NEW YORK – Legend holds that King Canute brought his flatterers to the sea to show them that even a king could not command the ocean waves, that the laws of nature are more powerful than the decrees of men. So pity Donald Trump, who really believes that his executive orders can hold back the tides.
Trump is surrounded by cronies rather than flatterers, and they and their foolish, ignorant king believe that by denying climate change they can restore the wealth and glory of coal, oil, and gas. They are wrong. Greed will not reverse human-caused climate change, and Trump’s executive orders will not stop the global process of phasing out coal, oil, and gas in favor of wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, geothermal, and other low-carbon energy sources.
In less than 100 days, we have learned that Trump is a man living in a fantasy world. He issues decrees, barks orders, sends out midnight Tweets, but to no avail. The facts – real ones, not his “alternative” variety – keep intervening. There is physics; there is law; there are courts; there are procedures; and there are voters, only 36% of whom approve of Trump’s job performance. There is also China, which wins technologically and diplomatically from every self-defeating move by the incompetent US president.
The latest fantasy involves climate change. Trump has issued executive orders that he claims will reverse former President Barack Obama’s climate policies. His orders would rescind the Clean Power Plan regulations of the US Environmental Protection Agency; roll back standards to control methane releases from oil and gas production and distribution; and end the regulatory use of a “social cost of carbon,” introduced by the EPA to calibrate the dollar value of climate damage caused by the emission of an additional ton of carbon dioxide.
According to Trump, these new measures will create new jobs in the coal sector, achieve US “energy independence,” and boost economic growth. In addition, Trump recently authorized the building of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the US state of Nebraska, with the purpose of linking Canada’s oil sands to oil refineries in the US. Obama had rejected that project on the grounds that it would aggravate global warming.
Trump’s overriding motivation is to serve the economic interests of the US coal, oil, and gas industries, which provide ample campaign financing and media backing for the Republicans in Congress and in state governments across the country. In short, this is political corruption: government policies in exchange for campaign funds.
ExxonMobil, Chevron, the US Chamber of Commerce, and Koch Industries are all major players, and almost all of the Republican members of Congress are implicated in this disgraceful behavior. They are prepared to look like fools in public – denying climate science and global warming – as long as it keeps the campaign money flowing. Whether or not Trump himself is foolish enough to believe what he says, he knows that his executive orders play into the sweet spot of Republican power.
But, as with so many of Trump’s decisions, there is more bark than bite, more bluster than reality. First, Trump can’t stop the waves, or the rising ocean levels in the case of global warming. The science is real, even if Trump is happy to show off his scientific ignorance.
Second, the world knows it’s real. Every UN member state signed the Paris climate agreement in 2015. The planet has just experienced the hottest three years on record. The oceans are warming dramatically (recently damaging 93% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the process). Trump’s cynicism and ignorance will change no minds and will attract no followers globally.
Moreover, Trump’s actions will be challenged in court, and he will almost surely lose. He will pump up a few voters in West Virginia and receive praise from Koch Industries. But he will not be able to overturn the EPA’s regulation of CO2 emissions.
Those standards are protected by the Clean Air Act, and Trump lacks the votes in Congress – by a wide margin – to change that legislation. And American voters, by a wide margin, favor a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Even with America’s corrupt politics, the voters’ views still matter.
Nor can Trump revive the dying coal sector. Coal has everything against it these days. It causes lung disease among miners and the public living near coal-fired power plants. It releases more CO2 per unit of energy than oil and gas, and it – and all the fossil fuels – are increasingly being outcompeted by wind, solar, hydropower, and other zero-carbon energy sources.
As for jobs, coal mining is becoming so automated that the entire sector employs just a few tens of thousands of workers in a labor force of more than 150 million. Coal mining will play no significant role in future US employment trends, Trump or no Trump.
For the same reason, my bet is that the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would cost several billion dollars, will never be built. The world does not need Canada’s oil sands, given the urgent global need to move to zero-carbon energy sources. Canada’s oil sands are expensive to exploit, highly polluting, and far from markets. Regardless of Trump’s approval, investors are likely to reject a pipeline that would probably go bankrupt well before the planned horizon for its use.
China, Europe, and even the Gulf region will not be swayed by Trump’s moves. China is intent on lowering CO2 emissions, cleaning its air, and becoming the twenty-first-century leader in low-carbon technologies such as photovoltaics and electric vehicles. Europe is well on its way to a zero-emission economy. The Gulf countries are deploying large new capacity in renewable energy, especially solar energy.
In the end, we can be amazed at the foolishness of America’s president and the corruption of the US Republican Party. But we should not believe that Trump’s climate fantasies will change global reality or alter the implementation of the Paris climate agreement.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs