Hope in the Era of Trump’s Climate Foolishness
Posted June 1, 2018 8:40 p.m. EDT
One year ago, on June 1, President Donald Trump dismayed the world by announcing his intention to withdraw the United States from the global Paris climate agreement. He has since shown no inclination to ease up on his efforts to nullify virtually every initiative the Obama administration took to limit greenhouse gases from power plants, cars, trucks, and oil and gas operations. His disappearing act could not have been more ill timed. As a result of rapid economic growth in Asia and lower fuel prices worldwide, global energy-related emissions increased in 2017 after holding steady for three years.
There is, however, a silver lining: the increasing efforts by states and cities to fill the Trump vacuum. No thanks to Trump, the United States actually bucked the worldwide trend and reduced its emissions in 2017. The 0.5 percent drop in emissions, small but encouraging, was driven partly by market forces — including the switch from coal to natural gas — and partly by sustained efforts by climate-conscious states to deploy renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
The principal driver of these efforts is the United States Climate Alliance, a coalition of 16 states (plus Puerto Rico) committed to upholding Barack Obama’s Paris pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. According to a study last year by the Rhodium Group, these states, which account for almost half of the nation’s economy, are on track to meet their share of the burden, with estimated reductions in greenhouse gases of between 24-29 percent by the 2025 target date — not enough to get the entire country where Obama wanted it to be, but progress nonetheless.
These numbers could well improve with the recent addition to the fold of New Jersey, whose new governor, Philip Murphy, has pledged to reshape the state’s energy future. A bill he signed last week would require New Jersey’s power companies to generate half their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Murphy shrewdly combined this mandate with a $300 million annual subsidy to keep the state’s nuclear power plants afloat. Though many environmentalists have serious qualms about nuclear energy, retaining this capacity is smart from a climate perspective, as these plants provide roughly 40 percent of the state’s electricity, all of it carbon-free.
New Jersey’s strategy is similar in some respects to programs approved recently in New York and Illinois, where renewables would be encouraged and nuclear plants awarded financial credit for the carbon-free electricity they produce. As Brad Plumer of The Times has observed, the future of nuclear power is something climate-conscious but traditionally nuclear-phobic environmental groups may have to rethink. There are 99 nuclear plants operating across the country, supplying one-fifth of the nation’s electricity without any carbon dioxide emissions. Some of these plants are struggling financially. Six have closed since 2013, and a dozen or so more are scheduled to retire by 2025 unless states decide otherwise.
But states and cities cannot go it alone. Take, for instance, the vexing matter of emissions from transportation, mainly cars and trucks, which in 2016 overtook power plants as America’s largest source of greenhouse gases. New York has done a good job of cutting power plant emissions, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo promises even greater reductions by deploying offshore wind farms and a suite of energy efficiencies. But the road to his goal of reducing overall emissions by 40 percent by 2030 would be much easier if he got some help on vehicles.
This is why it is important to preserve the ambitious fuel-efficiency standards agreed to by the Obama administration and the automakers in 2012, as well as California’s statutory right to set even stronger standards. Both are threatened by the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt, who, as it turns out, has plenty of time for regulatory carnage when he is not attending to his own legal defense against multiple charges of administrative abuse.
On Thursday, Pruitt sent to the White House his proposal to roll back the Obama rules, which require automakers to nearly double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles by 2025. The proposal also formally challenges California’s right to set its own standards. That right is critical because other states can emulate California if they wish; 12 states, including New York, plus the District of Columbia have chosen to do so. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed an executive order setting a goal of 5 million zero-emission vehicles on the state’s roads by 2030, a huge increase from the 350,000 or so now. Should other states follow suit, it would mean an enormous shift in the car market — and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
In an ideal world, Americans would have a federal government that, as it has in the past, provides investment in new technologies, in research and development and in energy infrastructure. Instead, we are saddled with an administration that is preparing to force power companies to keep dirty and inefficient coal-burning power plants operating on the pretext that they are needed to protect national security. Until that changes, the voices of all those governors, mayors, corporate leaders and others who, after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, proclaimed, “We Are Still In,” deserve praise and support.
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