The Access Initiative

President Trump’s First Week: Is Environmental Democracy in Jeopardy?

During the new president’s first week in office, the Trump administration took actions that could threaten inclusive decision-making on environmental issues—what we refer to as “environmental democracy”—in the United States:

  • On Monday, the administration instituted a “media blackout” at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prohibiting staffers from publishing news releases, blogs, social media posts and new web content.
  • Similar actions were taken at other agencies, including curtailing of communications at the Department of Agriculture, Department of Interior, Department of Health and Human Services and with the National Parks Service.
  • On the same day, the president stated that he plans to “cut regulations by 75 percent, maybe more” to make it faster for businesses to move projects forward.
  • On Tuesday, he issued an executive order to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, without consulting with the State Department and bypassing further public consultations.
  • On Wednesday, after proposing and then rescinding a directive to remove EPA’s climate change webpage, a spokesperson for the EPA transition team announced that political appointees must review scientific findings on a “case-by-case basis” before releasing them to the public, including routine pollution monitoring data.
  • These actions could not only undermine the government’s ability to protect the environment and public health, but they also erode the foundations of good governance: transparency, public participation and accountability.


Citizens can neither understand nor participate in environmental decision-making without having access to objective, scientific information and data. Sound and effective policymaking within government should be based on the best possible information and evidence. Further, the free flow of information is essential for allowing people to reveal wrongdoing and hold officials to account. As a public institution, the EPA is legally required to provide access to critical environmental information, such as air and water pollution monitoring reports, Environmental Impact Assessments, compliance and enforcement data and climate data. Doing so ensures that Americans “have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risk.”

Beyond communications, it is problematic to require that political appointees review the agency’s scientific data—including regarding climate change—before releasing it to the public. This will be the first time that an administration’s appointees will screen such studies.

This directive undermines the EPA’s established Scientific Integrity Policy, which “prohibits all EPA employees, including scientists, managers, and other Agency leadership, from suppressing, altering, or otherwise impeding the timely release of scientific findings or conclusions.”

The administration’s actions also obstruct an integral component of democratic policymaking. To meaningfully engage in political processes, citizens must have access to accurate information that has not been editorialized or modified. Only with unbiased facts can they understand and shape key decisions that impact their local environments.

Public Participation and Accountability

Public participation is the bedrock of environmental democracy; yet the new administration’s plans may undercut this pillar of good governance. While meeting with business leaders during his first day in office, President Trump declared that the government must eliminate regulations and expedite permitting processes for large development projects. Effective, efficient rule-making should be a goal for policymakers, but it must not come at the cost of public participation.

Many of the EPA’s and other agencies’ procedures—such as air and water discharge permits, waste cleanup plans and Environmental Impact Assessments—require a public consultation process. Soliciting public participation allows policymakers to consider the needs of all stakeholders who may be affected by projects like oil and gas extraction and mining and road construction, and enables them to better identify unintended consequences. Long-term, policies developed with community input often get more public support and less resistance because citizens perceive these decisions as fair and legitimate.

The Dakota Access pipeline project showcases the importance of public participation. In July 2016, the Standing Rock Tribe filed a complaint against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that grants permits needed to construct the pipeline. They claimed that, by crossing under the Missouri River, the pipeline posed a serious threat to the community’s clean water and sacred burial grounds. Their complaint further alleged a breach of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act on the grounds of failure to consult with affected parties, adverse effects on water health and failure to assess scared sites.

In December, following weeks of public protests, the Corps decided it would delay the project in order to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, which would explore alternative routes for the pipeline. This result shows the power and necessity of public participation—people’s involvement is critical for protecting communities and for finding the safest, most appropriate options for infrastructure projects.

But on his second day in office, Trump ordered the Corps to “review and approve [the pipeline] in an expedited manner,” without considering alternative routes or conducting a public consultation. His directive effectively thwarts the public participation process to resolve what has become the biggest joint protest of Native American Indian tribes in decades.

The Way Forward

The United States has long been recognized as a global leader in establishing rights to environmental information, to accurate and objective scientific resources, and to public participation in decision-making processes. It currently holds the third-highest ranking on WRI’s Environmental Democracy Index, which scores countries on their ability to provide these fundamental rights.

The EPA and other government agencies’ mandate to use science to inform policies, to conduct extensive public consultations, and communicate openly with people plays a foundational role in protecting people’s health and the environment. Pursuing and sharing scientific data and evidence is integral to this process. The Trump administration, its agencies and their staff have an obligation to protect and continue America’s strong leadership on environmental democracy.

