State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


We’ll Always Have Paris: Trump’s Impact on the Climate Agreement

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

Last week I anticipated President Trump’s shortsighted decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and predicted that his actions might provide environmentalists with a common enemy to rally against. That seems to be happening. Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg is organizing American corporations, states, cities and other institutions to commit to greenhouse gas reductions and be recognized by the U.N. as they fulfill the U.S. reduction obligations under Paris. Now all we need is a few billion dollars for renewable energy in the developing world and Trump’s Rose Garden rant last week becomes truly meaningless. Bloomberg’s leadership and the rapid mobilization of leaders concerned about climate change demonstrates that America’s power resides both inside and outside the Washington beltway.

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement was the most straightforward part of Trump’s rhetoric last week. The truly convoluted part of his talk was his misread of the economic impact of environmental regulation and his ideas about how America’s economy will be revitalized. It is true that some of our trade deals and regulations could be better, but the world has a global economy and America has the strongest economy in the world. The rules and our trade agreements can’t be that bad if we seem to be winning. This horrible, depressed, crime-ridden America the president presented in his inaugural address and again in the Rose Garden may be the view he sees from Trump Tower, but it’s not the reality a majority of Americans experience. Still, enough people are suffering that it makes political sense for him to try to serve as their voice. I get his motivation. But the part that really makes no sense is his idea that a vast increase in the fossil fuel business will generate an American economic boom. It won’t.

The economic future does not belong to resource extraction industries. Communities that host these businesses know what I mean. The resource extractors come, they dig, drill, pump and spread money around but also strain local services and infrastructure. Eventually they leave, and the local folks get to clean up the mess. There’s always a good economic reason that extraction comes to an end. The price of the resource might drop, the resource becomes harder and more expensive to get to, or cheaper alternatives are discovered. For the coal business, it’s been fracking and natural gas that caused them pain. For coal workers, it was mountain top removal and other mechanized forms of extraction that reduced the employment in mining. It is unbelievably deceptive of the President of the United States to articulate an economic strategy that calls for the revival of these businesses. The coal miners know that they need to prepare for a different type of work. They certainly know their children need to be prepared for change.

The nature of economic life is changing and it is very important that we look forward instead of backward. The U.S. energy sector added 300,000 jobs in 2016: most were in energy efficiency and renewable energy. According to the Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy Employment Report:

“Electric Power Generation and Fuels technologies directly employ more than 1.9 million workers. In 2016, 55 percent, or 1.1 million, of these employees worked in traditional coal, oil, and gas, while almost 800,000 workers were employed in low carbon emission generation technologies, including renewables, nuclear, and advanced/low emission natural gas. Just under 374,000 individuals work, in whole or in part, for solar firms, with more than 260,000 of those employees spending the majority of their time on solar. There are an additional 102,000 workers employed at wind firms across the nation. The solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016, while wind employment increased by 32%.”

The report also notes that “2.2 million Americans are employed, in whole or in part, in the design, installation, and manufacture of Energy Efficiency products and services, adding 133,000 jobs in 2016.” Modernizing our energy system to make it more efficient and less polluting is a growing business. Coal mining is a shrinking business. President Trump is doubling down on a loser.

The energy future, like the rest of our economic future, depends on technological innovation and ingenuity. We are now in the brain based economy. Software makes more money than hardware. A century ago most of our economy and most of our labor was in the production of food, clothing and shelter. Today, less and less of our GDP is in those necessary but relatively shrinking businesses. Massive investment in education, scientific research and infrastructure would result in economic growth. Running away from environmental rules and global treaties might help a few small businesses, but in the long run will cause economic damage. The benefits of a clean environment far outweigh the costs.

As an educator, I am biased, but I believe that the economic future requires us to attract, educate and employ the world’s best minds. That requires intelligent and encouraging immigration policy, improved public schools, great universities, and great quality of life in the cities that house America’s researchers and businesses. Great quality of life means clean air, clean water, health care, safe cities, stimulating and exciting cities, along with preserved and beautiful natural spaces. Walking away from a global climate treaty, discouraging immigration, and cutting spending on science and education make it more difficult for our communities and for our nation to be competitive in the brain based economy.

Fortunately, many of Trump’s plans are being countered by other parts of our government, other institutions, and his own inability to form a competent government. Congress seems to be restoring some of his science budget cuts, the courts are countering his immigration policy excesses, and nearly everyone is trying to reduce their greenhouse gases. President Trump’s visible attack on the climate treaty is disheartening, but it is far from the last word on the subject. Paris, after all, does not mandate greenhouse gas reductions, it sets voluntary targets; America’s own Clean Air Act mandates reductions in greenhouse gases. This was decided in a Supreme Court decision handed down in 2007 when George W. Bush was president.  The Court was responding to a lawsuit brought by a group of state attorneys general. The U.S. Supreme Court determined at that time that greenhouse gases were dangerous air pollutants. EPA was directed to develop regulations to reduce that pollution and Trump and his EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are required to issue and enforce that regulation. Trump can withdraw from Paris, but he is sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. must act, but what about the rest of the world? Climate change is a global problem that requires global solutions. Nearly every government in the world understands that and we have seen no retreat from the climate treaty since the president’s announcement. In fact, we have seen a broad and uniform recommitment to the goals of mitigating climate change. President Trump took a symbolic act to achieve a political objective. He kept his campaign promise, largely because he and his team do not understand the climate issue or the economic opportunity presented by the transition to a renewable resource based economy. While we still do not know the long-term impact of his action, the short-term impact has been to mobilize a broad segment of the U.S. and global public in support of the agreement. The Paris agreement remains intact, despite Trump’s reckless action. As Bogart told Bergman at the Casablanca airport: “We’ll always have Paris.” Of course, he meant the memory of what might have been. Let’s hope we do better with the planet than Bogey seemed to do with the Nazis or his love life in the movie Casablanca. I suspect we will.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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