The failure of Trumpcare was the product of a crusade to destroy Obamacare that had outlived any factual predicate — Republicans decided Obamacare was a socialist monstrosity that would collapse, and when it failed to collapse, tried to destroy it anyway. Many of the same characteristics can be seen in Donald Trump’s plans to destroy Barack Obama’s climate legacy. It is an angry reflex in search of an idea.
To see the vacuousness of Trump’s proposal, you don’t need to go any farther than its name: the Energy Independence Executive Order. It would make sense if Trump were proposing to replace imported energy with domestic sources. But the entire goal of Trump’s panoply of executive orders — enabling more oil and gas development and weakening regulations on carbon emissions — is to prioritize dirty domestic energy sources (oil and coal) over clean domestic energy sources (natural gas, wind and solar). Whatever reasons Trump may have to favor carbon-intensive energy sources over cleaner ones, “energy independence” has literally nothing to do with it whatsoever.
Trump’s plan will slow the decline of the coal sector, but it will not stop it. The economic and political momentum behind the green-energy revolution is strong enough that Trump could not possibly hope to reverse it. In the power sector, coal plants are wildly expensive to run, even without Obama’s regulations. The only factor keeping coal in place is that it’s often cheaper to continue running an old energy plant than to incur the costs of building new ones. Even so, coal plants continue to shut down and new ones will not replace them. What’s more, energy firms make decisions based on long time horizons. A four- or possible eight-year presidency run by dirty-energy enthusiasts is not a sufficiently strong incentive to make investment decisions that will play out over decades. “Going forward, we anticipate an increase in renewable generation capacity and declining utilization of coal,” one utility executive tells The Wall Street Journal today.
The Trump administration has previously announced its intent to weaken auto-emissions standards. But that may not make much difference if California and other states keep their stringent standards in place — automakers have to sell cars in California, so they’ll meet the tougher state standards even if the federals standards are looser. And the states are going to fight to keep their standards.
Meanwhile, as green energy continues to come down in price, developing countries are meeting their energy needs with wind and solar rather than coal. For the last decade, Republicans have insisted that any domestic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions would make no difference to climate change, since China and India would simply continue to ramp up their emissions regardless. “Every 18 months, its emissions grow enough to replace the emissions savings the United States will accomplish by hitting the president’s 15-year target,” argued one very typical example of the conservative movement line. “Simply, without China’s cooperation, U.S. efforts are futile.”
This prediction has proven utterly false. Last year, according to the International Energy Agency, renewables accounted for two-thirds of new energy in China. Overall, Chinese emissions dropped by 1 percent even as its electricity use rose by 5.4 percent. Global climate-change efforts have reached a milestone. For the first time in recorded history, carbon dioxide emissions actually dropped without a recession having caused it:
Can Trump do damage to the environment? Yes, he can do a lot of damage. Merely continuing the pace of the green-energy revolution will not be enough to protect the planet from dire effects of climate change. We need to accelerate the pace of decarbonization. Trump’s policies will make it difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the world to wring carbon out of its economy at a fast enough pace.
At the same time, he has no plan or policy vision that can displace the one Obama left behind. Wind turbines and solar panels are still going up, coal is declining. The Tesla Model 3, an electric car with a $35,000 sticker price, begins production this summer. Trump’s irritable gestures against environmentalists and promises to restore the glories of coal will do more damage to the world than his failed crusade to kill Obamacare. What the two policies have in common is that they are the ultimately doomed effort by a brain-dead party to ignore a problem with which their dogma cannot grapple.