President Trump's proposed steel and aluminum tariffs have reopened a confusing debate about trade, made harder to follow by the incoherence of the president's approach. But it's a debate we need to have, and clarify, because along with its incoherence, Trump's proposal correctly challenges the establishment wisdom that the current international trade framework is, broadly, the best the U.S. could hope for.
Begin with the incoherence. Trump is levying these tariffs because he thinks—rightly—China is gaming the trade system and hurting American manufacturing by exporting far more to the world (not only the U.S.) than it buys. But Trump plans to levy the tariffs not only on Chinese steel, but on countries like Canada which are not cheating and which run trade surpluses with the U.S. Steel Workers President Leo Gerard, who understandably favors help for U.S. steel and aluminum, has said he doesn't want Trump to go after Canada and other countries that play by the rules.
And Trump is not planning tariffs on goods manufactured abroad with cut-rate steel or aluminum—from automobiles to construction steel to beverage cans. So prices will go up for U.S. manufacturers who rely heavily on steel and aluminum, but actually go down for their foreign competitors, likely hurting more U.S. manufacturing jobs among steel-using companies than will be created among steel-making ones.
It's a mess. The mess comes partly from Trump's attitude that trade agreements are fundamentally win-lose power struggles. But at its core is the refusal of current agreements like the WTO and NAFTA to take into account the incentives and price signals they send up and down the global supply chain.
Trump is performing a valuable service by raising the issue and forcing the establishment to confront it.
As pro-trade economists like Paul Krugman have pointed out, just as it makes sense to import sugar from warm tropical countries where it grows well, it makes sense to import aluminum, whose main production cost is electricity, from Canada which has abundant hydropower and a small population needing electricity. But it doesn't make sense to encourage countries like China to recklessly mine raw iron ore, aluminum, and coal, using quasi-forced labor, then smelt it in wasteful, inefficient mills, all the while ignoring basic air and water pollution controls, to produce steel or aluminum for export. We then give those seemingly cheap metals unlimited access to the U.S. market, penalizing U.S. companies that have to pay reasonable wages and spend substantial sums cleaning up their pollution. The pollution emitted by these processes doesn't stay in the country where it occurs; the carbon dioxide disrupts the global climate, costing everyone; the forced labor is, in effect, a massive, cruel form of modern slavery.
The current trade system encourages all of this bad behavior—it's nuts. But Trump's proposal won't fix it—instead of importing subsidized steel and aluminum, we'll just import subsidized cars and beer cans.
What's needed is a complete overhaul of the global trading system, so that instead of encouraging a race to the bottom—lower wages, more dangerous working conditions, higher levels of pollution, escalating risks from climate change—trading rules instead encourage countries to use better technology, higher standards, fair sharing of profits with workers, so that trade does, indeed, deliver on its promise to lift all boats.
One important piece of this puzzle is climate. The "carbon loophole" refers to the fact that, so far, efforts by industrial nations to reduce their climate impact have combined two very different strategies. First, countries like Denmark and Germany, now China, and some states in the U.S., have begun replacing dirty fossil technologies with clean, efficient, and renewable sources of energy and transportation. These innovations are what we need much more of to avoid climate disaster.
But in some cases countries simply lowered their apparent rate of greenhouse pollution by taking pollution-intensive parts of their economy, like making steel, and shipping them overseas. So when steel that used to be made in California is now made in China, the greenhouse pollution actually goes up, because Chinese steel mills are less efficient than those in the U.S. (European mills are better yet.) (Not only carbon pollution increases, but also ozone and sulfur that poison our lungs—and those become not only the infamous Beijing deadly air, but actually drift across the Pacific and increase lung disease on the West Coast.) Data suggests that a significant part of Europe's "climate progress" has actually been pollution "exported" through this carbon loophole.
How to fix this? Yale Economist William Nordhaus suggested the creation of a "Climate Club" in which countries committed to reducing greenhouse pollution levied a common tax on the carbon pollution embedded in goods made in their economies like aluminum, steel and cement, whether in raw form or embodied in cars, concrete and beer cans. Trade in carbon-intensive goods among these countries with a common carbon tax would flow as usual. But countries that refused to levy an equivalent carbon tax would see it collected on their goods at the customs dock. If, say, the EU joined a Climate Club of countries which levied a $40/ton tax on carbon dioxide emissions, and Donald Trump's administration refused to join the Club, when American steel beams were shipped to the EU, the Europeans could collect the carbon taxes Trump had refused to levy, eliminating the subsidy and leveling the playing field between American and Polish steel.
Europe has an emission trading system (ETS) which could serve as the model for such a Climate Club, and Europe is a likely leader in proposing such an idea—France has periodically floated the notion! (Europe's current ETS however, allows industries like steel, aluminum and cement free permits to emit carbon emissions, as an alternative to giving foreign competitors an advantage. Europe would have to decide to tax the carbon in all steel, instead of, as at present, eliminating the carbon fee on all steel.)
But it's possible that the desire to retaliate against Trump's crude and heavy-handed trade saber rattling might provoke the Europeans and other countries to take a major step forward towards improving both the global trading system and the effectiveness of the Paris climate agreement. A Climate Club doesn't need universal agreement by hundreds of countries—if Japan, the EU, Canada, Australia, Mexico and Korea were to join, the impact on global trade—and the climate—could be enormous. And anger at Trump might even bring unlikely first-movers like India and Brazil to the table.
Such clubs for trade would not solve the full array of problems with the WTO and NAFTA. What is needed is a more comprehensive definition of disallowed subsidies, a recognition that manufacturing processes and labor standards have global, not just local, impacts, and probably mechanisms to discourage countries from accruing unwarranted and persistent trade surpluses with the rest of the world. But in the specific context of tariffs on steel and aluminum, a Climate Club might constitute a major breakthrough, and a better alternative to a trade war.
Thank You Trump for Making Climate a Breaking News Story https://t.co/6XC9en7tr3 @ukycc @CANEurope— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1496575810.0
The prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, is the official host of this year's UN Climate Summit, COP 23. But we're meeting in a cold, rainy small city in Germany, Bonn, not the sunny tropics of Fiji. Logistics dictates that. Fiji could not host, nor many countries afford, to fly there for the conference.
But it's also symbolic—small island nations like Fiji are at greatest risk for actual physical extinction from climate change and associated sea level rise, and Fiji has already had to move 40 communities away from the heat driven tides. Soon some of them will be forced to relocate—climate refugees may well be one of the most dramatic early warning signs if we fail to curb the rising thermometer—and the swollen oceans that thermometer inexorably entrains.
Bainimarama also sounds one of the key themes of this year's conference—at the host pavilion, Fiji displays an island outrigger and the president's theme is "We are all in the same canoe." An astonishing array of societies seem ready to embrace that reality—even the Saudi government pauses in the middle of its rather fraught current crisis to concur, affirming its support for the agreement. And the Syrians join Paris, clearly for the purpose of highlighting American isolation as now the only functioning society to reject the agreement. (Functioning of course is in the eyes of the beholder).
In withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, Trump famously announced that he, after all, represented Pittsburgh, not Paris. Pittsburgh, however, is in the canoe with Bainimarama, not sulking on the sands with Trump. Mayor Bill Peduto is here, following up on his sharp rebuke to Trump's claim to represent his city, which, after all, voted overwhelming for Hilary Clinton. Back in June Peduto's response to Trump denigration of Paris was to slam him for claiming to speak for Steel City, saying, "We will follow the Paris agreement."
Now Peduto is here with another pungent message for the President. "Time moves in one direction. If you wait for the mills to come back, or the mines to reopen, you are just going to wait. Pittsburgh is not waiting. In Alleghany County where the U.S. coal industry was born, near where the first oil well was drilled, and at the center of the natural gas fracking boom, we have more workers in the solar industry than coal, oil and natural gas combined."
Peduto isn't ceding anything to Trump—not even newly bulked up Twitter. Here's a sample of what he is sending home from Bonn:
Bonn Voyage. Thank you @ICLEI @MikeBloomberg @algore & my fellow Mayors. We ALL have a responsibility to protect ou… https://t.co/QTjlGaAH0E— bill peduto (@bill peduto)1510487938.0
I encounter Peduto at the U.S. Climate Action Center—the unofficially outsourced presence of America at this COP since the Trump administration refused to properly support the official federal government pavilion.
In response, the mobilization of cities, states, universities and businesses that flip back and forth between calling themselves "America's Pledge" and "We are still In" created a new thing—a space not for a country's government but for a society. It was so unusual that even the friendly UN had to make us locate ourselves outside of any official space—which simply meant anyone could come without a credential, and come they did. We had 45 minute waits to get into what turned out to be the largest single venue in Bonn, filled with hot and cold running U.S. Senators (all alas Democrats), coffee better than anywhere else, and a contrast that caused New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman to compare the physical scale of Donald Trump's "Great Again" (but not so big) America with the America's Pledge presence.
Here's Friedman's tweet of the official U.S. presence:
And here's, as she said, the entrance to the official U.S. Pavilion:
Tiny US del office at #COP23. https://t.co/faWPYjUWQX— Lisa Friedman (@Lisa Friedman)1510322219.0
And just for contrast here is the alternate, Bloomberg-funded U.S. Pavilion. This is just the entrance.
And just for contrast here is the alternate, Bloomberg-funded US Pavilion. This is just the entrance. #COP23 https://t.co/udwXKtTHys— Lisa Friedman (@Lisa Friedman)1510331631.0
The energy around this space prompted Friedman in a subsequent article to say:
"Informally led by Gov. Jerry Brown of California; Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington ... Perhaps no group has made a bigger splash on the world stage this year than the coalition of the United Sates governors, mayors and businesses who call themselves the We Are Still In coalition"
A lot of eloquence, and frustration, and caring has been expressed here. But maybe the sharp physical contrast between the Fijian canoe, the shuttered office that President Trump thinks expresses greatness, and the grit that has—and continues to—express Pittsburgh and the American people, says it best.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
As Climate Week begins in New York, a lot of the world is asking Americans, "How are you doing at making climate progress with a climate denying president?"
The surprising answer is, "Not well enough yet, but much better than you imagine."
The American political conversation about climate is, indeed, scary and depressing. But the decarbonization of the real U.S. economy—as opposed to the cardboard, fossil fuel-handicapped White House version—continues. Indeed, decarbonization is accelerating, giving me confidence that in a year or so it will be clear to everyone that the U.S. is on track to meet and perhaps exceed its (inadequate) 2025 Paris objective, cutting emissions 26 to 28 percent.
9 States Embrace Clean Energy, Agree to Cut Power Plant Emissions an Extra 30% https://t.co/vcxkqNjd31 @UCSUSA @climatehawk1 @ClimateReality— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1503585483.0
That goal requires reducing emissions by 1800 million tons of CO2. At the end of 2016 the U.S. was almost halfway—emissions down 850 million tons, 13 percent. This progress was led by the utility sector, where efficiency, renewables and natural were replacing coal so fast that power sector carbon was down 25 percent.
The world rightfully worries when they hear Donald Trump proclaim he is going to bring back coal, and watch the administration and the Republican Congress try to roll-back such common sense requirements limits on the wasteful flaring and leaking of methane from oil and gas fields.
But Trump's promise to have America withdraw from the Paris climate agreement has sparked a stunning wave of climate leadership from U.S. cities, states and businesses, a wave that is still building, but by the time it crests may more than make up for Trump's stubborn foot-dragging.
Let's begin with "bringing back coal." Since Trump was elected, no new coal plants have been announced or opened; 10 plants with 5600 megawatts instead have announced they will shut down. West Virginia's largest utility won't expand coal generation because it can't find customers for coal power; CSX, a leading coal hauling railroad, thinks coal is going away so fast that it has stopped replacing coal rail cars.
Now the Sierra Club has estimated that additional coal plants whose retirement have already been announced would cut emissions about 160 million tons. Closing vulnerable plants, facilities that no longer make economic sense to keep operating, could avoid another 275 million tons. If present trends continue, the Sierra Club also documented that the U.S. could triple renewable electricity; overall the utility sector should be emitting 500 million tons less of carbon in 2025 than it was just last year.
While coal fades, state governments representing almost 60 percent of the American economy are racing forward. In January, California released its plan to cut its emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and went on to extend its cap and trade program for another decade, until 2030—this time with support for the first time from the oil industry! California is also on the verge of requiring 100 percent of its power to come from renewables. Overall, a dozen states are debating increasing their reliance on renewable power. Maryland just established a 25 percent renewable power goal, overriding the veto of a Republican governor. (The Nevada legislature went for 40 percent, but has not yet been able to overturn a similar veto.)
The fifteen "early adaptor" states in the Climate Alliance will report this week that they are already on track to reduce their 2025 emissions by 24 to 29 percent. And some of America's most Republican, climate skeptical states—Oklahoma, Kansas, North Dakota and even Texas, are steadily replacing coal with renewables—for economic reasons. These don't usually get counted in reporting on bottom up climate action—but they have a huge positive impact on emissions.
Whether their state legislatures and governors are leading on climate or not, America's cities, where most of our climate pollution originates, are embracing a decarbonized future. In June, when Trump promised to pull out of the Paris agreement, 125 cities told the world, "We are still in" the Paris agreement. Today, only three months later, the number has ballooned to 238. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing more than 1000 of America's largest cities, voted unanimously to endorse the goal of 100 percent renewable power—and since Trump's election, the number of U.S. cities with 100 percent policies has mushroomed—more than 40 cities are now committed individually, and five have hit that target!
But government is not alone. The private sector, where companies are increasingly competing with each other to succeed in the carbon-free economy of the future, is making Trump's climate-denial braggadocio increasingly irrelevant. The Mars Candy Company recently committed a billion dollars to ensure that it's operations and supply chain would reduce their climate impact by 67 percent by 2050. The number of companies who have signed the pledge of support for the Paris agreement has almost doubled, from 906 in June to 1729 this week. And global firms will impact the U.S. climate footprint. VW announced a few days ago that it will offer electric versions of all its models—entering the competition against current global EV leader, U.S. based Tesla, which delivered its first Model 3 in July.
It is true, the Trump administration is struggling to hold back the future, with appalling decisions like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) recent announcement that it would delay cleaning up toxic water pollution from coal power plants for two years. But the courts are steadily shredding much of this; the conservative 10th Circuit just ruled that Trump must consider climate impacts before issuing new coal leases on federal lands. As the CEO of one of America's historically coal dependent utilities, Southern Company, Tom Fanning said, "You can't keep waves off the beach." King Canute knew this. And the decarbonization of the American economy—the real economy, not the fake news economy—shows it's still true. The world can see and measure—America is still in.
By Thursday the Trump administration's project of dismantling the public domain will burst into full bloom when Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke announces a wholesale reversal of more than a century of public lands protection through presidential designation of national monuments under Antiquities Act of 1908.
No president since the act was passed under Theodore Roosevelt has tried to eliminate national monuments—the original route through which more than half of our present parks, including Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Zion, Grand Teton and almost all of the protected parks in Alaska were first created. And most lawyers doubt the president has the power to repeal monument designation as President Trump has ordered Zinke to do. Regardless, Zinke will announce his recommendations on Aug. 24 for the potential elimination of more than two dozen monuments comprising more than 8.8 million acres of land—plus hundreds of square miles of ocean preserves. (Stripping protection from these land monuments alone would be the landscape equivalent of opening up Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smokies, Mt. Rainier, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, the Everglades, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks to mining, logging and commercial exploitation).
Likely candidates for elimination or drastic amputation are the Grand Staircase Escalante, Bears Ears, Mojave Trails and Giant Sequoia.
The nature of Zinke's process may best be illustrated by the fact that during a six month review process, he visited only 8 of 27 monuments—and while the process has been very opaque, the most important consideration being mentioned is whether local Republican politicians favored retaining or stripping protection from the area—the American people, who have filed millions of comments opposing this process, simply don't seem to be a factor in the deliberations. Interior Sec. Zinke is acting in spite of the fact that a new major player—native American tribes—are weighing in strongly against opening these lands to mining and abuse because many of the areas at risk, like Bears Ears, were created to protect parts of their heritage, culture and religion.
#Zinke Goes on Mediterranean Vacation Instead of Visiting 19 #NationalMonuments on the Chopping Block https://t.co/Br0CmkT5q4 @NWF @350— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1503077729.0
Zinke was presented as a compromise candidate for Interior Secretary, one who would not want to give away or privatize the public domain—but as with many things in the Trump administration, the product turned out not to be what was advertised.
Given the huge array of controversies enveloping the Trump administration, it is not surprising that while the press has covered the assault on the public domain, of which eviscerating national monuments is only a small part, it has not paused to consider what this tells us about the Trump administration.
But it's one of Trump's more revealing policy misadventures.
The president has been presented as lacking in consistency and conviction—alternatively Democrat or Republican, pro- or anti-choice, both isolationist dove and interventionist hawk, populist and plutocrat. But in his view of the role of the President Trump has been starkly consistent and ferociously driven. Trump is modern America's first patrimonial president—more Lord of the Manor than servant of the Republic. Patrimonialism—where the ruler treats the government, and indeed the land itself, as an extension of his person and his family, handing out control over and profits from it to those related to him, or supportive of his rule—was a dominant form of pre-modern government—the antithesis of the Republic the founding fathers were creating.
Patrimonialism characterized most absolutist monarchies—the world "real" in our phrase "real estate" is from the Spanish word for "royal," real and reflects the reality that in the pre-modern world most land was owned by the king—and could be rewarded to his family and followers—or taken back.
This attitude is at the heart of President Trump's staggering, but quite sincere claim that it is not possible for him to have a conflict of interest—because he is entitled by election as ruler to profit from the public domain and the powers of the government, which rightfully belong to him. Patrimonial political authority was regarded as a species of private property which can be handed over to relatives or retainers as part of their patrimony—so corruption is impossible. Ruler and realm are one. There is, in this vision, no such concept as a public trust or public service—there is no public, only subjects.
I said Trump was our first modern patrimonialist, because America did have, in an earlier era, a version of the philosophy—the spoils system, in which the successful party in an election awarded jobs, patronage, public contracts and public lands to members of their winning political coalition. The system was formalized by President Andrew Jackson—and an affinity for such favoritism is one of the Trump's few genuine claims to be like Jackson. It faded with Civil Service reforms and the Progressive era at the dawn of the 20th century. Now it's back, empowered not only by Trump, but by the Supreme Court's consistent watering down of anti-corruption and campaign finance protections.
But what Jackson, and his 19th century successors practiced was a weaker, successor to monarchist patrimonialism: clientalism. In clientalism the spoils of government were shared broadly with the winning electoral coalition, rather than being reserved for the ruler's family and elite supporters. Trump, in that sense, is more medieval baron than patronage boss—there's very little broad sharing. His opening up public lands to ruthless mining and mineral extraction is lazily reported, for the most part, as being a fulfillment of his pledge to bring back jobs in extra active industries, particularly coal mining—job creation would be clientalism But in reality Trump's policy shifts to date have been anti-job. He has weakened health and safety requirements for mining companies on public lands, which in turn enables them to slash their work force. He's restored subsidies to strip miners in Wyoming and Montana—thereby increasing the unfair competitive advantage these companies already enjoy over deep shaft miners in Appalachia, where the jobs are being lost and whom Trump was allegedly pledged to help. Trump practices the monarchical form of patrimonialism—which may explain why he does so badly in the polls. Only the very few are sharing any spoils.
Trump is very open about his attitude. When he had Interior Sec. Zinke call Alaska's Senators to say that if Lisa Murkowski didn't vote to strip health care from millions of Americans, Trump would shut down oil leasing in Alaska, the message was utterly clear—Senators are my clients, and I expect them to follow orders. But it is not just Senators. All of the government belongs to Trump—as an estate he can use to reward his followers—and of course his family.
In this vision, the very concept of national monuments is offensive, because they limit Trump's right to reward his clients and infringe on his control of his patrimony; so, indeed, is most environmental regulation, because it restricts what the president can and can't do with the public resources that the rest of think he holds in trust for our children, not his.
Under Trump's instructions, his cabinet has bountifully rewarded the patron's favorite clients with sparkling rewards: to an oil company with an almost unprecedentedly reckless record of oil spills, a new oil drilling lease in fragile Arctic waters; to chemical companies, the renewal of their license to expose farm-worker's families to a nerve gas marketed as a pesticide; for oil companies suspension of requirements to capture and use natural gas that comes out of their wells, instead of flaring or venting huge portions into the skies.
Individually, many of these decisions seem incomprehensible except as acts of the most venial form of corruption. But corruption as a concept makes no sense applied to the Trump regime. Trump might easily paraphrase 19th century Robber Baron E.H. Harriman: "Can't I do what I want with my own?"
No Mr. President, you can't, because it isn't. But it appears the rest of us must remain vigilant to make certain we remain the citizens of a Republic, not serfs on a manor.
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).
But most richer countries, including the U.S. and China, the nations who started the clamor to get prices right haven't done so well. Their subsidies are mostly aimed at well-connected fossil fuel producers. Recent analysis shows that $60 billion a year is still flowing from 12 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development members to oil, gas and coal producers, in a variety of forms, particularly export credits to encourage emerging markets to purchase oil, gas and coal technologies and equipment. This is four times as much subsidy as those same countries provide to clean energy.
So the world's strongest economies are handing out more than $60 billion in public funds to the world's biggest polluters, including some of the world's richest companies, aiding and abetting Big Carbon's effort to postpone the climate reckoning. At the same time they are pleading that their Treasuries are so depleted that they cannot keep their much less expensive long-standing promises to help finance the clean energy transition in developing countries.
Australia, for example, which was just chosen to lead the primary vehicle for climate aid, the Green Climate Fund, has provided $200 million for that agency. But Australia's Queensland State is proposing to spend $1 billion—five times as much—helping to build a single new railroad to enable an Indian mining company, Adani, to develop its Carmichael mine, a decision which caused one of Adani's competitors, Glencore, to snipe at "risky ventures that rely on taxpayer subsidies to get across the line and which will bring on massive volumes of additional coal supply into the market, which could undermine existing operations." (The Carmichael coal project is also expected to receive significant financial concessions on royalty payments).
The U.S., under President Trump, has become something of a caricature of what this fossil subsidy end game might look like. Trump campaigned with strong support from coal, oil and natural gas nationally—but messaged around his promise to bring back coal mining jobs in Appalachian states like Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Elected, he moved promptly to reverse a series of Obama administration regulations which would have improved environmental standards for oil, gas and coal extraction. Coal industry executive and even Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell conceded that these roll-backs, while good for coal company pocket books, would do nothing to bring back Appalachian jobs, which were being lost because of competition from cheaper strip-mined western coal, natural gas and renewables.
Trump next reversed a series of Obama reforms designed to ensure that companies mining fossil fuels from public lands paid fair royalties, and that leases were bid competitively. The roll-back added another billion dollars a year to the taxpayer give-away to public lands producers, but also made it even more difficult for labor intensive Appalachian coal miners to compete—speeding the loss of jobs. (The new administration's moves to lower environmental standards for gas drilling also hampered eastern coal).
How did Appalachian coal interests respond to the Trump administration giveaways to its competitors, western coal and natural gas? Predictably, they pled for even bigger subsidies for themselves. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who just bolted the Democratic Party to join the GOP, asked Trump for a $15 federal subsidy for each ton of Appalachian coal, and claimed Trump had expressed support for the idea. If Congress were to appropriate these funds, it would add another $4.5 billion to the total U.S. government pay-off to fossil fuel producers.
But while these outrageous political payoffs waste taxpayer money and keep uncompetitive coal projects alive for a few more years, they don't change the underlying market realities. Last month the CEO of CSX railroad, founded to haul coal, and still getting a fifth of its revenue from the fuel, told analysts "Fossil fuels are dead….That's a long-term view. It's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to be in two or three years. But it's going away, in my view." And he backed up that prediction by revealing that his company would no longer make capital investments in its coal hauling business—no more locomotives designed to haul coal, no more investments in additional trackage—CSX is just going to let its coal business gradually wither. This week a Houston based energy trader told Bloomberg, "All the power market people that I know, we all think coal is going to zero."
So when you read claims that renewable energy isn't competitive yet with fossil fuels, or that it is economics that is slowing down the transition to clean energy, remember—the world's richest governments are throwing taxpayer money at well connected oil, gas and coal companies, cosseting these giants from the grim realities of true market costs—they represent a no-longer competitive past, and our health, our security, our climate and our economy will be better off the faster we move to the future of clean, low-carbon and cheaper energy sources.
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.
But what the Times headline writer missed was that the world was not advancing "without the U.S."—it was simply advancing without the current administration. The Trump administration no longer represents American in the way that we have understood the presidency for decades.
The broader signs of the isolation of the Trump administration have been evident for months. But look at climate, and look at last week only.
Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing 250 of America's largest cities, unanimously endorsed the goal of converting their electricity supply 100 percent to renewables like wind and solar. What was the Trump administration response? According to the Houston Chronicle, Energy Sec. Rick Perry was preparing to "order Americans to pay more for electricity to keep his boss's promises to coal miners, nuclear power plants and electric companies ..." by requiring them to buy coal or nuclear power even if it cost more than clean renewables!
Then, as Trump boarded Air Force One to fly to Poland and ask, plaintively, if "the West has the will to survive?" California Gov. Jerry Brown, representing the most dynamic and rapidly growing economy in any industrial nation, proclaimed his survival plan. Brown announced that in September 2018 he would host a global climate summit in San Francisco, warning that the president "doesn't speak for the rest of America" in pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change ... it's up to you and it's up to me and tens of millions of other people to ... join together to combat the existential threat of climate change. That is why we're having the Climate Action Summit."
Even the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries broke with Trump and reaffirmed that they, too, supported the Paris agreement.
Talk about isolation.
A week later Brown joined with Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, to proclaim "America's Pledge," a groundbreaking mechanism for enabling the U.S., as a society, to participate in the global effort to curb climate change even while its normal representative, the Executive Branch of the federal government, struggles to hold back the tide.
America's Pledge is the latest expression of the new "bottom-up" diplomacy of climate, whose boldest achievement is, of course, the Paris agreement itself. From Kyoto through Copenhagen, the global community tried—and failed—to solve climate by arm-wrestling national governments into sharing sacrifice and imposing it on their citizens, like a tax bill.
They wouldn't pay it.
But in the aftermath of Copenhagen climate leaders like then UNFCCC Executive Christina Figueres, and U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern, realized that, as Figueres put it, "the big boom was over." Climate was not going to be solved by a top-down agreement to share pain—it had to be healed by a bottom-up effort to seize the emerging opportunities that can make climate progress a short term, local win, as well as a long term, global necessity.
The Paris agreement reflected that. Nations didn't get handed a tax bill. They came forward with their own preferred actions—things their governments thought would be good for their own populations, like restoring forests in Kenya, or cleaning up power plants in the U.S. Some focused-on deforestation, some on renewable electricity, others on low carbon transportation fuels.
The Obama administration's Paris offer—a "Nationally Determined Contribution," consisted of things most Americans wanted to do anyway—replace outmoded, expensive and dirty coal power with cheaper, cleaner renewables; stop wasting valuable natural gas by letting it leak or be flared; provide motorists with cars and trucks and waste less fuel and go further on a dollar's worth of gasoline; modernize our building stock to reduce utility bills and increase comfort; and replace climate destructive HFC refrigerants with modern, American developed safe alternatives.
So in walking from Paris, Trump is compelled to threaten that his administration will block Americans from doing things that make them more prosperous, competitive, safer or healthier. Why does Energy Sec. Perry have to threaten states to get them to buy more coal power? Because it costs more than wind or solar.
Some, perhaps many, actions will, of course, require federal action—regulating oil and gas pollution on federal land for example. Others, like better building codes to reduce wasteful household energy bills, are primarily matters for cities. Innovating new technologies to replace HFC refrigerants are mostly going to emerge from the private sector. And the best way to figure out how to best leverage a price on carbon as a climate solution might be to let California and other states run a series of experiments and see whose method works best.
So why should America wait for Trump?
But there is a challenge with bottom-up solutions, a problem that "America's Pledge" is designed to solve. If dozens of states, hundreds of cities, thousands of universities and tens of thousands of businesses are each innovating and cutting emissions on their own, how do we know how we are doing? How can we learn from successes and failures? How can we stimulate the competitive instincts that make even more progress possible?
