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One of President Obama's main climate policy thrusts was to persuade the world that since you often get what you pay for, the world should stop paying for more extreme climate disruption by subsidizing fossil fuels. Both the G7 and the G20 accepted Obama's lead—at least nominally.
Some countries did something. Revealingly, both rich and poor countries which were helping energy consumers get cheaper fuel reformed. The United Arab Emirates has dismantled its subsidy regime for gasoline. Indonesia eliminated its gasoline subsidies and capped diesel supports. India has moved very aggressively, first eliminating diesel supports, and now phasing out even the subsidized kerosene intended to help the off-grid poor pay for lighting their homes. (Dealing with electricity subsidies has proven a heavier lift).
A new climate mobilization is emerging; its first mission? The isolation of Donald Trump. Sunday's New York Times headline about the G20 meeting in Hamburg was revealing, but inaccurate: World leaders Move Forward on Climate Change: Without the U.S.
Yes, 19 of the 20 major economic players in the global economy agreed that the Paris climate agreement was "irreversible," that every nation needed to play its appropriate part, and that the future laid out in Paris, a decarbonized global economy in this century, was inevitable. Even oil exporting nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia, whom President Trump has viewed as favorite diplomatic buddies, refused to stand with him on climate. Trump's unwillingness to concede anything on climate meant that the rest of the G20 could adopt the stronger version of each of their climate communiqués.
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Donald Trump has done what Al Gore, Jim Hansen, climate scientists, the Sierra Club and the rest of the environmental movement could never do—make climate disruption breaking cable TV news. Trump's histrionic, largely symbolic and recklessly self-destructive decision to abandon the Paris climate agreement means, among other things, that far more Americans know about the Paris climate agreement this morning than 24 hours ago. Never has climate dominated a news cycle as it did Thursday—even when the Paris agreement was signed by all of the world, (Nicaragua and Syria excepted).
It's time to modernize George Orwell's concept of the memory hole laid out in his (once again best-selling novel), 1984. The "memory hole" was where "the party" discarded inconvenient bits of history, replacing them with what are now known as "alternative facts." The logic, as Orwell explained it, was "Who controls the past, controls the future."
Perhaps the Senate, in its hearing on Scott Pruitt's nomination to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), should have questioned Pruitt as the chief pediatrician for America's children. As head of the EPA Pruitt gets to decide what is safe for our kids—in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat and the communities they play. Senators didn't ask—but they are finding out.
One of the biggest impacts of President Trump's election is not the direct damage he may do—but the cultural shift he has unleashed among American business leaders. Assaults on decency and health that would have been unthinkable a few months ago are now the expected response by corporate executives pressured by short-term market pressures and right-wing political allies.
After a week in India, despite crowding, intensity and poverty, there is an undeniable lightness from plunging into a country firmly fixed on its future, not its past, moving forward however jerkily and energized.
Here's the harvest of Thursday's headlines: the Government of India is doubling the scale of the country's solar parks, adding 20 gigawatts, more than total U.S. solar capacity; Great Britain's development finance institution, CDC, announced a major new solar initiative targeted at India's undeserved eastern states; India's largest network of vocational institutes, run by the Catholic church, pledged to shift to renewable energy; Jharkand, India's West Virginia and biggest coal producer, plans to build more solar capacity than its peak internal demand for power; the Indian Supreme Court stepped up its crack-down on water pollution from industrial facilities; analysts projected aggressive bidding Thursday for India's first reverse auction for wind power, with prices expected to set new records; and finally the government announced that starting next year it would prepare a special budget annex assessing the steps it is taking to deal with climate change.
That's one day.
Meanwhile, traffic remains mind numbingly congested; but the future is being sketched out. Tide-hailing companies like Ola and Uber have grown so fast that they are beginning to drive up the wage scales for private chauffeurs. More and more Indians are leaving their personal cars at home as they brave grid-lock, prompting the government to schedule a high level strategy session Monday and Tuesday on whether India can move directly to a world of electric, shared passenger vehicles and skip the phase of mass personal ownership of cars altogether.
Volkswagen, as it plans its global recovery from the diesel cheating scandal, picked India's Tata Motors as its preferred strategic partner.
