and allowed the industry to inject hazardous chemicals at or near drinking water supplies.

Ten years later in 2015, the Interior Department under the Obama administration enacted the Obama fracking rule that now required the fracking industry to reveal all of the chemicals they used and implement new safety measures to contain the wastewater from humans and wildlife on federal and public lands. However, the Trump administration is seeking to repeal Obama’s rule.

The recent firing of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists on the scientific review board in charge of environmental regulations and their replacement with representatives from the fossil fuel industry, poses more threats. What may result are greater environmental pollution and less protections for the economically vulnerable and racially marginalized.

EPA chief Scott Pruitt recently argued against the role of carbon dioxide emissions in climate change. The federal budget proposal reduces funding for the Superfund Cleanup Program and effectively defunds the EPA’s Environmental Justice program.

In Mustafa Ali’s resignation letter, the former chief administrator and founding member of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice wrote, “We often forget that the choices we make on regulations affecting clean air, clean water and enforcement are interconnected with the lives of our vulnerable communities and tribal populations. Communities have shared with me over the past two decades how important the enforcement work at the Agency is in protecting their own forgotten and overlooked communities.”

Historically elite privileged individuals have created a system of moral, political, and economic dilemmas and then institute normative ideals that portray caricatures of that which they subjugate. This system justifies the assassination of individuals and the genocide of cultural norms that threaten the proliferation of this mode of operation.

In the 2013 movie Promised Land, the character Steve Butler (played by Matt Damon) believes that the Iowa residents who lived off the land lacked opportunities for economic sustenance and vision. He explains to his father that he envisions “more” for his life than painstaking work on a farm. So he enters the industrial field as a sales representative for the energy companies, encouraging farmers to sell their land for fracking.

In a BBC news interview, Matt Damon explains that he co-wrote the movie because, “I wanted to make a film that explores the American identity… And the issue of fracking was perfect as the stakes are extremely high, and it’s polarizing societies.”

This is neither an American problem nor a new one.

In The Second Treatise of Government published in 1690, English philosopher and political theorist John Locke argued that God gave man land for his survival and convenience and that only through his labor could a person add value to the land and own it.

“The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

Locke argued that the purpose of government is to protect the estate of its constituents. In a sense of absurdity he believed it was logical and ethical to exclude Native Americans and enslaved Africans from the decision-making process in the legislative body because they did not have property. So Locke deemed them “unfit to be citizens.”

Yet they were still bound by the terms of the law. This approach permeated the institution of slavery and resulted in the irreversible destruction of natural resources and species. It ushered mass killings of Native Americans and the seizure of their land to produce goods that were sold on the international market.

The genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and the degradation of nature are concrete and direct manifestations of the inherent problems with the arguments and assertions that Locke made more than three centuries ago. Locke’s argument encompasses a fundamental dilemma because he took a precious and non-renewable resource with intrinsic value such as nature and determined that money would become the means to determine its value.

Since humans deemed the purchase power of money as infinite, so too was their belief towards natural resources. Such logic strips the subject of its value and sets up a precedent for people to view the resource with much less regard because it removes the moral and ethical connection. The paper used to print the money then becomes more valuable than the tree itself.

In a recent study from the Yale School of Public Health, researchers noted that 55 specific chemical compounds used in the hydraulic fracking process and present in the wastewater are classified as either known, probable, or potential carcinogens for humans.

Despite the recent setbacks, there was one piece of good news last week when the Senate voted to keep the Obama-era climate change rule that regulates methane emissions on public lands.

Awaiting the upcoming US decision on the climate change agreement is causing anxiety. But the answer to the deeper question of “Where do we go from here?” forces us to look at where we have already gone.