That's the gap "America's Pledge" plans to fill—to measure, report, compare and aggregate both the actions taken, and the opportunities yet to be taken, by an entire society. Because, at its heart, bottom-up climate progress requires mobilizing all of us, each one to do something that makes sense, and is good for us, but might not ever get to the top of our "to do list" if we didn't understand that we are part of something much larger, and much more important, than our individual steps.
That means, incidentally, that America's Pledge will have to be just as, or more rigorous, methodical and comprehensive than the "Nationally Determined Contributions" that made up the Paris agreement. That's a major challenge. But I think that what President Trump doesn't understand is that this is the kind of challenge Americans respond to—and I'm thrilled that Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Brown have laid it on the table.
The last week has seen a flood of stories on clean energy's prospects—stories that make your head spin with their conflicting tales of renewable energy's prospects of ending our dangerous addiction to fossil fuel power from coal and gas.
A renewables transition will "happen without Trump" because of market forces—or can't do the job and is shaping up as "likely very costly." (Both from the same day's New York Times). Cities, states and businesses are filling in the leadership vacuum created by the Trump administration—or they are falling far short. Wind is making it impossible for fossil fuels to compete in Texas power markets—or Texas will continue to be the biggest carbon emitting state of all because wind is too unreliable. (Both from Bloomberg).
And all of these perspectives are coming from scientists and analysts who are pro-clean energy and favor strong action to protect the climate—this is not a fight ginned up by ExxonMobil, Peabody Coal or climate denialists from the Heartland Institute.
So what's the argument? Where do we stand on the ability of clean, renewable energy sources to eliminate the risk to the climate posed by continuing reliance on coal, oil and natural gas?
That depends on the question you ask. If you look at where we are today, our current emission rates are far too high. If continued unchecked, they will rapidly destabilize the weather and increase climate risks to catastrophic levels. (Mathematicians call this the function). If you look at the progress we are making, the future looks brighter, but still quite scary. The commitments governments made at the Paris climate agreement, and the trends for deployment of clean energy vs. fossil fuels, all show future emissions declining, but not declining enough to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (This question, "How fast are we progressing?" is what mathematicians call the first derivative). But if you compare the pace of progress this year with that pace five years ago, you can see that decarbonization is accelerating. Not only are we cutting emissions, we are cutting them faster with each passing year. If we continue to accelerate that progress long enough, then we can look forward to eliminating fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions and stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (Mathematicians call this measure of acceleration "the second derivative").
Let's apply these three measurements to the most heated of this week's controversies, the attack by a group of prominent climate and energy scientists on journal articles by Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson which argued that wind, solar and hydro could enable the U.S. to eliminate all fossil fuels and nuclear energy from its electricity mix, without any significant increase in costs.
4 Reasons Nuclear and Fossil Fuel Supporters Criticizing 100% Renewable Energy Plan Are Wrong https://t.co/jVtcT9OsCm— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@Robert F. Kennedy Jr)1498146666.0
I'm not going to get into the debate about whether Jacobson's article met scientific standards or was too speculative—I'm not qualified. But the media coverage of the debate has missed the point. Jacobson described a scenario in which we get 100 percent of our power from renewables by 2055 with technologies he thinks will be available by that date. Jacobson's critics disagree—but the lead contributor to their article, Christopher Clack previously published his own trail-breaking journal article saying that we can cut carbon emissions by 80 percent with renewables by 2030. Clack's article argued that this would require connecting different regions of the U.S. with transmission lines—a technology clearly available today. We would need 60 percent wind and solar to do this—hydro, nuclear and natural gas would make up the rest.
So both sides of this media-hyped debate agree that, using today's renewable technology plus transmission, we can cut utility sector carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030. (President Obama's much criticized Clean Power Plan, now suspended by the Trump Administration, by comparison, envisaged cutting utility emissions by only 32 percent by 2030).
So what Clack and Jacobson disagree about is what happens between 2030 and 2055. How likely is it that new storage technologies will enable us, at no cost, to get rid of the last 20 percent of those emissions—25 or 40 years from now! Even with all of my respect for the scientists on both sides, they can't possibly know the answer to that question. Only 15 years ago, solar power cost about $0.37 kwh. No one anticipated the precipitous drop in costs that followed. Today that same solar power costs a tenth as much so predicting how much electricity storage will cost in 2055 (and storage, plus long distance transmission, is the key to enabling renewable power to meet 100 percent of our needs) is simply not possible.
If, in the next 15 years, battery or other storage costs drop as fast as solar did for the last 15, Jacobson's vision is clearly viable. The second derivative can get us there—but today we are only at 10 percent wind and solar. We have a long way to go.
And we know is that racing ahead to install as much solar and wind as the grid can handle will drive the costs of renewables down even further—and lower utility bills. Both Clack and Jacobson agree that getting 60 percent renewable reliance is feasible and cheaper. So it's premature to ask "will we need some remaining natural gas or nuclear or can we go 100 percent renewable?" And we are making money—as well as cutting carbon—every step of the way.
How much of a difference would such an acceleration of renewable energy in the utility sector make to the climate? Well, cutting utility sector emissions by 80 percent would fulfill the entire Obama Administration Paris pledge (the first derivative). But it would also require doubling the speed at which we have cut utility emissions in the past decade (the second derivative).
How do we make sure that happens? That's the important question—not what do we do about the last 20 percent of those emissions when we get to 2030. We can be reasonably certain every guess we make about that today will prove wrong—however carefully peer reviewed.
So this is the wrong argument to be having. Fortunately, the stakeholders who are the target of the fight—policy makers—are asking the right question and coming up with the right answer. At its Miami convention this week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously agreed to a resolution, initiated by the Sierra Club, calling for 100 percent renewable power not by 2055—but by 2035. All of America's largest cities just got on board the renewables express—its second derivative just got a boost.
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).
Trump did this by providing the climate crisis with what it lacked—a single villain. He has now cast himself, for most of the global community, as a James Bond style villain, a Dr. No or Goldfinger, plotting global destruction for personal power and gain. But he is, in reality, President of the United States—not a character in a movie. And in the real world the response to villainy doesn't come from a heroic special agent but through the collaborative response of a wide array of actors—other countries, U.S. cities, many of America's most powerful states, and hundreds of businesses and civil society organizations.
22 Awesome Responses to Trump's Announcement on Paris Agreement https://t.co/WXl6FSx18D— Josh Fox (@Josh Fox)1496354854.0
Trump's decision to abandon Paris has catalyzed, amplified and intensified this response. We actually, ironically, owe him a favor.
Let's begin with the depressing decision, and then look at the hope we can all take from the resistance.
Trump's decision to use the established process to exit Paris, but to remain in the underlying Rio Treaty on climate, means it will take four years for the U.S. to out—and the American people will have a chance to vote for the next President before we leave. So this announcement is largely symbolic. Trump also made clear that he would not honor the commitments President Obama made in his Paris pledge—but he was already busy undoing as many of those as he could. (Fortunately far fewer of these climate solutions than the media has implied are actually things Trump can reverse—we're already half-way to meeting our Paris pledge and Trump can't undo history). And since Paris is a coalition of the willing, not an enforcement based agreement, Trump was always free to walk away from our pledges and knew it.
So as a practical matter, withdrawing from Paris in 4 years will have no impact on U.S. climate emissions between now and 2025. Thursday's announcement doesn't give Trump a single additional tool to roll-back Obama's climate legacy.
