Checkpoint: Trump’s Climate Policy Mortgages U.S. Power

Evan Vucci

Evan Vucci

A good source of science fiction is oft, shockingly, good science. So here is an idea for a science-fiction novel: loosely interpreting 'multiverse' idea in String Theory, the Earth itself falls through a wormhole in the multiverse and reemerges in a parallel universe. Of course the scientifically unsupported idea that a physical entity the size of a planet could pass through a black hole unscathed might just cause Stephen Hawking to jump out of his seat, but it is fiction after all. The plot raises the question, what would our planet and civilization look like in this parallel universe? Maybe Sir Patrick Stewart has an afro, Jimmy Fallon is agelastic, and Quentin Tarantino illustrates children’s books. That might push the bounds of belief a touch too far. Perhaps the American President was in fact in league with the Russians, and the Chinese led the world in renewable resources? Oh wait…

Trump’s regressive nationalism seeks to position the US as the world’s dominant power, a position it hadn’t lost in the first place. However, the vacuousness of his ideas, as a result of his own incompetence, and the innate deficiencies of his desired nationalist outcome ensure catastrophe - be it environmental, or to his own economy and power.

The short-termism of the Trump Administration’s climate policy, cemented late last month through a Trump executive order, is not only an affront to the environment, science, and common sense, but is also a harpoon in the back of the U.S. economy, and a significant loss in the international power-tussling game with China.

Trump is on record as a climate change denier, and even went so far as to claim that the “very expensive bullshit” was a creation of the Chinese government in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive. Despite the absurdity of Trump’s position, given the narrow parameters of his platform, it’s really the only position he could take. The reason why almost the entirety of climate change skepticism resides on the nationalist right is because nationalism doesn’t possess the answers. If it can’t provide answers, the only choice it has is to deny the existence of the problem.

The Executive Order

Trump’s executive order launches a review and rewrite of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) that seeks to replace American coal dependence with natural-gas, wind, solar, and hydroelectric plants. Moreover, the order instructs government departments that they are not required to consider the risks of climate change in their environmental impact reports for any action or program.

 The New York Times reports that without the CPP - Obama’s climate legacy, the working life of a selection of coal-fired power plants could be extended by up to a decade. However, the likelihood of any boost in mining jobs, as Trump promised, is extremely low. Even Robert Murray, the founder and chief executive of Murray Energy, the largest private coal mining company in the U.S., admits Trump won’t be able to bring the jobs back. This is because hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and renewable energies are cheaper and more effective.   

The CPP is expected to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by over 1 billion tons by 2030, but as well as working toward carbon neutrality, the organization is also projected by economists to provide financial neutrality as well, with the public health benefits alone recovering the cost of the project. Trump’s order is an attempt to follow through on his election promise in important swing-states to bring back the coal industry, which is like promising to re-commission another season of The Cosby Show; not only has its time well passed, but frankly with the information we have now it would seem just wrong.

Ramifications of Trump’s Actions

Under a realist perspective of international relations, the tussle between powers is often viewed as a zero-sum-game, meaning any progress by one side entails the regression of the other. If Trump’s climate position is viewed as such, his nationalist agenda is willing to concede a huge advantage to the Chinese. China’s rapid rise toward counterbalance with the US and reinstatement of global bipolarity has been facilitated by burning more coal than the rest of the world combined. However, China realized that the reliance of their exponentially growing economy on a finite resource is nonsensical. In the words of Bertrand Russell: “Nothing finite is self-subsistent.”

In accordance with this rather obvious truth, they’ve started to heavily invest in renewable resources. According to Barbara Finamore, Asia director at the natural Resources Defense Council, “It’s clear they (China) intend to double down on bringing down their reliance on coal and increasing their use of renewable energy.” In fact, China has pledged that at least 20% of their energy will come from renewable resources before 2030. This estimate is actually rather generous to themselves, as they will likely reach that target much earlier.

Trump’s rejection of climate change, and the inherent technological advances its solution entails, allows for China to take a global leadership role. According to a January report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, China is the world leader in domestic investment in renewable energy and associated industries with $103 billion invested in 2015 alone. The Chinese can seemingly relax now that Trump has handed them the title of world leader. Trump’s reliance on dead and dying industries means not only that the U.S. will lose out in a zero-sum-game with China, but will hemorrhage the potentiality of the entire economy of the very near future.

It is true however that the Sino-American relationship cannot strictly be described in such realist terms because the nations are so economically entwined. After all, Chinese manufacturing relies on American consumerism, and visa versa. In terms of potential economic progress, the US is locking itself in a time capsule, ensuring its reign as an empire whimpers pitifully into history.

After all, not only do renewable resources provide energy independence in the near future, but they also get cheaper every year. According to The Economist, renewable investment fell globally last year. This fall however is because renewable investment has already began to provide returns. After the huge green-investment boom in China and Japan in 2015, both nations had already planned to scale back the following year. However, what they noticed on top of this is that their investments, especially in solar and wind, were already lowering overall costs, reducing expendables inherent in their investment.

In Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, set in the world of climate science, McEwan writes: “Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, and a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are.” Such an observation is prominent in game theory and prominent as well in the evidence of history. Oil and coal enabled the Industrial Revolution to launch human civilization into a staggering period of progress. As McEwan points out, this revolution has boded very well for us as a species, and we should applaud ourselves for being very clever and inventive primates. However, the Industrial Revolution didn't spread because of virtuous intentions to drag swathes of humanity out of poverty, it spread because it was profitable. 

Now the engine of that profit is a dwindling resource located in environmentally or politically unstable regions, and to top it all off, it artificially fiddles with our sensitive planet's thermostat. China is the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and now also the world’s leading investor in climate change’s solution. Of course, China isn’t doing this out of the virtuosity of its own nationalism; like any large group, China isn't motivated by virtue, they're motivated by profit. 

Before the Industrial Revolution, China was the world's dominant economy, with an estimate of between a fifth and a third of world output. In the 21st century the renewable revolution has arrived, and China is certainly not going to miss out this time. Indeed the revolution is now inevitable, for in the words of McEwan: "Logic, not idealism, compels it." While America's economic rival to the east harnesses the power of the sun, the US government hedges its bets on horsepower. 

Surely the one thing Trump could be relied upon, would be chasing profit, and yet ironically, the very factor that empowered him, regressive nationalism, relegates the U.S. from investing in the resources that will make the profits of coal and oil look like the sad tip-jar at Starbucks.

It is the "vested interests that resist necessary fiscal reforms" writes historian Niall Ferguson, that "can end up losing much more heavily from a revolutionary solution."Trump’s policies, beginning with his executive order, not only resign the US to international scrutiny, but ensure economic stagnation, and the inevitable catastrophic decline of US hegemony.