When the Joe Biden administration moves into the White House on Jan. 20, the president-elect faces the monumental task of undoing the damage of the Donald Trump administration while managing a global pandemic and economic crisis. That leaves little room for actual progress, especially in regard to environmental issues. Nevertheless, businesses leaders can make a difference by applying their resources and know-how to help steer the civic discourse toward a pathway that respects science and honors civic responsibility. To start, all stakeholders can eliminate the sovereign citizen movement, sparked by Trump, that has been a roadblock to environmental stewardship over the past four years.
Among the many disturbing themes woven through the Jan. 6 insurrection is the idea that an individual can only believe and support something when they see it with their own eyes.
President Donald Trump rose to power as the personification of that idea. Long before he entered the 2016 campaign cycle as a candidate for president, he grabbed the media spotlight by demanding to see the “long form” of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
The incessant demands accomplished two goals. One was to feed “birtherism” conspiracy theories regarding Obama’s country of origin, in an attempt to undermine his constitutional right to hold office. That goal, though, was secondary. The main objective was to cement Trump’s right to personally view the evidence and render final judgement on the matter.
The right of Trump, a single individual, superseded every other person, including the tens of millions of voters who chose Obama for their president and the thousands of elected representatives who supported his campaign — not to mention the various documents and other evidence proving, without a shadow of a doubt, that Hawaii is in fact one of the 50 U.S. states.
That “I’m the decider” attitude runs deep in bogus constitutional theories such as the sovereign citizen movement, in which individuals assume the right to decide that they are not subject to the laws that govern everyone else.
The movement first took hold in the 1980s as a manifestation of white supremacy. Later it also began attracting non-white adherents. By 2010, the FBI labeled the movement a “terrorist threat” and a threat to law enforcement.
More recently, the white element of the sovereign citizen movement burst into the media spotlight when Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan, and a group of armed white men overtook buildings at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for six weeks in 2016. When finally brought to court, Ryan Bundy later applied the sovereign citizen concept to argue in his defense.
Trump did not create the sovereign citizen movement, but he recognized its power to persuade individuals that the law does not apply to them. By Jan. 6, millions of otherwise ordinary citizens were firm in their belief that a free and fair election was an illusion, and thousands of them marched on the Capitol to take by force what they feel the law denied.
While coated with a constitutional veneer, the sovereign citizen movement at heart is about personal privilege above the law. It’s no accident that the Bundy brothers’ father, Cliven Bundy, was notorious for illegally grazing cattle on federal land, and that his sons chose to prove their point by illegally occupying a federal nature preserve.
Seen through this lens, Trump’s dismantling of environmental regulations is part and parcel of his strategy for appealing to white supremacy in order to attain and hold power. He almost succeeded on Jan. 6, as armed, predominantly white insurrectionists literally came within minutes, if not seconds, of kidnapping members of Congress with intent to kill.
But he did not succeed. On Jan. 20, a new president with a far stronger environmental and civil justice agenda will take office.Undoing the damage of the Trump years will be a monumental task, but many business leaders have already done the important groundwork of enlisting employees and the public in civic activities that benefit their communities, especially in the area of environmental activities.
Moving forward, business leaders can use their track record on environmental activities as a springboard for engaging the public in the four intertwined priorities outlined by the Biden administration, which are defeating COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
As a guidepost, businesses can take some cues from environmental organizations that have been analyzing Biden’s proposals and identifying pathways for taking swift, effective action.
Some of these priorities will sound familiar to many top executives. The Environment America Research and Policy Center, for example, has issued a “First Things to Fix” report that identifies having the Biden administration rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change as a key priority.
U.S. businesses have continued to support the science-based goals of the Paris Agreement. The new Biden administration will support and amplify those efforts, providing business leaders with a powerful platform to make decisions based on science.
In addition, hundreds of U.S. mayors pledged to continue supporting the Paris Agreement during Trump's presidency. The Biden administration will enhance opportunities for businesses to connect their environmental initiatives with fact-based civic goals in their own communities.
Those relationships will also help grow the environmental justice movement and provide more support for a “just transition” from conventional jobs to green jobs. Labor unions were once skeptical of the benefits, but in 2019 the AFL-CIO signed a joint pact with 75 CEOs affirming the connection between climate action, labor and environmental justice.
The EARPC report identifies 14 other priorities that can provide businesses with a springboard to engage employees, and their communities, in the practice of civic responsibility, fact-based action and care for the common good.
Chief among them are restoring the full force of the Clean Water Act, cutting vehicle emissions, reinstating a broad greenhouse gas performance standard for transportation, tightening rules for toxic waste discharges, strengthening air quality standards, closing down unlined coal ash ponds, strengthening environmental review processes, protecting endangered species, tightening up standards for mercury and other air pollutants from fossil power plants, reducing pollution from industrial flares, remediating lead pipes, and restoring energy-efficiency policies.
The report also identifies several other areas that address issues that are mainly regional or local, but which have an impact on global efforts to preserve biodiversity and reduce the impacts of climate change.
That includes protecting Alaska’s Tongass Forest, halting oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, withdrawing the Trump offshore drilling plan, reinstating protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument off the coast of New England, and updating emissions regulations for oil and gas drilling sites.
The report also identifies two priorities that address global treaties for phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) climate pollutants and regulating the international waste trade.
Of course, business leaders could carry on their environmental activities without engaging their employees and the public in broader issues.
However, the events of Jan. 6 were one horrifying demonstration of a breakdown in civic awareness and personal responsibility. Business leaders can act now to help ensure that a second one never occurs. Aligning with the Biden administration would be a start.
Image credit: Sdkb/Wiki Commons
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.