So why do it? Why alienate virtually the entire global community, and abandon America's good standing as a diplomatic leader? Why let China and Germany step forward into our shoes? Why stiff more than 1,000 American businesses, including hundreds of the biggest, who begged Trump not to withdraw from Paris, including ExxonMobil and Chevron? Why make his climate denial such an embarrassingly big story?
It's hard to know exactly what motivates President Trump. My guess, though is that he withdrew from Paris precisely because he needed to show his isolationist, America- first followers that he would walk away from a passel of treaties, and that he rejected diplomacy as a tool of global leadership—in a way that would have fewer real world repercussions than keeping his campaign promise to terminate North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump ignored the fact that the Paris accord was, for the U.S., an unbelievably favorable deal, in which everything we agreed to do was something most Americans wanted to do anyway: replace outmoded, expensive and dirty coal power with cheaper, cleaner renewables; stop wasting valuable natural gas by letting it leak or be flared; provide motorists with cars and trucks and waste less fuel and go further on a dollar's worth of gasoline; modernize our building stock to reduce utility bills and increase comfort; and replace climate destructive HFC refrigerants with modern, American developed safe alternatives.
His false and inflammatory remarks about the financial implications of the Paris agreement were clearly aimed at the minority of Americans who believe that global cooperation hurts the U.S., and displayed Trump's usual callousness about what most Americans hear or think about him—in this case, they are reading once again he is just not telling the truth. (For example, U.S. support for the Green Climate Fund under Paris is a tiny fraction of the $100 billion Trump cited. And nothing in the Paris agreement hampers the U.S.'s ability to build any particular energy project it chooses).
But Trump's entire campaign and Presidency have been premised on the notion that the passion of the minority which supports him will enable him to govern, even as the majority rejects his leadership—so this is nothing new.
What is new, however, is the intensity of the response. Many feared—and Steve Bannon hoped—that a U.S. withdrawal would create a domino collapse of global confidence in Paris. Instead it greatly solidified the commitment of Europe, China, Canada and India to filling the gap left by American withdrawal, while isolating and marginalizing the U.S. in other key diplomatic forums. India's Narendra Modi commented, "Paris or no Paris, our commitment to preserving the climate is for the sake of future generations."
Domestically, Trump has forced a large swathe of American business, which had welcomed the predictability and global consistency of the Paris agreement, into public opposition to his administration, a break companies had been very reluctant to risk. Elon Musk, who had controversially clung to his seat as one of Trump's economic advisors, walked out in protest. Jeff Immelt tweeted, "Industry must now lead and not depend on government." The Governors of California, Washington and New York began assembling a new coalition of states willing to challenge Trump and coordinate their climate leadership, expecting at least 10, and perhaps as many as 25 participants. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was pulling together a broad coalition of cities, states and the private sector to prepare an "American Pledge," a replacement set of strategies to meet America's Paris commitment to a 26 percent emissions cut, using state and local policy tools and corporate commitments, all aggregated and formally reported to the United Nations in place of the federal government reports previously envisaged. American society is replacing the Trump administration in climate diplomacy—something unprecedented but very powerful, and something which begins to marginalize the President in a disruptive and one expects unwelcome way.
This kind of a pathway to climate progress was laid out and anticipated by Mike Bloomberg and myself in our recent book, Climate of Hope. But we never imagined that it would be Donald Trump whose desire to remain center-stage for his base would accelerate and jump-start the process.
The news that Fiat-Chrysler is the latest auto-maker caught having massively—and probably illegally—exceeded allowable emission levels for its diesels cars raises a major question: Will this crisis shake Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne's long standing bet against history, in particular against the replacement of the internal combustion engine by the electric drive train?
Marchionne stands almost alone in the auto industry in denying the electric future—but now that he too faces an existential crisis over diesel cheating, how much longer can he—or his shareholders—cling to the combustion past?
Chrysler, we now know, installed software designed to deceive emission testing procedures on 100,000 U.S. Dodge Ram and Jeep Cherokee diesels from 2014-2016. It also apparently pulled similar manipulations in Europe. The company has agreed to recall and fix the vehicles, but denies it broke the law—standard operating procedure for auto companies when first caught exceeding pollution limits.
Fiat stands accused of having installed similar emission "cheat" devices on much larger numbers of cars it sold in Europe—it's not yet clear how widespread the issue is, but this feels very much like the early stages of what could be a major scandal. The European Union has initiated legal action against Italy for failing to adequately enforce EU standards for auto emissions testing on cars made by Fiat. And the University of the Ruhr reported that Fiat installed cheat devices on the Fiat 500X, a compact diesel widely sold in Europe.
The U.S. violations were clearly part of the company's strategy to use somewhat more efficient diesels to meet increasingly stringent U.S. fuel efficiency and carbon emission rules while clinging to a vehicle mix very stuffed full of SUV's and almost entirely devoid of the zero emission electric vehicles which other auto makers are relying on to average out with their big cars. (Chrysler has consistently shown the worst fuel economy performance of any U.S. auto manufacturer).
Marchionne has historically derided the future of the electric vehicle, at one point urging customers not to buy Fiat's EV 500 because "I lose $10,000 making every one." He is also the major auto executive least interested in producing standards sedans for ordinary customers, cancelling many of Chrysler's biggest selling sedans and emphasizing SUV's even more heavily.
Without a strong car line, and with no meaningful EV presence, Marchionne really had no choice but to rely on diesels to cut fuel consumption—regardless of the inability of small diesels in particular to meet pollution requirements. Now he, like Volkswagen, is nakedly exposed as having allowed his company to sell vehicles whose emissions kill its customer and their neighbors—a new study this week calculated that the excess emissions from diesels that fail to meet pollution standards already kills 38,000 people a year globally. Now the burden from non-compliant Fiats and Chryslers will be added to that total.
The diesel scandal forced Volkswagen to make a major shift away from diesels and towards electric drive trains. Will Marchionne follow? After all, the other six of the big seven auto manufacturers are each far ahead of Chrysler in their investment in the electric future. But Marchionne has said that Fiat's next likely model of electric car won't arrive until after he has retired; he worries that allowing electrification to get a firm hold in the auto market will open the industry up to new competitors; and the SUV heavy product line he deploys doesn't offer easy opportunities for early electrification.
But if he stays his electro-sceptic course, Marchionne is betting even more heavily against what appear to be the historic trends. The two fastest growing auto markets in the world, China and India, have national governments sending strong signals that they plan to phase out market access for the internal combustion engine altogether, perhaps as soon as 2030, as does the biggest market within the U.S., California. A recent Financial Times story reported that Torotrak, an engineering company which a year ago was lining up contracts with auto makers to improve the efficiency of their internal combustion engines, is now being cut off from contracts because the companies have decided, "the shift to electric vehicles is accelerating and we have only limited R&D money to invest and we are going to put all of it into the electric car revolution."
The head of Shell Oil, one of the ultimate losers in an electrified transport sector, warned that "the energy transition is global. It must be embraced. It is unstoppable." And it means, he spelled out, electric vehicles. "The world needs to make a massive shift towards consuming energy as electricity," he said.
