Lost in the din of Donald Trump’s Twitter rampages was the report last week that the White House is “fiercely divided” over Trump’s campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris climate accord. The news came as the president is planning to launch his climate-denial offensive, including an executive order to begin repealing former President Barack Obama’s climate plan, gutting the budgets of various agencies engaged in climate work such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and potentially withdrawing from the Paris accord.
The White House divide is said to pit Trump’s Rasputin, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, against his daughter Ivanka Trump and hapless Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Yes, in the carnival mirror that is the Trump White House, the climate’s best defender is the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, an anomaly akin to Hannibal Lecter espousing vegetarianism.
Tillerson argued in his confirmation hearings that “it’s important that the United States maintains its seat at the table about how to address the threat of climate change, which does require a global response.” For the United States to abandon its commitments under the Paris accord embraced by virtually every country in the world would devastate Tillerson’s credibility. As the respected career diplomat Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, put it: “In international politics, trust, reliability and keeping your commitments — that’s a big part of how other countries view our country. I can’t think of an issue, except perhaps NATO, where if the U.S. simply walks away, it would have such a major negative impact on how we are seen.”
But the secretary of state is playing a weak hand. Trump once scorned climate change as a Chinese “hoax.” Bannon, the ex-Breitbart publisher who featured such conspiratorial tripe, is pushing Trump to keep his campaign pledge to tear up the Paris accord. Trump isn’t likely to value the credibility of the United States over his own campaign rhetoric.
Missing in action is a broader sense of what is at stake. Put aside that catastrophic climate changes could render the world uninhabitable. Trump simply dismisses that threat. But given that he pledges to “make America great again,” to bring back jobs and make the economy hum, he needs to learn one key thing about the future: The country that captures the lead in building the technologies and energy systems needed to deal with climate change will dominate the growth industries of the 21st century.
U.S. economic preeminence in the past 150 years was built on its strength in the fossil-fuel industries that were the foundation of the industrial revolution. Rapid development of oil and coal in the United States gave this country a real advantage. And when our needs outstripped our production after World War II, we made certain — for better or worse — that we controlled the seamless supply of oil, priced in dollars, from our neighbors to the South and from the Middle East.
No matter what Trump is saying, climate change is already a clear and present danger. And renewable energy — wind, solar, water, nuclear — plus energy efficiency will fuel growth in this century.
Trump would certainly hear this view if he asked some of the Goldman Sachs alumni in his administration, starting with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, who stepped down as Goldman’s president and chief operating officer to head the National Economic Council. Goldman officials understand that climate change is real and its economic effects are profound. They are already figuring out how to profit from it. Sadly, it seems Mnuchin and Cohn are too focused on cramming through banking deregulation to join a debate central to our economic future. Or have they just decided not to take on Bannon, who after all had his own Goldman Sachs sojourn?
It’s not just Goldman: China understands this as well. Its leaders recently announced plans to invest more than $360 billion in renewable energy through 2020. Their National Energy Administration projected the creation of more than 13 million jobs in renewable energy by 2020. The country is the fastest-growing market for electric vehicles — vehicles that the government ensures are made in China.
Trump can dismiss the threat of climate change, but China is pushing to dominate the renewable energy industry across the globe. And that leadership will have far wider implications. If Trump disavows the Paris climate agreement, “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase,” senior Chinese climate change official Zou Ji noted, “which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power and leadership.”
The United States isn’t out of the running yet. We still have significant advantages. We’re better at innovation — inventing the batteries, the efficient appliances, the LED light bulbs and the more productive solar and wind applications. Obama created the beginnings of an industrial policy — investment in R&D, fuel-efficiency standards, appliance-efficiency standards, renewable energy requirements at the state level, tax breaks and credits — that demonstrated the potential of green energy industry in the United States.
As Forbes magazine summarized, clean energy industries employ 2.5 million Americans. Trump boasts about green-lighting the Keystone XL Pipeline, but solar installation alone has created more jobs than oil and gas pipeline construction and crude petroleum and natural gas extraction combined since 2014. Solar is adding workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy.
But the president now plans to go after all this with a meat cleaver. His early budget plans calls for disemboweling the EPA with a 25 percent budget cut, including reducing its staff by 20 percent, and chopping 42 percent off the agency’s research and development office. He plans to truncate the budget of NOAA by 17 percent, eliminating among other things the funds for “coastal resilience,” which aids coastal areas to withstand major storms and rising seas. It would cut one fifth of the funds for NOAA’s satellite program, which is critical to weather forecasting.
A staple of Trump’s campaign stump speech was his complaint that “We don’t win anymore.” And his central promise, as he repeated to the Conservative Political Action Conference after his election, is that “We’re going to win big, folks. We’re going to start winning again, believe me.” If Trump continues his assault on common sense about climate change, the outcome is clear: The United States will export less, innovate less and lose out big-time on the fastest-growing markets and sources of jobs across the world. America is going to lose and lose big.