Environmental Human Rights in the Trump Era: Modes of Resistance and Reform

by | Jan 23, 2017

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About Nicholas Stump

Nicholas F. Stump is a Faculty Member with the George R. Farmer Jr. Library at the WVU College of Law. He is an Associate with the Oxford Human Rights Hub. His current work is informed by critical environmental law, Appalachian studies, and law and social movements studies. He teaches in the legal research curriculum with an emphasis on administrative law and energy and environmental law.


Nicholas F. Stump “Environmental Human Rights in the Trump Era: Modes of Resistance and Reform” (OxHRH Blog, 23 January 2017) <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/environmental-human-rights-in-the-trump-era-modes-of-resistance-and-reform/> [Date of Access]

The ecological ramifications of the Trump administration may well prove catastrophic. Climate change denial and problematic fossil fuel positions featured prominently in the President’s campaign; post-election, far-right nominations and policy stances have seemingly confirmed the administration’s dire trajectory. Thus, environmental human rights—i.e., normative guarantees inter alia to clean water and air—are imperiled in the U.S., perhaps especially in subordinated regions like Appalachia. Critically informed local activism approaches, however, will likely constitute the most effective eco-reform modes under the Trump regime. 

President Trump’s nascent energy policy positions—at least, such as have been articulated—are profoundly alarming. On climate change, the President has a “well-established track record of skepticism and denial.” Indeed, the President famously declared that global warming is a mere fabrication designed “to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” The President has advocated for a U.S. withdrawal from the seminal Paris Climate Agreement, and the E.P.A.’s Clean Power Plan—the prime regulatory mechanism through which the U.S. is to comply with the Paris Agreement (i.e., via the reduction of carbon emissions)—is now in serious jeopardy.

To be sure, a multifaceted pro-fossil fuel agenda constitutes a policy centerpiece for the incoming administration, involving “more fossil fuel drilling and fewer environmental regulations.” Trump calls variously for reviving the Keystone XL pipeline; opening federal lands to oil and gas drilling (on and offshore); rescinding President Obama’s moratorium on new federal lands coal-mining leases, and; eliminating federal hydraulic fracturing regulations. Recent, unconscionable nominees such as Scott Pruitt as E.P.A. head—i.e., a climate change denier and “close ally of the fossil fuel industry”—confirm the President’s determination to dismantle “Obama’s environmental legacy.”

Comprehensive evidence therefore suggests that the Trump era’s eco-impacts will produce prima facie violations of U.S. environmental human rights (“EHR”).  EHR principles, increasingly emergent in “human rights theory and in international politics,” dictate guarantees of a “substantive right to a healthy environment”—violations of which pertain to “inadequate environmental protections” of “life, health, food, [or] water.” The President’s pro-fossil fuel agenda, of course, produces global, climate change-related EHR concerns; however, the prospect of localized U.S. negative environmental impacts is a near certainty.

Such EHR issues in the U.S. will disproportionately affect subordinated regions like Appalachia: If “Trump . . .  either relaxes the stringency of current regulations and/or elects not to pursue new protections, the effects could fall . . . on historically vulnerable communities.” Appalachia exemplifies such a region vulnerable to the President: Appalachia has long suffered from the “natural resource curse,” occurring when extractive industries—for Appalachia, Big Coal and, more recently, natural gas corporations—wield power over a region at “the expense of its citizens and the natural environment.”

As a specific Appalachian example, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement recently promulgated a revised Stream Protection Rule—but “[t]he President has pledged to kill [it].” The regulation, however, remains “critical to improving the health and wellbeing of Appalachian residents who suffer the long-term consequences of coal mining pollution”—including cancer, birth defects, and respiratory diseases. Therefore, such Trump era environmental policy shifts will compromise life, health, and water in Appalachia, violating the EHR dictated right to a healthy environment.

Third and fourth wave critical approaches constitute the most expedient modes of resistance and reform under the President’s eco-imperiling and anti-democratic regime. Grassroots activism is of paramount importance, in that “the vertical form of state authority [can be] confronted with the horizontal power of the association of citizens or the governed.” Moreover, an “integrated and particularized” approach is vital, wherein, to combat a far-right sociopolitical agenda, reformers and activists explore “communit[es’] cultural, historical, and political experiences and [their] specific needs and goals.” To be sure, differing U.S. regions are uniquely situated in terms of ecological impacts, race and gender-based issues, etc., necessitating such particularized grassroots formations—i.e., which then intersect multidimensionally with broader national and global work.

Indeed, as is detailed in Unearthing a Network of Resistance: Law and the Anti-Strip Mining Movement in Central Appalachia, such local and regional-based contestations are, in fact, already endemic to Appalachia: grassroots activists, would-be reformers, and ordinary citizens alike have established “cohesive and dense” reform networks allied against extractive industries and captured ruling elites. Notable legal-institutional reform advances resulted from such alliances; however, equally as important, such egalitarian, non-hegemonic formations have constituted a democratizing force for the Appalachian demos. Thus, in the Trump era, such a critically informed, grassroots model of engagement, resistance, and reform—i.e., in Appalachia and beyond, and with an explicitly intersectional focus upon issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender—is an ideal model through which to protect and pursue U.S. environmental human rights.




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