While short-term the scandal is bad news for Fiat Chrysler, its shareholders and its workers, it may give the company one last time to catch up with history—and recognize that electrification is the future of the auto.
To learn more about Carl Pope's views on the environment, energy and climate, read Climate of Hope which he has co-authored with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and which can be purchased online or from your local book store.
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."
Orwell saw this threat as emerging from Communism or Fascism—but it is springing up in America from the soil of old-fashioned, corporate conservatism. The White House gets blamed for its departures from truth, but in the last months the Republican leadership in Congress has demonstrated it's own staggering (and disturbing) deftness at sending inconvenient history into this new version of Orwell's "memory hole."
What, after all, did Republicans most savage President Obama for? Here are three "memory holed" but core themes from the last eight years of GOP assaults on Obama's White House:
1. The Need for Bipartisanship
Republicans crucified Obama for eventually—after months of struggling—passing the Affordable Care Act without bipartisan Republican support.
McConnell, of course, had made such a decision unavoidable by lining up his caucus in unanimous opposition to any major legislation Obama supported. He admitted as much: "It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is ok." But the Republican claim that the health-care plan had no bipartisan support was later used as the basis for opposing the Affordable Care Act "root and branch."
Obama struggled for months to find bipartisan support for health care reform. Paul Ryan and Trump have made no such gesture. Democrats have been completely excluded from the conversations between the White House and the Congress first on health care, now on tax reform.
Bipartisanship as an important political norm has vanished down the memory hole without a trace.
2. No Picking Winners and Losers
Remember the Solyndra "scandal"? The horrendous GM "bail-out"? Government shouldn't decide which private firms thrive—or survive. Or so GOP orthodoxy ran. Now we have a Republican President who pledged rescue a specific dying industry—coal, along with a bogus promise to save the jobs of displaced miners. The owners of the Navajo Power Plant in Arizona are preparing to shut it down. Its energy costs more than wind, solar or natural gas. Its biggest customer paid $38.5 million more than market for its electricity last year. The (Republican governed) state of Arizona wants the U.S. Government to pick up half of its operating costs, to keep the plant and Peabody Coal's Navajo Reservation mining operation going. And the Trump administration has promised, in principal, to help.
Being helped by Trump is, however, a two edged sword. The net effect of Trump's actions to date is good for Peabody, but actually fewer jobs for miners, not more. Trump has brought back the outrageous sweet heart leases that help strip-mined, federally-owned Wyoming coal (employing very few workers) undercut deep mined, privately-owned Appalachian coal—where the jobs are. Trump's cancellation of pollution regulations for oil and gas drilling on federal lands means cheaper natural, further undercutting coal miners. Trump is helping gas over coal, coal over wind and solar, and Wyoming over Appalachian coal. It's a dizzying cascade of favorites, with the displaced Appalachian miners at the bottom.
Are we simply expected to forget, "Don't pick winners and losers?"
The Memory Hole is so very wide.
3. Aggressive Use of Presidential Authority—Regulations and Executive Orders.
Republicans repeatedly denounced Obama as "lawless" for advancing his policy goals through regulations and executive orders. Obama did eventually fall back on his Presidential pen when it became clear that there would be no possibility of moving any legislation through a Republican Congress—but it was a last resort, and he relied upon formal regulations, with extensive public comment and due process, for the heavy lifting.
Nothing Obama tried ever rose to the breath-taking assertions of naked executive power that have dominated Trump's first 100 days, all by pure executive fiat: the twice-court rejected Muslim travel ban; the mandate to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to illegally reverse his predecessors' national monument designations; the repeated threats and assaults on federal judges who have dared to challenge Trump's reckless power-grabs; an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision to suspend enforcement of already implemented pollution limits on mercury emissions; or the executive order to withhold funding from sanctuary cities whose attitudes towards immigration enforcement clashed with Trump's crack-down. Then Friday, Trump ordered Zinke to open legally protected areas along the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling.
Yet Congressional Republicans who eloquently preached the virtues of executive restraint, are in full-throated support of Trump's executive imperium. It is true that McConnell has said, comparing Trump to Obama, "we don't want to give this one a blank check either." But thus far McConnell has yet to confront a Trump power-grab he wouldn't support. Paul Ryan is in the same camp. "Everything that President Obama did by executive order, this new president can undo," he commented. "He's restoring the proper balance, and in our opinion, he is undoing a lot of damage that was done by the last president, who exceeded his power."
These claims are nonsense. National Monuments have been created by virtually every President since Teddy Roosevelt under a 1908 Act of Congress; that law provides no authority to undo such protections. The prohibition on discrimination against immigrants from certain countries goes back to 1965; and the doctrine that not even Congress can use federal funding authority to coerce states as Trump's Sanctuary City sanctions did was first articulated by Republican Attorneys General in lawsuits against Obama.
Few of Trump's executive orders simply restore federal policy as it existed when George Bush left office—most are breathtaking new claims of raw executive power.
Congressional leaders are not alone among conservatives in hailing Trump's assaults on the law. In June of 2016 National Review warned that Trump would twist the Constitution in precisely this way, declaring that he " has already promised that he will knowingly break the law and violate the Constitution." But since the election the pages of the National Review have consistently taken the position that Trump isn't really over-reaching, because his policies are conservative ones, which by their nature, cannot be authoritarian or unconstitutional.
So the memory hole is not only wide but gapingly deep—almost a cosmological black-hole into which the GOP hopes the entire history of its assault on President Obama, along with conservatism's previous principals, will be sucked, unable to escape.
It's our job to keep memory—as well as truth—alive.
It's a big week for me. Monday was the official publication date of Climate of Hope, my new book co-authored with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
The book's premise is that climate solutions now constitute an enormous short term opportunity—healthier communities, greater prosperity, enhanced security—for both the U.S. and the world community. The key to seizing that opportunity is to understand that the climate crisis is a symptom of multiple market failures and political follies, not a single free-standing "problem;" that leadership in implementing solutions is already emerging not so much from national governments as from cities, businesses and citizen activists; and that this bottom up leadership is the key to continuing to accelerate the pace of progress and the prospects for avoiding catastrophic risks to the climate.
Climate of Hope is now out there being reviewed—not always favorably—so I thought I'd use this blog to give my perspective on why Mike and I believe this approach does, in fact, offer a solid pathway out of the climate crisis.
The main criticism thus far—and I expect this to continue—is that we are wrongly arguing that national governments don't matter, and that cities and businesses alone can correct our climate follies. We don't, make that argument, and they can't do it alone. A number of our key approaches clearly require national action—like redirecting agricultural subsidies away from encouraging overproduction of cotton and corn towards supporting regenerative agriculture which can suck carbon out of the atmosphere, where it is a climate threat, and into the soil, where it becomes a fertility and water storage enhancing asset.
But others, like modernizing building codes to ensure that any house built after 2020 is hyper-efficient, powered by its own renewable generation, so its owners don't have to pay a utility bill and don't pollute the atmosphere when they turn on the lights, are intrinsically the business of local (and state) governments.
And in the U.S. political context some that sound national—like encouraging the rapid replacement of internal combustion cars with electric drive—may actually emerge from a combination of city and state action. Led by Los Angeles, a coalition of 30 U.S. cities recently announced they would jointly bid out purchase orders for up to 114,000 electric drive vehicles at a cost of $10 billion, while California and 12 partner states made clear they would move forward with their zero emission vehicle mandate. So the cities are providing electric-drive vehicles with the scale needed to bring down prices and improve performance, while the states are guaranteeing that the market for these vehicles will continue to grow far beyond what city fleets alone could guarantee.