Air pollution is taking a devastating toll; but it has also emerged as a major issue as India's political parties contest a set of critical state elections across India's heavily polluted Gangetic plain.
India has decisively—if not irrevocably—bet its future on clean energy and low carbon innovation. Only if this disruptive pathway fails the country's aspirations to lift its masses out of poverty is India likely to revert to a fossil fuel reliant development model. This looks like the biggest opportunity clean energy has ever had.
Both the government and India's most prestigious (and caution) energy think tank, TERI, have declared that except for plants already in the pipeline, India will need no more coal power until after 2025, because planned renewable electricity will more than meet demand. The draft National Electricity Plan calls for installing renewable power capacity equal to 85 percent of peak demand, with no new coal at all.
Serious conversations are underway about how to jump start the needed investments in transmission. The grid must carry this enormous increase in renewable power to the load centers where it is needed which, as in most countries, are often distant from the prime wind and solar regions.
India is being smart. The record setting bids at the last solar auction (less than $0.05/kwh) were powered by some very smart auction design; setting up solar farms relieved developers of the risk and delays associated with obtaining land, the risk of transmission stranding was addressed by pledging to pay for electrons generated even if the grid to deliver them to customers had not yet been completed and hedging mechanisms allowed the projects access to low cost foreign borrowing. (Neighboring countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh pay far more, usually twice as much, for wind and solar, even when they have access to cheaper capital, because they have not gotten the policy basics right).
India's low carbon strategies are moving beyond the power sector. A goal of a 100 percent electrified vehicle fleet by 2030 is moving into the implementation phase. A senior academic from IIT Madras, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, has been given the lead oversight role and sees the problem as primarily one of industrial policy; if India can obtain and master the key electric drive vehicle technologies—solar cells, batteries and highly efficient vehicle cooling technology—electric drive vehicle's potential to displace imported and polluting oil will then create the necessary short-term policy support to end the era of oil powered combustion engines in India.
The Rail Ministry, led by Suresh Prabhu, a strong clean energy advocate, has been aggressively pursuing new strategies to enable India to shift a major share of its good traffic off of roads and trucks and onto climate friendly rail.
And, as mentioned above, India is placing competition for prowess in manufacturing low carbon equipment and infrastructure at the center of its economic development strategy.
India has always been better at thoughtful aspirations than at implementation; each one of these goals and steps faces multiple challenges. High domestic interest rates and foreign investor wariness of the security of long term loans to India, are probably the biggest threat—clean energy provides free fuel, but also demands more up front capital investment. Indian solar developers pay 50 percent more for the capital they use than those in the Persian Gulf. But those conversations are a lot more creative and energizing than the rehash of tired 1970's "environment vs. the economy" narrative that President Trump and the Republican Congress seem determined to rescue from the ash heap of history.
The utterly avoidable, terrifying and still potentially catastrophic failures of the spillways of North America's highest dam—California's 170 foot, earth-filled Oroville—could, with the right national leadership, awaken America to the urgency of investing in our physical safety and future—our infrastructure.
It's staggering to recall that one of Donald Trump's main appeals to many of his voters was a pledge to "drain the swamp" and rid Washington of corruption. In only two weeks he has, instead, begun stocking the swamp with new and poisonous creatures, making it yet more deadly, much as sugar planters did in the Caribbean importing fleur-de-lance and other poisonous snakes to discourage slaves from making new lives for themselves by escaping into the jungle.
Trump's cabinet, of course, may contain as many irreconcilable conflicts of interest as all the cabinets of the 20th century combined. Secretary of State Tillerson cannot do his job without becoming deeply enmeshed in the interest of ExxonMobil. Education Secretary DeVos, Health and Human Services Secretary Price, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Ross are ensnared with layers of inappropriate investments; Labor Secretary Puzder has made it clear that he wants to use his new position to reduce wages paid by his fast-food companies and only conceded on Feb. 1 that he might have to divest much of his investment portfolio to avoid future conflicts.
Trump's case for himself was "set a thief to catch a thief." He argued that he alone of recent Presidential candidates had been so deeply engaged in manipulating the federal tax code, that he alone knew how to fix it.
