I did not expect Donald Trump to be elected president and, like most people, I was surprised when he won. On January 20th he becomes our head of government and head of state; the president is both prime minister and king. My hope is that the institution of the presidency will envelop our new president and he will able to grow into this crucial world role. Hope needs to be tempered by concern. Many of my colleagues in Columbia’s Earth Institute and many people all over the world are worried. Many of the policy positions he has taken on climate and environment are worth worrying about, but anyone who thinks they can predict what our soon-to-be president will do hasn’t been paying attention over the past year. Trump defines unpredictable.
I feel a little like I’ve been here before. I worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Superfund program when Ronald Reagan was elected president. President Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch Burford to head EPA, and it was bad. Everything we were working on was stopped co
ld and the staff in the still-young EPA felt orphaned. It was so bad that by July of 1981, I left and moved home to New York to work at Columbia. I remember being amazed when Reagan beat Jimmy Carter, and while I continued to consult for EPA during the 1980s and 1990s, I won’t ever forget the sense of loss I felt when the ten-year old EPA was attacked and politicized during 1981 and 1982. But then something interesting happened. Anne Burford was criticized for mismanagement of the agency’s toxic waste program, she fought with Congress about the agency’s revolving door relationship with the chemical industry, and by 1983 found herself abandoned by the White House and forced to resign. Her replacement was EPA’s first administrator, the well regarded William Ruckelshaus.
From 1981 through 1983, the Reagan Administration learned the hard way that the American people support a clean environment. This is particularly the case when a clear connection can be made between pollution and public health. Gallup has been polling on support for environmental protection for over three decades, and this past spring they found that 56% of all Americans thought that environmental protection should be given priority over economic development and just 37% believe that development should be given a higher priority. Although this number has varied over the years, it is very close to the level of support we saw during the 1980s. As for over-regulation, this past spring only 12% of the public believed that government does too much to protect the environment while 57% thought the government does too little.
If President Elect Trump thinks he can dismantle EPA without major political fallout, he might want to check in with Rick Snyder of Michigan who continues to be attacked for his failure to protect Flint, Michigan’s water supply. He might also call up Volkswagen, BP, GE and countless other companies who have spent billions of dollars to remedy environmental damage they’ve created. Typically, environmental protection, like firefighting and many other critical pu
lic functions, is seen as important, but rarely polls as a high priority. People assume that government is taking care of things and they keep it low on their priority list. But if essential government services are threatened, the public gets activated. Americans expect government to assure clean air and water, along with safe food and drugs. We expect to be protected from exploding cellphones and drunk airline pilots. I am not arguing that our approach to protecting the environment or other forms of regulation is perfect. It is not. There are plenty of regulations that could be simplified, modified or modernized. But let’s not forget that pollution in America has gone down while our economy continues to grow. Pollution control, recycling, energy efficiency and renewable energy are themselves sources of economic growth.
The new president might ignore EPA, but focus his attention on energy and climate. He has promised to bring back coal, build the Keystone Pipeline project, and scrap the Paris climate agreement. Unlike issues such as toxics, polluted water and dirty air, climate is a complex global problem where causes and impacts can be separated by space and even time. Nevertheless, most young people believe that they will inherit a world of massive climate challenges. They’ve been saddled with college debt, downward mobility and the potential of sea level rise. Candidate Trump seemed to see the environment as a luxury that must be bought at the expense of restricting economic growth. What will President Trump think? There is another way to look at this issue and the new administration could see the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy as the economic opportunity it has become.
If we look at the long term, fossil fuels will only get more expensive while solar power can only get less expensive. While fossil fuel extraction technology continues to advance and there are plenty of fossil fuels left inside the planet, fossil fuels are finite and as you use them they become less plentiful. Supply will go down and demand for energy will continue to go up. Extracting fuel from the planet damages ecosystems, as does transporting and burning them. Fossil fuels must be physically transported from the place they are found to the place they are burned. All of that costs money.
In contrast, the source fuel for solar and wind energy is free. The sun and the wind are provided free of charge. The only cost is in absorbing the sun and collecting the wind and storing their intermittent energy for later use. The cost of collecting and storing renewable energy will tend to get less expensive and more reliable as technology develops. Think of the way technology has lowered the costs and increased the capacity of smart phones and computers. The solar cells, batteries, energy efficiency methods, smart grids and other energy innovations can be developed here in America for export to the world. If we don’t do it, they will be developed elsewhere for America to import. One way or the other, renewable energy technology is on the way. An energy policy designed to lower the costs of renewable energy and subsidize the cost of the science needed to invent new technology would be far more politically popular than one that focuses on pipelines and coal, or one that taxes carbon and raises the price of energy.
The new president and his team can opt for a policy to promote a 19th century technology or a 21st century technology. You don’t need to believe that climate models are sound to promote cleaner, cheaper energy. When you couple it with microgrids and large-scale smart grid infrastructure you will create employment and develop a cutting edge technology for the economy’s single most important resource.
I am guessing the folks who work for the new president will opt for fossil fuels, but Trump is not easy to predict, and he could move toward renewable energy and energy efficiency as part of an infrastructure and high tech business development strategy. However, regardless of the path taken by the United States, other nations will pursue renewable energy and energy efficiency technology without us.
I have no idea what President Trump’s environmental agenda will be, but I have a clear sense of the importance of a clean and safe environment to the average person. Due to dysfunction in Washington, most American environmental advocates have focused their attention locally or globally for the past quarter century. That strategy has been effective, but it would be more effective if the U.S. federal government got on board. The great anti-communist President Richard Nixon went to China and opened up relations; perhaps President Trump will travel to a melting glacier to see global warming close up and personal.