Similarly, the center piece of the Trump administration assault on President Obama's climate legacy, the suspension of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), assumes that the future of America's electric sector depends on a top-down national mandate, because utilities will otherwise cling to their existing fossil fuel dependent facilities. But while the CPP envisaged cutting utility emissions by only 30 percent by 2025, citizen action and market forces had already slashed power plant carbon pollution by 25 percent at the end of 2016, and we are on track to cut these emissions by almost 50 percent, not 30 percent, by 2025, through market forces and public pressure.
On the other hand, cleaning up methane emissions from oil and gas drilling on public lands, another Obama rule Trump would like to quash, can't be replaced by state and local initiatives—the federal government ultimately must become part of the solution. But just as during the Progressive era at the start of the 20th century it was cities and states and forged the new policy instruments that eventually became the New Deal, rather than waiting for Washington, just so Mike Bloomberg and I believe that political leadership on climate in the United States, and elsewhere, will come from below, not from national elites which remain in thrall to the fossil lobby and other entrenched interests. (Remember those crop subsidies? Shifting them to protect the climate would be good for farmers, but bad for pesticide and fertilizer interests.)
The essential message of Climate of Hope, however, is that every one of the separate market and political failures that threaten the climate has its own unique source and solution—each requiring a different approach and reform, all making us better off. CFC's, for example, cooling and refrigeration chemicals were deployed to replaced ozone depleting predecessors with inadequate testing. Because of their extraordinary ability to prevent solar radiation from bouncing back into space, they loomed as a huge future climate risk. But just as an international treaty—the Montreal Protocol—got rid of the risk of ozone depleting chemicals—the ozone layer is now healing—an amendment to that same treaty is now going to replace HFCs with climate safe alternatives.
Carbon emissions from deforestation mostly stem from illegal logging—so ending corruption and cracking down on the trade in contraband timber are key climate solutions. Methane emissions from rice paddies require better irrigation and cropping practices in rural areas, while methane from urban trash can be prevented by cities deciding to compost garbage instead of dumping it in landfills. Nitrous oxide emissions are soaring because nations subsidize over-fertilization instead of helping farmers figure out how much fertilizer their crops can really utilize. Black carbon from diesels will end as soon as we require all the world's fuels to be refined to eliminate sulfur contamination, something cities and ports are initiating. But black carbon from biomass cooking in developing countries demands giving poor families access to clean cooking fuels—either ethanol from crop wastes or LPG gas currently being wasted and flared.
That diversity of solutions requires a diversity of leaders—yes, presidents, prime ministers and diplomats, but also mayors, CEO's, school board members, architects, procurement officers, rural co-op directors, governors, municipal utility executives, hedge fund managers, college trustees and rear admirals. And properly chosen climate solutions will make each of those jobs easier, and enable those who hold them to deliver better results.
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.
In his first big test of what kind of pediatrician he will be, Pruitt decided to reverse an earlier EPA decision to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a potent nerve gas banned from household use years ago, but still used in farms, orchards, pastures and golf courses.
Chlorpyrifos belongs to the same family as the nerve gas sarin—suspected of being behind the appalling chemical weapon attack which occurred this week in Syria, provoking appropriate outrage from the administration. But EPA has just decided to allow the continued dousing of America's rural landscapes with a close cousin—a different chemical weapon.
Chlorpyrifos is one of the most frequently cited causes of farm-worker pesticide poisoning—but is particularly toxic to young children and the fetus. The pesticide has come across my email screens periodically for over a decade, as organizations like the Nature Resources Defense Council slogged forward, petitioning the EPA to implement a simple requirement of federal pesticide law: that any pesticide must be shown to be safe before use. In 2015 the agency said is intended to ban it—but didn't finalize the decision. Eventually, courts ordered EPA to make a final decision on the ban—and Pruitt decided to ignore the science.
He did not do so because he asserted that chlorpyrifos was safe; he simply said that there were uncertainties, and that in that situation farmers were entitled to continue to use the chemical, exposing farm workers, their children, surrounding communities and consumers of food sprayed with the chemical, to a pesticide whose safety is at best highly dubious—in quantities up to 14,000 times the safe level.
"We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment," Pruitt said—not the message you would expect to hear from a pediatrician if you asked him if you should give your kids foods laced with a potent neurotoxin that has been shown to damage their mental development.
This reversal of the clear requirement of federal pesticide law—that safety come first—along with Pruitt's revealing ordering of his priorities—regulatory certainty to pesticide users first, with human health qualified by "still"—reinforces something we are learning about the Trump administration.
Candidate Trump made a wide array of promises, many of them expressed within the 140 characters of a tweet. Huge numbers contradicted each other. How the administration would resolve those conflicts was one of the great unknowns. Trump, for example, proclaimed that "I want clean air and clean water" during his campaign. But he also pledged to dismantle the EPA.
It has been a fairly consistent pattern in the first 10 weeks of the administration that a campaign promise to help the powerful was likely to be honored, while one to help the vulnerable would be an earlier casualty of priority setting. Children of farm workers don't rank as high as Dow Chemical, the main manufacturer and defender of chlorpyrifos. QED—we know how this administration will come down.
#Trump Gives Pen to Dow Chemical CEO After Signing Executive Order to Eliminate Regulations https://t.co/Dt6w79Qn3V… https://t.co/BUG4CD0mKP— GMWatch (@GMWatch)1488280046.0
That, of course, is precisely what you don't choose your children's pediatrician for—his loyalty to chemical and drug companies before his concern for your family. There's been a fair amount of media coverage of the decision, which may be a sign that the country is waking up to the fact that Trump's campaign tweet language has consequences, even when the courts and Congress block many of his initiatives.
Sen. Tom Carper, of Delaware, has jumped on the chlorpyrifos question, sending Pruitt a sharp query, and pointing out that Pruitt's own decision did not even purport to find the legally necessary "reasonable certainty of no harm" required to allow pesticide residues on food. Carper asked Pruitt to provide him "all documents (including but not limited to emails, legal and other memorandum, drafts of legal or regulatory decisions or orders, white papers, scientific references, letters, telephone logs, meeting minutes and calendars, slides and presentations)" relating to the decision.
Normally, a demand for such documentation is seeking the "smoking gun"—and Pruitt fiercely resisted requests for such documents from his attorney-general's office in Oklahoma until after his confirmation had occurred, seeking to conceal his hand-in-glove cooperation with big oil and coal interests in that office. But while I am very sure Pruitt will resist Carper's request, there is a sad possibility here—that no smoking gun was required, so blandishment's, no elaborate courtship by pesticide interests. Pruitt may simply never have considered any other decision than letting a dangerous chemical be massively applied to America's food supply.
After all, wasn't America at its greatest when the air, food and water were most toxic?
Fake News Alert: Callous as Pruitt's decision to continuing allowing the use of a nerve gas as a tool in American agriculture, there is no evidence, however informed your informant claims to be, that President Trump ordered Pruitt to permit use of chlorpyrifos to please his golf course management.