The Trump administration’s new rules to make it easier for coal-fired power plants to come on line is at once dangerous, and silly. Dangerous because coal is choking the planet; silly because the market is already quickly moving beyond coal — by far the most expensive and most polluting of our energy sources.
So why does Trump stick with coal, even though power companies are abandoning it for cheaper and cleaner alternatives? Ignorance is one possible answer — he may not understand what is happening in the energy markets.
But politics is the more likely explanation. Trump campaigned on bringing back coal, and while even coal miners know that’s not going to happen, this rollback of sensible regulations (likely to get a court challenge) allows Trump to brag that he did what he said he would do.
Even if it is killing us.
The real danger here is that the longer Trump and his pro-fossil fuel cronies go down this path, the harder it will be for the U.S. to pursue the ambitious policies necessary to mitigate the global climate damage we and other polluting nations have caused.
And there’s no small amount of irony to the timing of this new coal rule. The announcement came as the United Nation convenes an international meeting in Poland (which heavily relies on coal) to map out a path forward to reduce carbon emissions (it’s not going so well). Trump, for his part, made the ludicrous decision to send a delegation to extol the virtues of fossil fuels, which is like setting up a beer-tasting table at a meeting of the Anti-Saloon League.
Despite the pledge by the worlds’ nations three years ago in Paris to work together to combat rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere, carbon levels are still increasing. Market forces don’t seem to be working – lower gas prices have led U.S. consumers to opt more for SUVs and pickup trucks rather than cleaner small cars and (more expensive) electric and hybrid vehicles.
We’re even driving more miles, which becomes even more problematic as Trump backs off on raising fuel-economy standards.
Meanwhile, China has resumed building coal-fired power plants at home and in the Third World. Political chaos in the European Union — from Brexit to the rise of nationalism in response to migration from the Middle East and Africa — has distracted the third largest producer of greenhouse gases at a time when (see the U.S. and China above) the world desperately needs someone to lead.
If you need an indicator of exactly how difficult this challenge is, look no further than Vincent Picard, an ardent French environmentalist who nevertheless found himself as part of the recent “yellow vest” movement protesting increased fuel taxes that would have reduced consumption.
“I am conscious that we have reached the end of fossil fuels and that we have to modify our habits,” Picard, who lives 35 minutes from the closest train station, told the New York Times. But, he added, “You have to continue to live.”
Despite no end of scientific analysis to tie it all together, some governments are not rising to the challenge, other governments are rejecting the challenge, and American consumers and employers are adhering to old purchasing and commuting practices. Meanwhile the seas rise, storms get stronger and more frequent, and wildfires in the West seem to be more frequent than rain.
We’re already past the reckoning point. The question is, how much reckoning will — and can — we endure?
Scott Martelle wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.