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Undercurrents: Will Global Warming Initiatives Freeze Up in Trump Presidency?

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

With President-elect Donald Trump wavering between skepticism and outright denial of climate change, prospects for the territory getting significant support for local mitigation initiatives in the future are a bit shaky.

“Right now it doesn’t look very promising,” Virgin Islands federal relations coordinator Shawn Michael Malone admitted last week.

Still, in the short term, he had good news.  A major workshop on climate change, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  and conducted by a national entity called the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, has now been scheduled for Feb. 15-16 in the territory.

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Malone had said in October that Gov. Kenneth Mapp will open and close the workshop and attendees will include all his Cabinet members as well as other V.I. government officials and private sector leaders.

The purpose is to help the territory to develop policies and approaches to deal with the anticipated effects of climate change in the coming decades.  Those are expected to include significant sea level rise and resulting land erosion, more unstable weather and particularly stronger hurricanes, and a multitude of health-related problems because of higher temperatures.

Current planning in the USVI often doesn’t include global warming considerations.  For instance, consultants working on the design of an expansion of the Cyril King Airport on St. Thomas recently gave the public a peek at their initial ideas, but made no mention of studies that show the current runway is likely to be significantly eroded in less than 50 years so should be either elevated or relocated.

Asked about that omission, Malone responded, “The disconnect is apparent.”  

The Governors’ Institute workshop is just one step in addressing that disconnect.  There also will be a two-year project to inculcate climate change policies into all aspects of government and throughout the community, according to Malone.

“I consider this one of the most significant reforms the government has undertaken since the Revised Organic Act of 1954,” he said. The closest thing the Virgin Islands has to a state constitution, the Revised Organic Act drew the outlines for establishing democratically elected local government.

The most expensive part of mitigation will be in modifying or rebuilding existing infrastructure to deal with climate changes, Malone said.  That is likely to include a wide range of things, such as stronger schools and other public buildings able to withstand more intense storms.

The territory has depended heavily on the federal government for anything related to climate change.  As the Virgin Islands sinks further and further into debt, there is little likelihood it will develop the will to take on the financial cost of mitigation.

Meanwhile, federal resources may soon begin to dry up in a Republican administration that appears anything but environmentally friendly.

Political observers are getting dizzy trying to determine exactly what Trump’s stance is on climate change.

Arguably his most famous quote on the issue so far came as a tweet Nov. 6, 2012:  “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

When the quote became an issue in the presidential campaign, Trump said he was only joking.  But the fact-checking site Politfact documented numerous instances in which he called climate change science into question, often referring to it as a “hoax.”  As late as Sept. 24, 2015, Trump told CNN’s New Day, “I don’t believe in climate change.”

When still a candidate, he had a “sit-down” with the Washington Post, essentially a get-to-know-you discussion with key staff, during which the Post says he allowed of the possibility of global warming.  “Perhaps there’s a minor effect, but I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change,” he said.

Post-election his stance seems to have softened.  In a Fox News interview Dec. 2, he said “No one really knows” whether climate change is real or not.  (According to NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that the warming trend over the past century is “extremely likely due to human activities.”)

Malone echoed the hopes from some national observers who suggest that the president-elect’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, will sway his views closer to the mainstream on climate change.  She met with former Vice President Al Gore, a leading voice for regulation and mitigation, in early December and has said she wants to make climate change a “signature issue.”

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