“The wind kills all your birds,” Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee for president, told his supporters at a rally in Pennsylvania last year. It was a crowd-pleasing message for a state that’s among the largest producers of oil, gas, and coal in the country; Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, had proposed phasing out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources like wind power. “All your birds: killed,” he said.
Trump’s apparent concern for birds’ welfare is almost Franzen-esque, and it predates his presidential run. A New York Times tally earlier this year found that Trump has mentioned wind turbines’ bird-killing abilities more than 55 times since 2012, including 22 tweets.
Trump’s avian obsession has continued into his presidency. As recently as June, he said that he wouldn’t leave Americans waiting for the wind to blow “as the birds fall to the ground.” His secretary of the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke, recently noted renewable energy’s risks to birds in arguing against using public lands for solar power. “It kind of looks like a scene from Mad Max,” Zinke said of a giant solar panel field in Nevada. “Is that the future of having these three or four 80-foot towers with reflector cells the size of garage doors where it makes this cone, this sphere of death, so as birds go through it they get zapped?”
Given their professed worry for birds, why are Trump and Zinke now working to allow drilling within America’s largest bird nursery? Trump’s budget recommendations to Congress in May called for raising $1.8 billion in revenue by allowing oil and gas companies to lease property in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a remote, unspoiled, and biologically diverse public land where 200 different bird species from all over the world breed annually. The Republican Congress, needing revenue to pay for planned tax cuts, appears to like the idea.
Last Thursday, the Senate struck down a budget amendment that would have prohibited drilling in ANWR as a way to raise revenue. The budget bill that passed the chamber “doesn’t specifically mention the wildlife refuge,” The Hill reported, “but asks the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to pass legislation to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years and drilling in the Arctic refuge is by far the most likely way to get to the total.” The House is expected to adopt the Senate’s budget on Thursday.
It’s not certain, given the trend toward renewable energy, that leasing land in ANWR would raise $1 billion over a decade. But the environmental risks are clear. Cleaning up an oil spill is difficult enough when it occurs just 250 miles off the coast of the mainland U.S.; in such a remote area, the cleanup could be impossible. Moreover, opening up so much new land to fossil fuel exploration would only put more carbon into the atmosphere at a time when we’re on the brink of no return.
And then there are the birds. “I think we had and continue to hold onto hope that this administration would live up to its stated intentions to be strong on conservation and to care about wildlife,” said Sarah Greenberger, the National Audubon Society’s vice president for conservation. “But in a succession of actions, they haven’t quite lived up to their word to date.” Taken together, these actions threaten to send billions of birds to their graves—far more than any renewable energy policies would.
Wind and solar energy do kill birds. The Audubon Society estimates that hundreds of thousands of birds are killed by turbines each year. Nonetheless, Greenberger said, “We are for renewable energy—properly sited and developed renewable energy.” But oil, gas, coal, buildings, and cats kill many more birds. Nearly a billion birds die every year just from flying into windows, and yet Trump isn’t tweeting about how windows are “wing bangers.”
The reality is that the Trump administration’s fossil fuel policies are a far bigger threat to avian species. These threats are less obvious, because unlike wind and solar, expanding fossil fuel development does not result in birds being suddenly zapped or shredded. It results in slower deaths, resulting from the gradual loss of habitat. “You can’t protect birds without protecting the places where they live and find food,” Greenberger said. And fossil fuel development tends to decimate those places.
If drilling in ANWR is approved, for example, heavy equipment will roll over previously pristine land. Drill pads and other infrastructure will be installed. Workers will need to access these things, and oil will need to be transported, so roads and pipelines will be built. “One of the wildest places in the world will become an industrial place,” Greenberger said. Proponents of drilling have argued that only 2,000 of the 1.5 million acres of ANWR would be affected by development; birds can just go somewhere else. But as Politifact noted in 2008, “to take full advantage of the oil resources in ANWR would almost certainly require an extensive network of roads, pipelines and related infrastructure that couldn’t possibly be contained on such a footprint.”
Government regulations require fossil fuel companies to develop responsibly, with conservation of birds and other species in mind. And yet, the Trump administration has also slowly been trying to unwind and sidestep those rules, too. Take Trump’s border wall, parts of which will run through the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, home to at least 400 species of birds. Trump’s administration is choosing to skip an environmental impact study required by federal law, invoking an obscure 2005 anti-terror law to do it. Doing this “will essentially destroy the refuge,” a federal official involved in the wall’s planning told the Texas Observer.
In fact, the Trump administration is trying to change how environmental impact statements work altogether—not just for the border wall. To build new highways and bridges more quickly, Trump has proposed weakening the environmental review process for huge infrastructure projects. In September, Interior Secretary Zinke ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reduce the time it devotes to environmental analysis, in order to approve drilling projects more quickly. In one case, Zinke is explicitly trying to loosen protections for a threatened bird species in order to more speedily approve fossil fuel development on public lands.
Few of these proposed policy changes directly target birds, but all would have a negative impact on their habitats if implemented, Greenberger said. “The Trump administration is creating a rather unique legacy among any administration for undoing and selling out our conservation legacy,” she said. “The extent to which this administration has moved to prioritize fossil fuel energy development over conservation has been more aggressive than previous administrations we’ve seen.”
But for birds, the deadliest part of Trump’s agenda is his refusal to address climate change. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have predicted doomsday for hundreds of species if the world continues to warm. Temperatures will exceed some species’ thermal tolerances, sea level rise will decimate habitats, extreme weather including drought and heavy rain will compromise food sources. Stanford University scientist Cagan Sekercioglu has called climate change an “escalator to extinction” for birds: a “worst-case scenario” of warming (6.4 degree Celsius) would cause up to 30 percent of bird species on land to go extinct by 2100; an “intermediate” level of warming (2.8 degrees Celsius), would cause 400 to 550 species die-offs.
If Trump gets his way, the world would at least reach that intermediate level of warming, and billions of his beloved birds would die. Once again, his climate policies would harm the very people that helped elect him: White people living in rural areas in the South make up the highest percentage of bird-watchers in America. In 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the nation’s 47 million birders spent an estimated $40 billion, created 666,000 jobs, and raised $13 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenue. It’s hard to see how that could continue if nearly a third of existing species are extinct.
Fortunately, Trump alone does not dictate the climate, and most of his proposed policies that would harm birds have yet to be implemented. Indeed, many of them likely won’t be, thanks to legal challenges from environmental groups and a few Republicans who won’t vote for draconian budget cuts to the EPA and other programs. But it looks likely that Congress will allow drilling in ANWR this week, a decision that will have disastrous consequences for birds and humans alike.