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U.S. Elections are a Pivotal Moment for Climate Change Policy

Trump, the U.S. elections, and climate change. A pivotal moment

Dean Scott, the senior climate change reporter for Bloomberg, moderated a panel discussion this weekend at the 2016 conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The topic at hand was the upcoming U.S. elections and what it means for climate change policy, particularly if Donald Trump wins the presidency.

You might think that his position on climate change is “typical” or just “more of the same” from the GOP. But, like so many other issues, Trump’s surreal candidacy is “quite a departure” for the Republican party. In his 24 years of reporting, Scott says he has “never witnessed an election cycle where a candidate fails to release any formal policy position papers.”

Instead, says Scott, Trump’s position on climate change must be interpreted through tweets and off-the-cuff statements, such as “I believe in clean air, immaculate air, but I don’t believe in climate change.”

Politics after Paris

He says he will “cancel” the Paris Agreement, giving no consideration to the impact such an attempt will have on U.S. standing in the global community. But, of course, Trump has little (or no) understanding of the agreement. It cannot simply be “canceled.”

In a sense, Paris treaty anticipates the likes of Donald Trump. Heather Zichal, former energy and climate advisor to President Obama and Senior Fellow for the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council, says that a formal withdrawal from the treaty “isn’t an issue,” even with a Trump presidency. It involves a lengthy process and “would severely damage the U.S. in the global community. Not exactly “making America great again.”

What Trump can do, however, is to delay, underfund U.S. commitments, and “cause mischief.”

“I want to be clear,” Zichal says, ““I don’t think we’ve ever face a bigger threat in terms of policy and climate action” Donald Trump plays “fast and loose” with the rules” and is “disconnected with reality.”

Earth to Trump

Donald Trump’s climate and energy policy is “hard to decipher,” says James Connaughton, CEO of Nautilus Data Technologies and former energy adPresidentGeorge W. Bush.

Broadly speaking, Connaughton says, Trump proposes “ramping up” all sources of U.S. energy production. He claims he will put coal workers back to work.

CEOs of large utilities are well aware they are in a “moment of transition,” especially the coal industry. It is a “fantasy that coal is coming back,” Connaughton says, and a “false narrative.”

We waste our time and betray the reality of the economic circumstances by “glamorizing” the coal worker for “what they’ve done for the country the past century,” says Connaughton. I believe that assessment is correct. Coal helped build America, for better and worse, but its dominant role in the economy is fading.

It’s undoing isn’t so much liberal environmental activism as it is fracking natural gas and the rapidly declining cost of wind and solar power. The reality has changed for coal. Instead of making empty, uneducated claims of bringing coal jobs back to coal country, the discussion should be real solutions for coal communities.

So far Donald Trump hasn’t shown an understanding or concern for coal communities beyond uttering empty promises that he can’t keep.

Congress should do its job

By the beginning of President Obama’s second term, it was clear that seeking a legislative approach to climate policy was futile. Congress “refused to act,” says former Obama adviser Zichal. The administration tried working with Congress, but their recalcitrance pushed him to seek executive action. If Obama can use executive action to influence climate policy, then what’s to stop Trump from doing the same?

For a CEO of a coal or utility company, that’s a very cogent question. The better route is using the legislative process, but a dysfunctional Congress makes it impossible.

“The Senate should do its job,” Connaughton says. The lack of clear policy signals from Congress frustrates coal and energy CEOs, who need a sign on how to invest and rebuild a fleet of aging power plants.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The direction is clear if the path still a little opaque. The energy economy is in transition. Global warming really is a thing, Senator Inhofe’s snowball antics on the Senate floor notwithstanding. The impacts of a changing climate are already here, “detected and attributed”. We have pushed our climate beyond the norms of the Holocene; the only epoch humans have ever known. Until now. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

The question now is what we intend to do about it; “how far, how fast, how much much will it cost,” says Connaughton. We may not be aiming far enough, moving fast enough, and stuck in a false narrative about the cost, but it will be “hard to stop the pathway we are already on.”

The underlying fear is that Donald Trump might give it a go. There is much at stake.


Featured image credit: Sharon Jamilkowski, courtesy YouTube

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