Well. If only.
It's not surprising that Trump has gone after Dodd-Frank financial regulations. There are features of those regulation that can honestly be argued to limit the ability of banks to provide useful services. So looking at Dodd-Frank, with the intent to give Americans access to better credit, isn't per se outrageous.
But the first target of the Trump administration is a Dodd-Frank regulation which has absolutely nothing to do with financing average American citizens or businesses—it simply protects American oil companies when they bribe corrupt oligarchies in places like Africa. Following Trump's lead, the Congressional assault on Dodd-Frank began by rolling back regulations requiring American oil companies to disclose the terms of their leases with foreign governments. If ExxonMobil signs leases with Kazakhstan, (as Rex Tillerson did), why should Trump object if Exxon has to tell the people of Kazakhstan the terms of the lease? More broadly, why should any American—other than those interested in Exxon—object? We wouldn't allow our own government to sign a secret lease with, say, Rosneft, to develop oil off the coast of North Carolina. Why should the people of Kazakhstan be kept in the dark?
The answer, of course, is that if lease terms are public, it's harder for corrupt officials to steal and if Russian oil companies, but not Exxon, can offer secret terms, corrupt governments may prefer to deal with Rosneft. And, if U.S. companies choose to skirt American law against bribery, they are less likely to face prosecution if the evidence is kept secret.
So for investigators of the massive oil and gas corruption that curses the world, the swamp just got more dangerous, because the sunlight was just snuffed out.
Or look at the source of the rot in the DC swamp—campaign bribery. Trump was correct in his Inaugural speech—sitting behind him on both sides of the partisan aisle were a number of elected officials who in common English parlance had been bribed—making policy choices influenced by financial gain, albeit almost always for their campaigns, not their retirement accounts.
This is a long-standing abuse and problem. But it got much worse when the Supreme Court perfected, in its Citizens United ruling, the legal doctrine that not only wealthy individuals, but corporations, could play this influence game, because corporations were, after all, a funny kind of person—endowed with freedom of speech even though they are not citizens and cannot vote. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled this included the right to bribe real life, flesh and blood elected officials by financially supporting their campaigns, a doctrine that even a conservative Chief Justice like William Rehnquist had found repugnant.
So, given Supreme Court rulings, how do we drain the campaign finance swamp? You couldn't realistically expect President Trump to have done this in his first two weeks. But you might be surprised to know that he has brought the architect of Citizens United, David Bossie, to help run Trump's own "America First" Superpac. America First? Citizens United enabled foreign interests, using corporate laundering loopholes, to intervene in U.S. political campaigns legally. Bossie's job is to make sure that Trump benefits maximally from that loophole. Bossie role's makes entirely clear that Trump sees no problem with bribery—it's business. He just wants his share. Trump's real message is, "to steal the most, hire a thief."
This should not be surprising. During the Progressive era, repeated efforts to clean up corruption by electing business leaders failed—because as Lincoln Steffens pointed out, the ethics of business success and those of clean politics are utterly different. Honest government is infused with an ethic openness and public service and depends on collaboration on behalf of "the general welfare." Business jealously guards trade secrets, sees competitors as rivals and practices, in Donald's immortal words, the zero-sum "art of the deal." Previous efforts to clean up corrupt city and state government by electing business reformers mostly went on the rocks as a result. But previous business reformers mostly started out making a serious effort to drive out the grafters. Trump has started out making them his inner-circle—after all, he has no intention of solving his own conflicts of interest and, indeed, has thus far quite openly used the White House to fatten the coffers of the Trump Tower.
(Foreign governments understand this. Many are already taking care that Trump properties are fully occupied, that labor disputes or environmental requirements don't slow them down and that the President is sufficiently happy with the treatment his businesses get that he would never add them to a list of, say, risky terrorist countries. None of those listed in the ban last week had Trump properties within their borders).
So it seems likely that the Trump White House will be more scandal ridden than any since Ulysses Grant—with the difference that Grant himself never feathered his own nest and Trump already is auditioning for "grafter in chief." Investigators and prosecutors will do well out of the next four years—although Las Vegas is giving even odds that Trump doesn't survive that long.