Voices from the Global Gathering

Last week the Access Initiative hosted its sixth Global Gathering, Open Government for Climate Action, on 5 December – 6 December, 2016, in Paris, as part of the lead up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Paris Summit. The Gathering brought together over 95 people from climate, open data, and open government civil society communities to expand new spaces for action and build momentum around implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

TAI asked a number of the participants how they can use open government to foster strong climate action in their work moving forward. This is what they said:

Carole Excell, Director, The Access Initiative

You have heard it said before: climate change remains one of the greatest challenges of our times. It affects all future generations. The Paris Agreement brings climate policies down to the national and local sector level in the “real world” where citizens can understand such as decisions around coal power plants, transportation, coastal structures to deal with sea level rise, land restoration, pipelines and adaptation requirements to deal with floods. However in many countries citizens do not a voice or seat at the table when these decisions are being made. To achieve accountability, people need rights that go to the heart of accountability. This requires strong transparency rules to facilitate understanding of power dynamics and culpability that people can participate in decision-making processes in a timely fashion, and that forums exist to address environmental justice demands. Good climate governance requires open and accountable government actions.  The Global Gathering built communities of actors who often work in silos, together for the first time to springboard greater and more effective climate action.  

Augustine B NJAMNSHI Executive Secretary Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme Cameroon & National Coordinator The Access Initiative Cameroon

Although as humans we all have common responsibility to take action to address climate change, some are more responsible than others. This is not only based on the fact that the current climate crises has been principally caused by the past and present production and consumption systems practiced by the global North, but also that they have benefited from it and have the capacity to withstand the shocks of climate change. They therefore owe greater responsibility not only to do more to stop the climate crises, but also a duty to help those who are suffering more from the effects of climate change in the global South.

Now the talking is over, and we need action. Equity and justice have to be translated into national action in every aspect of the climate regime. The farmer on the ground has to see equity and justice in every climate decision made by the government at all levels. There is no need to fight for climate justice at the international level, and then turn to deny the local population what has been fought for and demanded from the global north. After all, it is said he who goes for equity must go with clean hands! The global gathering was an opportunity for us, climate justice and governance advocates to pave the way on how to take the struggle at the national and local levels.

Eco Matser, Hivos, Global Coordinator Climate, Energy and Development

Hivos has been working with civil society organizations in countries such as Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Nicaragua and Costa Rica on ensuring that governments follow up on their commitments towards ending energy poverty as detailed in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. Our main focus is on ensuring that decentralized renewable energy – a key component in establishing universal energy access – has the right policy and regulatory environment as well as access to finances from international and domestic climate finance. In many countries CSOs will keep a close eye on national energy budgets and are advocating for policy changes while in others such as in the Indonesian island of Sumba Hivos works in a multistakeholder approach with communities, governments and businesses to ensure the whole island gets powered by renewable energy.

During the Global Gathering Hivos explored the relevance of OGP for tracking international and national climate finance streams (both from donors and from national sources) as well as develop concrete ideas with the transparency and climate movement to increase transparency of climate finance and how to shift investments to be more focused on creating real energy access for the poor.

Renato Morgado, Public Policy Coordinator, Imaflora

Imaflora is one of the organizations responsible for the Brazilian Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimate System (SEEG) promoted by Climate Observatory, a coalition of 35 NGOs. Such initiative provides transparency to Brazilian GHG emissions, disseminating calculation method, database used on national inventory and results per sector, which allows a better comprehension and incidence on Brazilian public policies and climate compromises. We are also developing a web platform for visualization and monitoring of Amazonian timber flows, from harvest to consumption. The platform will allow better transparency in wood sector as well as to improve the combat to illegal logging and Amazon deforestation, main factor to GHG emissions in Brazil.

The Global Gathering helped enhance our performance, enabling an interaction with community of open government and knowledge of transparency, participation, accountability and technology initiatives and tools, which can be applied to the Brazilian context.

Leah Good, Programme Coordinator (Asia Pacific), Transparency International

Transparency International works with our partners around the world to make sure that actions to address and adapt to climate change are free from corruption. TI partners are tracking climate finance to figure out how much money is flowing and make sure it is spent properly. In Bangladesh and the Maldives, two of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, our partners are working with beneficiaries of adaptation projects to assess their effectiveness. When problems are identified, our teams ensure local voices are heard. In forest-rich countries in Africa and South America, we are promoting governance reforms that will support successful REDD+ schemes to protect forests. Where investments in renewable energy are huge and growing, we are ensuring civil society plays a role in monitoring public contracts.

