Three Reasons Donald Trump Could Be Good News for the Climate

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Finding Climate Hope in the Fog of Trump

Ninety-three days in, Trump’s presidency has already been rough going for anyone concerned about climate change.  We need some hope.  To celebrate Earth Day, let’s look at the potential upside—huge, tremendous, big league potential upside—that Donald Trump brings (however inadvertently on his part) to the effort to establish a comprehensive national climate policy.  In this post, we’ll face some harsh truths and explore the first of three reasons Trump could be good news for the climate. My next post will cover two additional reasons for optimism.

Now, no two ways about it, Trump’s climate-related policies are horrendous. Trump started by naming Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator. It would be hard to find someone worse. Just last month, Pruitt said, “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Then, four days after his inauguration, Trump made a spectacle out of reviving the Keystone pipeline by issuing an Executive Order to “invite” TransCanada “to promptly re-submit its application … for a Presidential permit….”  TransCanada promptly obliged and, on March 23, the Trump Administration approved the pipeline’s border crossing at Morgan, Montana.

Shortly thereafter, Trump signed an Executive Order to unwind the bulk of President Obama’s climate policies, including the Clean Power Plan.  Trump’s Executive Order reads like something out of a dystopian novel, challenging logic itself.  Section 5 begins with the observation that “to ensure sound regulatory decision making, it is essential that agencies use estimates of costs and benefits…based on the best available science and economics.”  Absurdly, the following sentence disbands the working group that provided such analysis and withdraws its work. Trump has converted his nutty tweets— “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop….” (4:39 p.m. 1 January 2014)—into official government policy.

With the damage mounting, how could Trump’s election turn out to be good news for climate policy?  Three reasons.  But buckle your seat belt; the road to optimism is bumpy.

Reason #1 for Optimism: Trump’s victory demands progressives rethink climate policy.

Failure can be enlightening.  If Clinton had eked out a victory, progressives might view it as validation that the climate movement is on course.  It is not.  Even if you write off Trump’s election to Russian interference, James Comey, or an Electoral College fluke, the fact that someone so hostile to the environment could even come within striking distance of the presidency is still an absurd outcome.  If the climate movement were on track, Trump’s election would have been impossible notwithstanding the odd twists of 2016.

Moreover, the ease with which Trump has been able to reverse Obama’s policies reminds us that the problem has been ongoing.  Obama’s climate policies relied upon executive orders and the application of existing laws that weren’t originally intended to address climate change. Conservatives, like Pruitt, objected that Obama had exceeded his authority.  Pruitt has it backwards but that’s a topic for another day.  We must still acknowledge that President Obama had neither the political mandate nor the legislation he needed.

A Clinton presidency might have further masked the problem.  Trump, in contrast, is a screaming reminder that we don’t need to think about strategic errors the climate movement made in 2016; we need to think about what has been going wrong since George W. Bush reversed his pledge to regulate carbon dioxide.  I’m not excusing conservatives who have turned their backs on climate science or industry interest groups that have put profits before the planet.  But we can point our finger at conservatives until the glaciers finish melting.  If we want to build the necessary bipartisan coalition for real progress, however, it’s time for some introspection.

A big reason the effort to build a broad coalition for action has stalled, I believe, is that the demand that we stop climate change appears unrealistic without a coherent policy solution to achieve it.  The hodge-podge of policies adopted so far are simply not compelling.  Should we have a renewable energy tax credit program that largely benefits big banks?  Do we like fuel efficiency regulations that encourage manufactures to make wider cars? Do we really need complicated ownership structures like “virtual net metering” to encourage solar?  Should the federal government be giving a $7,500 tax credit to someone who buys a $125,000 Tesla?

Trump’s election suggests we cannot afford to gloss over such questions.  Yes, ironically, it might be having an incoherent president in office that compels the climate movement to recognize the need to adopt a coherent, super-aggressive climate policy, such as Pure Cap-and-Dividend.

That brings us to the second reason that Trump’s win may be a blessing in disguise. I’ll pick up there in my next blog post.  In the meantime, Happy Earth Day!

[Part 2 of this post is now available here.]