Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

In the Midst of Tears On the Way to Marrakech


San Francisco, CA  November 9, 2016 Transportation_CARLPOPE_VN

It’s surreal to be heading for the Marrakech Climate Summit with Donald Trump’s victory on the front page. I’m not really ready yet to accept – much less think about – the consequences and how to deal with them, but the questions will be waiting for every American. “How did this happen? What are you going to do? What does it mean?

So let’s begin the search for answers.

Many things Trump promised, and the press is speculating about, won’t happen. Mexico won’t pay for a wall on its border. Congress won’t give Trump $5 billion to build it with US funds. Eleven million Americans will not be deported, but their lives will become less secure. Millions of US manufacturing jobs are not coming back from China, even if Trump somehow entices lots of factories to reopen – robotic automation will take the place of the displaced workers who elected Trump. Nor will Appalachian coal miners get their jobs back – the coal seams they used to mine are now so thin that they can’t compete with strip mined, government subsidized western coal, with its huge machinery and paucity of jobs.

But horrendous judicial appointments will happen, and the Supreme Court will return at least to its 5-4 conservative tilt. And that may make environmental regulation and legislation challenging long after Trump himself is gone.

What about climate? 

Good news first, The price of wind and solar generation will continue to plunge, and their share of US power generation will keep on soaring. US coal plants will continue to be shut down. Coal’s share of US electrical generation will continue to shrink, at least as fast as President Obama’s now orphaned Clean Power Plan would have required. That pace is driven by economic competition from renewables and natural gas, not carbon regulation. If anything Trump’s rhetoric may encourage more gas drilling which means coal becomes even less competitive.

Coal exports are also not likely to boom, again because of economics – Asian coal is simply cheaper once you add in the cost of shipping across the Pacific.

Nor, whatever Trump wants, is a major change in current fuel economy regulations for autos likely. The auto industry may well be able to persuade the new President to propose weakening them, but the same force that brought Detroit to the table in the first place remains an almost insuperable obstacle to a roll-back.  California, where Democrats gained Tuesday night, would respond to a weakening proposal from Trump by using its authority to set even tougher standards, which a number of other states would mimic. This would  confront the auto industry with two different US auto markets, an outcome it likely finds less palatable than letting the current rules remain.

So US carbon emissions will keep going down. On the other hand, methane emissions, which Obama had pledged to regulate, may well get a regulatory pass as long as Trump is President. The oil and gas industry is likely to take advantage of such lax rules by slacking off their efforts to seal the leaks which cause those emissions. Methane, fortunately, doesn’t last nearly as long as carbon in the atmosphere, so that bad news can be reversed by the next President – or by Congress if the Democrats regain control in the mid-term elections.

It will be easier to get permits for pipelines, so the US/Canadian share of global oil production will nudge upward, and Exxon Mobil may be able to put some of its currently uneconomic tar sands holdings back on its reserve books. The next head of the SEC is unlikely to push the oil industry as hard on disclosing its climate risks – but if the investor community keeps pressing that may not matter. Radical conservatives may seek to get Trump to undo EPA’s public health regulations on mercury, soot and long-distance pollution – but by the time Trump could reasonably get that done most of the impacted power plants will have had to comply.

Even though oil stocks fell on the news of Trump’s victory, the immediate media reaction is “Harold Hamm as Energy Secretary will give industry what it wants from DOE.” Well, yes, but what the industry needs is not a friendly Secretary of Energy, but a different market, a different California, different public attitudes, indeed a different world – none of which were adopted on the ballot Tuesday.

Trump has said he would walk away from the Paris Agreement – it’s not clear how he would formally do that, but informally he will certainly just declare it a dead letter – but if emissions from power plants and cars keep coming down, the US will be moving towards 2025 compliance and have time to catch up after Trump is gone.

But the worst news for the climate is not the things that will happen, but the ones that won’t. Trump’s victory will unsettle the robust global momentum towards a climate safe future, hearten fossil fuel interests and embolden climate solution opponents.  In every country there are voices saying, “We can’t move unless America does more,” and even though America may well do more, the next White House won’t be eager to take the credit – in fact Trump is likely to claim that we aren’t making progress even if we are.

So it’s important for America to lead, even if Trump tries to stop it.

Cities, states, investors and business now become the critical American players. California is the new command post for the war to protect us from pollution and climate chaos, but it needs outposts, advance positions and pickets in every state. States can step in for the EPA and set up firm, tough rules on leaks from oil and gas wells, pipelines, pumping stations, emulate California’s low carbon fuel standards, encourage renewable energy. Where state government too is hostile, cities must band together and take collective action. Mayors should demand the right to provide their citizens with clean, not dirty power. City Hall should give EV drivers the incentives they deserve for helping break our petroleum addiction, mandate deep retrofits of buildings as ownership or tenancy changes, adopt state of the art building codes, and make sure that their garbage is composted rather than being landfilled to brew methane.

So dismayed and disheartened – and in my case frightened – though we are, there is a lot of work to be done. If Trump governs as he campaigned, he will deliver on almost none of his promises, but will simply fragment the country. In that case, the midterm elections are likely to hand his party a sharp rebuke. But we should neither hope for nor sit waiting for such a wasted two years. Now is the time to show our resilience, and maintain our momentum, not plot our revenge.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. He is now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development and serves as a Senior Climate Advisor to former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has served on the Boards of the California League of Conservation Voters, Public Voice, National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause, Public Interest Economics Inc, and Zero Population Growth. Currently he is Convener, American Manufacturing Dialogue, Advisor, Skoll Global Threats Foundation Climate Learning Initiative, on the Advisory Board of America India Foundation and Yale Climate and Energy Institute, Board of Directors, As You Sow and Member for Track II US-India Climate Dialogue. Mr. Pope is also the author of three books: Sahib, An American Misadventure in IndiaHazardous Waste In American and co-author along with Paul Rauber Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called “a splendidly fierce book.”


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