The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump claims that killing Obama’s climate legacy will bring back coal jobs. It’s a ruse.

President Trump will sign an executive order on March 28 to wipe away former president Barack Obama's environmental record. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order rolling back the Clean Power Plan, former president Barack Obama’s 2015 policy aimed at reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change. He touted this as a big step in restoring American jobs — in particular, coal mining jobs, which are concentrated in areas carried by Trump in the 2016 election.

But contrary to the White House spin, Tuesday’s action has little to do with improving the lives of Trump’s working-class base. It will do far more to promote the aims of the monied interests who backed his candidacy and now help shape White House policy.

In advance of Tuesday’s signing, the White House pushed the storyline that Trump was making good on “a pledge to the coal industry,” claiming that “he’s going to do whatever he can to help those workers.” At the signing ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, coal miners flanked the president as he pledged to “end the war on coal” for those miners who “told me about the attacks on their jobs and their livelihoods.”

But there’s no evidence that Trump’s actions will help coal miners who have lost their jobs. Instead, other motives appear to be in play: an embrace of climate change denial and a hostility toward government regulation that doesn’t even appear rooted in the goal of job creation.

As Coral Davenport of the New York Times reports Tuesday, although there have been losses in coal mining jobs over the past decade, these were occurring well before Obama enacted his climate change policy in 2015. These job losses, she reports, resulted not from government regulations but from increases in the use of natural gas and other energy alternatives, as well as automation in the coal industry. Thus, one energy economist tells Davenport, even if Trump’s rollback of the Obama policy does result in increased coal production, it may not result in more jobs for out-of-work miners — because these jobs have been mechanized.

What’s more, as Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis of The Post report, market forces have made coal less competitive with other cleaner sources of energy, like natural gas and renewables. Thus, it’s unclear how Trump’s action would even increase demand for coal.

Nonetheless, Trump’s allies are promoting the action as a victory for ordinary Americans over regulation-happy government bureaucrats. Breitbart on Tuesday led with an “exclusive” interview with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, aligned himself with the energy industry in legal efforts to derail federal efforts to combat climate change.

The Breitbart piece mocks EPA employees as sensitive snowflakes, sneering that Trump’s visit to the agency’s headquarters to sign his executive order “will likely trigger renewed sadness for some agency bureaucrats who were reportedly in tears after Trump won the election.”

Pruitt, on the other hand, is depicted as a heroic scourge of government regulation. The piece praises his philosophy as “an example of the Trump administration’s goal to dismantle the federal government’s overbearing bureaucracy, for the sake of boosting economic growth.” But as noted above, experts doubt that this particular spasm of deregulation will actually create jobs in any significant way.

Meanwhile, climate change denialism also appears to be a driver of Tuesday’s events.

Trump himself has repeatedly described climate science as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and as Jane Mayer reports this week in the New Yorker, one of Trump’s key supporters is a climate change denier. Robert Mercer, the billionaire hedge fund tycoon whose family, as it happens, has provided millions in funding to Breitbart, believes climate change is “overblown.” If it is happening, he contends, contrary to the scientific consensus, climate change would result in enhanced plant and animal life, rather than degradation of the environment. According to Mayer’s piece, Mercer relies on the advice of Arthur Robinson, an Oregon biochemist with no peer-reviewed publications on climate science, who calls climate change a “false religion.”

More broadly, Mayer reports, Mercer wants the government to be “shrunk down to the size of a pinhead.” The Mercer family, in tandem with White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, is apparently striving to achieve what Bannon has called the “deconstruction of the administrative state” through crafting Trump policy and creating an alternative media — Breitbart — to cheerlead the effort.

Bannon and the Mercer family appear to be allied at times in service of advancing this agenda. As Matea Gold reported this month, Bannon and the Mercers “quietly built a power base aimed at sowing distrust of big government and eroding the dominance of the major news media.”

In Tuesday’s news, Bannon’s goal of downsizing the administrative state intersects with Mercer’s (and Trump’s) climate change denialism. The only thing missing is a convincing argument that any of this will help working-class voters — or even the coal miners who applauded Trump on Tuesday.