State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Trump’s Relevance on Climate Change

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

At last week’s meeting of U.S. and European leaders, the American President refused to join the consensus supporting the Paris climate treaty, tweeting that he’d let us know what he thinks next week. While China, India, Europe, California and New York are all beginning the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the current U.S. federal government refuses to see the danger of climate change or the economic opportunities presented by the need to modernize our energy system. President Trump seems stuck in a decades-long time warp: it’s 1974 again and Trump sees the oil embargo and gas lines all over America. Despite the global energy market, he advocates energy independence. He thinks that the coal industry has been collapsing due to over-regulation rather than competition from cheaper and cleaner fuels. His understanding of climate science is no more sophisticated than his understanding of energy economics. He campaigned that climate change is a hoax and his environmental advisers are wholly owned subsidiaries of the fossil fuel industry. All of this leads to the dangerous delusions that drive this White House’s environmental policies.

Even if you refuse the reality of climate science, the economic reality of American scientific and technological prowess cannot be denied. The smart phone, streaming video, the World Wide Web, GPS, low cost computing, the miracle of modern health care, and countless household conveniences are built on the brainpower of scientists. All the wealth generated by these technologies are derived from the same research establishment that is alerting the world to the perils of environmental destruction. The scientific and technological capacity of America is our true distinct and comparative advantage in the world economy. America’s national labs, research universities and our applied industrial research and development capacities are second to none. An economic battle focused on the development of new technology is one we can dominate. But withdrawing from Paris, cutting the budgets for scientific research, and attacking medical and climate research are acts of national lunacy. This nightmare of an administration is harming America’s fundamental interests, and even if we manage to preserve our scientific capacity, we are running as fast as we can simply to stand still and maintain what we have. Each budget proposal mystifies and terrifies the nation’s scientists. It is difficult for them to focus on their science when they have to hustle even more than usual to ensure that their research teams won’t evaporate due to the latest budget cuts. We should be investing in science, but instead, the president proposes disinvestment.

If the U.S. pulls out of the global climate accord, its impact will be both real and symbolic, but it is hard to predict how significant the move would be. It could reduce the momentum behind greenhouse gas reduction. It could have the opposite effect. It will create a visible enemy for environmental advocates to focus on. It could also serve to galvanize and mobilize the moderate voices in our society, who typically do not involve themselves in political debates. They know that the science behind climate change is real. They see the impacts of climate change. The only debate is: How do we mitigate the human impact on the climate and how do we adapt to the change already taking place? Those debates are critical and are well underway. The question for President Trump is: Do you want to be included in those discussions or excluded? Pulling out of the global climate agreement might empower those who want to keep burning fossil fuels, but in the long run who will take that position? As technology advances, renewable energy will drive fossil fuels from the marketplace. Fossil fuel advocates will be like people who cling to their flip phones, video tapes and fax machines.

America’s Fortune 500 companies, our state and local governments, hospitals, universities and other institutions are moving aggressively to reduce their carbon footprints. Many have established organizational units that focus on sustainable waste management, energy, water, materials and buildings along with the environmental impact of the organization’s supply chain and production. They are not doing this out of love of nature, but to remain competitive in the global economy. The only place that seems to be questioning the importance of these issues is the U.S. federal government.

If climate science is a hoax, it must be one of the most successful of all time. Every European head of government and the Pope urged President Trump to support the climate treaty. Are they all in on the hoax?  What an incredible conspiracy it must be! Or are these European leaders just too gullible to understand they’ve been duped by those diabolical climate scientists? The president and his extremist allies sit outside the mainstream of world opinion on this issue. The climate issue and the energy base of our economy are central issues of national and global economic life. If President Trump persists in pursuing his denial of climate science and attempts to halt progress toward renewable energy, he will contribute to America’s economic decline, not its growth.

Fossil fuels are not going to disappear suddenly. They will persist for decades. But as sure as human labor was replaced by animal labor and animal labor was displaced by fossil fuels, so too will fossil fuels be replaced by renewable energy. We don’t know how long the transition will take or what businesses and nations will dominate this transition, but we know it will happen. The process is underway. The U.S. is in danger of losing its leadership role in this transition. Pulling out of the Paris Agreement will codify and certify America’s disengagement from the real world. It will ensure that our voice will be less relevant to global discussions on economic life.

We are indeed fortunate that our constitution provides a system of checks and balances within the national government and establishes a federal system that reserves real power to the states. Even if the U.S. withdraws from the Paris Agreement, in all likelihood state and local policies will enable the U.S. to meet the Paris targets anyway. Moreover, unless Congress revises and weakens the Clean Air Act, greenhouse gases, already declared a dangerous pollutant by the U.S. Supreme Court, must be regulated by the EPA. Trump may toss out the Clean Power Plan, but he must replace it with a regulation that reduces greenhouse gases. The odds of congress modifying the Clean Air Act to permit more coal to be burned is zero.

Improved battery technology, microgrids, improved solar cells, better windmills, more energy efficient appliances and batteries, along with other energy breakthroughs continue to emerge from our labs and corporations. There’s money to be made in energy efficiency and renewable energy. This administration could be marshalling these forces and could work to stimulate their creation and adoption. Instead, the president’s team retreats to stonewalling on climate agreements, promoting mining on federal lands, and defunding scientific research. The forces of change are greater than the forces of reaction and so this president will be less and less relevant globally and less important domestically. His amateurish, improvisational and ill-informed climate and energy policy will be countered by the other strong institutions our nation has built. But it will be a shame to do this in spite of the president rather than in concert with him. I hope that President Trump tweets his support of the climate treaty, but if he doesn’t, it will be a mistake we all will come to regret.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

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