At the OGP Summit and beyond, we want to see governments commit to address the climate crisis transparently and openly. By bringing together such a broad range of actors and expertise, the Global Gathering helped TI partners forge new alliances, learn from other approaches, and build even more momentum towards a cleaner, greener future.

Using Open Government for Climate Action

Countries made many national climate commitments as part of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which entered into force earlier this month. Now comes the hard part of implementing those commitments. The public can serve an invaluable watchdog role, holding governments accountable for following through on their targets and making sure climate action happens in a way that’s fair and inclusive. But first, the climate and open government communities will need to join forces.

Historically, open government and climate groups have worked in silos, operating in different forums, using different terminology and meeting with different stakeholders. Yet the NGOs, academics and other non-state actors focused on transparent governance and accountability are critically important in the climate arena, especially now that countries must address numerous governance hurdles, including the need for national level institutional coordination, capacity building and political buy-in. Bringing together the open government and climate communities offers an opportunity to develop new strategies that enhance accountable and inclusive climate policy decision-making.

Here are four areas where these communities can lean in together to ensure governments follow through on effective climate action:

1) Expand access to climate data and information.

Open government and climate NGOs and local communities can expand the use of traditional transparency tools and processes such as Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, transparent budgeting, open data policies and public procurement to enhance open information on climate mitigation, adaptation and finance. For example, Transparencia Mexicana used Mexico’s Freedom of Information Law to collect data to map climate finance actors and the flow of finance in the country. This allows them to make specific recommendations on how to safeguard climate funds against corruption and ensure the money translates into real action on the ground.

Civil society NGOs can also provide alternatives to online portals to ensure information is actually reaching local communities. One group in Indonesia, Yayasan Lembaga Konsumen Indonesia (YLKI), uses its weekly consumer radio show to provide a forum around electricity issues in Jakarta. This allows them to directly share information about public rights around electricity services, provide a forum to answer questions, and increase the ability of local residents to address grievances about power cuts and service reliability.

2) Promote inclusive and participatory climate policy development.

Civil society and community groups already play a crucial role in advocating for climate action and improving climate governance at the national and local levels, especially when it comes to safeguarding poor and vulnerable people, who often lack political voice. Public survey research has also found that people want civil society NGOs included in climate policymaking decisions, and believe the process is more legitimate when civil society is involved. Open government and climate civil society groups can use their links with local communities to strengthen the number and type of initiatives used to feed public input into wider policy debates and secure a seat for both men and women at the decision-making table. This can include mobilizing youth awareness, training indigenous leaders on proposed and negotiated climate change legislation and their rights around the principle of “free, prior, and informed consent,” or strengthening NGO participation in government-led roundtables on national climate change agendas.

3) Take legal action for stronger accountability.

Accountability at a national level can only be achieved if grievance mechanisms are in place to address a lack of transparency or public participation, or address the impact of projects and policies on individuals and communities. Civil society groups and individuals can use legal actions like climate litigation, petitions, administrative policy challenges and court cases at the national, regional or international levels to hold governments and businesses accountable for failing to effectively act on climate change. In the Netherlands, for example, the Hague District Court determined the country must further reduce CO2 emissions to adequately address the impacts of climate change and meet their obligation to protect people and the environment. The case was brought by the Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch NGO, and 886 individuals concerned about the country’s ongoing contribution to climate change.

4) Create new spaces for advocacy.

Bringing the climate and open government movements together allows civil society to tap new forums for securing momentum around climate policy implementation. For example, many civil society NGOs are highlighting the important connections between a strong Governance Goal 16 under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and strong water quality and climate change policies. WRI is hosting the sixth Global Gathering of The Access Initiative, called “Open Government for Climate Action,” organized in connection with the December Open Government Partnership Summit (OGP). This event will bring together leading thinkers in open government, open data and climate to exchange ideas on how civil society can best engage in implementing national climate policy.

The Gathering will also inform future open government commitments made by OGP member countries, including many of the countries responsible for the largest emissions of greenhouse gases, such as the EU, United States, Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil. The Gathering and Summit offer exciting opportunities to bring together the separate worlds of open government and climate. Together, they will help spur accountable and inclusive climate action that improves the lives of local communities.