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Reckless Denial of our Climate Crisis: An Impeachable Offense?

By Philip Warburg

Power plant

Though Congress has ample reason to impeach President Trump for his self-serving machinations in Ukraine, we all know that the Senate’s blind Republican partisanship will block his removal from office. Given this inevitable outcome, it’s worth considering whether Congress could have targeted a far more consequential cause for impeachment: his utter failure to engage the climate crisis.

Trump’s reckless mishandling of climate change threatens America’s environment, public health and economic security, but is it an impeachable offense? Article II of the Constitution declares that “the President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of . . . High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Due to the paucity of federal law clarifying these offenses, it has been left to jurists, legal scholars, and legislators to plumb their intended meaning. James Iredell, a leader of the North Carolina Ratifying Convention of 1788 and later a Supreme Court Justice, described impeachment as arising from “acts of great injury to the community.” Removal from office was the prescribed remedy, framed in the 1797 impeachment proceeding against US Senator William Blount as “not so much designed to punish an offender, as to secure the State.”

The Constitution also demands that our nation’s chief executive “faithfully execute the Office of the President.” Modern commentators interpret this as requiring “diligent, careful, good faith, honest, and impartial” fulfilment of official duties. 

Rather than joining other leaders in combating climate change, President Trump has signaled America’s withdrawal from the historic Paris climate accord, severing the US from the community of nations that are grappling with (if not always agreeing on) ways to defuse this global menace. Likewise, in his domestic policies, the president has advanced an agenda that systematically weakens our efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

Neutralizing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is just one of the steps Trump has taken to prop up US production and burning of “beautiful clean coal” and other fossil fuels. He has scrapped protections against toxic runoff from coal mines and coal-fired power plants while failing to rein in oil and gas companies’ release of methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas that spews unchecked from wells, pipelines and storage facilities. In the automotive sector, Trump has rolled back Obama-era standards aimed at reducing CO2 pollution from our cars and trucks. Adding insult to injury, he now seeks to strip California and other states of their longstanding authority to adopt motor vehicle standards more stringent than the federal government’s.

Trump’s destructive policy moves are matched by statements intended to undermine public confidence in well-established climate science. Before becoming president, he repeatedly labeled climate change a “hoax.” As president, when experts from his own administration issued a climate assessment predicting hundreds of billions of dollars in annual economic losses from climate change by the end of this century, his flat response was: “I don’t believe it.”

Isn’t the president’s rash dismissal of climate experts’ warnings a violation of his duty to exercise diligence, care, honesty and impartiality as our nation’s chief executive? And shouldn’t Trump’s reckless policies be considered “acts of great injury” to present and future generations—not just of Americans but of an increasingly vulnerable global community?

We are already witnessing the human and environmental toll of climate change, with wildfires destroying entire communities in California, extreme storms flooding coastal and riverfront towns and cities, and warming seas feeding hurricanes that rage through the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and on up the Atlantic seaboard. These are just the first signs of much greater hardships that lie ahead globally: widespread desertification induced by global warming; food and water shortages; sweltering cities rendered uninhabitable by extreme summer heat; massive human displacement and colossal economic losses as hundreds of millions flee storm surges and rising seas.

It may be time to take a more expansive view of the safeguards that the Founders enshrined in the Constitution to protect our nation from the transgressions of a dangerously wayward president.


About the Author 

Philip Warburg, author of two Beacon Press books on renewable energy, is an environmental lawyer who writes about energy policy. Follow him on Twitter at @pwarburg.