A Presidency Full of Energy

When America sneezes, the world catches a cold. When our Federal Reserve Board raises interest rates, world currencies move, commodity prices jump or slump. When America changes its trade policies, world leaders worry and try to respond. And when an American president who believes climate change is “a hoax” replaces one who believes it “could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other”, presumably including ISIS, greens around the world turn purple with rage.

Impotent rage. Donald Trump is dismantling Obama’s elaborate structure for coping with climate change. He began by repealing with a stroke of the presidential pen some of the regulations that Obama had put in place to hamper the mining of coal. The presidential pen, you see, does not leave the White House with the last occupant. He then put Scott Pruitt, who shares the president’s “hoax” belief, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, and informed Congress that he plans to axe 31 percent from the agency’s budget—the largest cut proposed for any agency. “As to climate change,” announced Mick Mulvaney, new director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), “I think the president was fairly straight-forward: We’re not spending money on that anymore.” Instead, there will be a shift from soft to hard power. Out goes spending on the arts, up goes the military budget, although only by a trivial 3 percent compared to what would have been included in Obama’s final budget—not the double-digit increase touted in the false news emitted by the White House.

An administration that is supposedly in chaos, its right hand unaware of what its far-right hand is doing, followed that interdiction with thoroughness. The administration plans sharp cuts in the Commerce Department’s climate-change and ocean research, research valued by many other nations. The Department of Energy is to end all programs aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of appliances and vehicles. The State Department is to eliminate its climate-change prevention programs and cease honoring Obama’s pledged payments to UN climate-change programs.

The president is not content with rooting out spending related to the hoax of climate change. While deciding whether to withdraw from the 200-nation Paris accord—his daughter and key adviser Ivanka, who is “always pushing me to do the right thing”, opposes such a move—Trump is making such withdrawal irrelevant. He has directed Pruitt to gut or eliminate the Clean Power Plan, which was aimed at shutting down coal-fired power plants, and is the foundation for the emissions reductions to which America agreed in Paris. That, the president told a cheering audience in the coal-mining state of Kentucky, will “save our wonderful coal miners from continuing to be put out of work.” Something of a shift from promising to bring back jobs, but a lot better than continuation of the Obama/Clinton war on coal.

There’s more. He has asked Pruitt to scuttle tougher tailpipe emission standards intended to force manufacturers to produce more small cars and fewer of the SUVs that consumers prefer—to the great relief of the auto industry, which can’t figure out how to move the thousands of unsold smaller vehicles already crowding dealer lots.

Some environmentalists are taking comfort from the fact that although an executive order by the current occupant of the White House trumps a similar order by Obama, that is not true of regulations that are in effect. “To undo the rule [establishing the Clean Power Plan], the EPA will have to follow the same procedure that was followed to put the regulation in place,” says Richard Lazurus, professor of environmental law at Harvard. That will involve gathering public comment and years of litigation.

Other devoted to a green agenda are quietly passing the word that their public outcries do not reflect their private view that the Paris deal was a paper tiger. It contained no enforcement mechanism, no mechanism for forcing developing nations to keep to their emissions-reduction pledges rather than shovel still more coal into the furnaces of their economic growth engines. So nothing of consequence is lost.

Still, nations that were persuaded by Obama to sign the Paris deal, many of them in response to promises of cash payments to help them shift from coal power to renewables, now have a good excuse for re-examining their commitments. And are likely to conclude that America’s effective opting out of the emissions-control business makes it senseless for them to keep to their promises, since total global emissions will rise even if they do.

Then there is what might prove to be Trump’s most important act of all—his decision to bring to an end virtually all research into the possibility that the globe is indeed warming, and that human activity is the cause. This is of little matter to those who are certain that we are headed for a hot apocalypse, and to those who are equally certain that they are being confronted not with hot days and nights, flood, droughts, pestilence and wars over resources, but a gigantic hoax. The certain need no research to buttress their certainty. But it is of vital importance to those of us who are skeptical but open to proof.

There is little doubt that Trump is putting a serious crimp in green plans for a fossil-free American future. But when the original shock wears off, they just might find that the world has not changed quite as much as they fear. For the far more reliable private sector, driven by the need to maximize long-run profits, might accomplish what here-today, gone-tomorrow governments, with the presidential pen passing from hand to hand as effortlessly as the baton in a relay race, cannot. Bill Gates is heading up a group of 20 investors who have put together a $1-billion fund to discover means of providing “cheap and reliable clean energy to the world.” Exxon, its former CEO now globe-girdling as secretary of state rather than the oil company’s CEO, is putting a price on carbon when it makes capital allocation decisions. Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, says his company will remain at the “vanguard” of the “unstoppable” drive for clean energy irrespective of U.S. policy. Multiple battery companies are vying to become the leaders in an industry that can bridge the gap when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

Presidents come and go. The private sector will be engaging in long-run research and long-lived investments, perhaps more efficiently than the government has been doing. The profit motive might just turn out to be more productive than the vote-getting or ideological motives that drive politicians.

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