Donald Trump has two false beliefs about energy, one personal, one political. And the latter may send the world on a path to disaster.
On the personal side, Trump reportedly disdains exercise of any kind except golf. He believes that raising a sweat depletes the finite reserves of precious bodily fluids, I mean energy, that a person is born with, and should therefore be avoided.
Many years of acting on this belief may or may not explain the weird and embarrassing scene at the G-7 summit in Taormina, in which six of the advanced world’s leaders strolled together a few hundred yards through the historic city, but Trump followed behind, driven in an electric golf cart.
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More consequential, however, is Trump’s false belief that lifting environmental restrictions – ending the supposed “war on coal” – will bring back the days when the coal-mining industry employed hundreds of thousands of blue-collar Americans.
How do we know that this belief is false? For one thing, coal employment began falling long before anyone was talking much about the environment, let alone global warming. In fact, coal jobs fell by two-thirds between 1948 and 1970, the year the Environmental Protection Agency was founded. This happened despite rising, not falling, coal production, mainly reflecting the replacement of old-fashioned pick-and-shovel mining with strip-mining and mountaintop removal, which require many fewer workers.
It’s true that in the past few years coal production has finally begun to fall, in part due to environmental rules. Mainly, however, coal is fading because of progress in other technologies. As one analyst put it last week, coal “doesn’t really make that much sense anymore as a feedstock,” given the rapidly falling costs of cleaner energy sources like natural gas, wind and solar power.
Who was that analyst? Gary Cohn, chairman of the National Economic Council – that is, Trump’s own chief economist. One wonders, however, whether he’s expressed those views – which pretty much represent the consensus among energy experts – to the president.
There was a time, not that long ago, when advocating clean energy was widely considered an impractical, counterculture sort of thing. Hippies on communes might talk about peace, love and solar energy; practical people knew that prosperity was all about digging stuff up and burning it. These days, however, those who take energy policy seriously see a future that belongs largely to renewables – and definitely not a future in which we keep burning lots of coal, let alone employ a lot of people digging it up.
But that’s not what voters from what used to be coal country want to hear. They enthusiastically backed Trump, who promised to bring those coal jobs back, even though his real agenda would punish those voters with savage cuts in programs they depend on. And Trump cares a lot more about public adulation than he does about serious policy advice.
Which brings me back to Trump’s European trip, which was remarkable not for what Trump did but for what he didn’t do.
First, in Brussels, he declined to endorse NATO’s Article 5, which says that an attack on any NATO member is an attack on all. In effect, he repudiated the central plank of America’s most important alliance. Why, it was almost as if he’s more interested in appeasing Vladimir Putin than he is in defending democracy.
Then, in Taormina, he was the only leader who refused to endorse the Paris climate accord, a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions that may be our last good chance to avoid catastrophic climate change. Why?
At this point, claims that trying to limit emissions would cause vast economic harm have lost all credibility: The same technological progress in alternative energy that is marginalizing coal would make the transition to a low-emissions economy far cheaper than anyone imagined a few years ago.
True, such a transition would accelerate the decline in coal. And that’s a reason to provide aid and new kinds of jobs for coal miners.
But Trump isn’t offering coal country real help, just a fantasy about turning back the clock. This fantasy won’t last for long: In a couple of years it will be obvious, whatever he does, that the coal jobs aren’t coming back. But the fantasy won’t even last that long if he goes along with the Paris accord.
So am I suggesting that the world’s most powerful leader might put the whole planet’s future at risk so that he can keep telling politically convenient lies, which will soon be exposed in any case? Yes. If you find this implausible, you must not have been reading the news the past few months.
Now, maybe Trump won’t really pull the plug on Paris; or maybe he’ll be gone from the scene before the damage is irreversible. But there’s a real possibility that last week was a pivotal moment in human history, the moment when an irresponsible leader sent the whole world careening off to hell in a golf cart.