Donald Trump will sign another executive order on Tuesday, this one focused on unraveling the Clean Power Plan, rolling back environmental regulations, and eliminating any hope that the United States meets its obligations to the Paris climate agreement. This order is as damaging as it is dumb. Trump is unraveling critical environmental protections because he thinks it will help revitalize the economy and help the coal industry. It will not. Instead, it will incentivize our country to pour money into energy sources that harm our health and our continued ability to live on this planet while also undermining our ability to become energy independent and to compete in the global marketplace.
It is entirely unsurprising that a man who believes no one is a scientist wouldn’t care much about actual scientists’ pleadings that we find a more sustainable solution to our energy needs. In stripping back Obama administration regulations aimed at lowering carbon emissions, Trump is practically guaranteeing that our country’s emissions—which have been flat for the past few years—will not drop enough for us to meet our commitment to the Paris Agreement and could in fact increase again. But we already knew Trump would make such reckless choices.
It’s more puzzling that Trump would create an order that is also so economically idiotic. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been dispatched to defend the rule as “both pro jobs and pro environment,” but so far his talking points have failed to show how the rule is any good for either. Indeed, the New York Times’ Coral Davenport has a particularly scathing assessment of why rolling back the Clean Power Plan and other environmental regulations won’t restore jobs. There are essentially three factors at play here. First, these regulations didn’t kill jobs in the first place, so reversing them won’t help. Second, the decline in energy jobs is due to automation, so even if mines stay open, new jobs aren’t going to follow. Third, despite the outsize role that the coal industry plays in election rhetoric, it constitutes a very small sliver of the economy—less than 100,000 jobs since as far back as 2003. When asked on Tuesday how many coal jobs the order would bring back, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he was “not aware of [an estimate].”
Much like the disastrous and cruel Muslim ban, this executive order attempts to fix a problem of Donald Trump’s invention. This order, too, demonstrates the same lack of thought regarding how, exactly, the ideas proposed here will fix this fake problem. Fortunately, it is also likely to be subject to extensive court battles, as many environmental watchdogs are itching to take on Trump. One potential challenge could focus on the fact that these reversals will encourage the release of chemicals that harm human health, something the Clean Air Act prevents. (Carbon dioxide has been included in the list of harmful pollutants since 2009).
If Trump really wanted to put people to work in the energy sector, he would focus his efforts on renewable energy—particularly solar energy. The industry already provides more Americans with jobs than oil and gas extraction does, and it’s growing at 12 times the rate of general job creation. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimated in 2016 that the U.S. had more than 200,000 solar jobs while the Solar Foundation estimated that would grow to more than 280,000 within the year.
Even with this growth, we’re still nowhere close to being the dominant player in the field. That distinction goes to China, which is already beating us handily when it comes to solar energy. While the technology was largely developed here, photovoltaic energy capture and storage were primarily made possible by Chinese manufacturing. Last year, China became the world’s top solar energy generator. And earlier this month, the country announced it will put another trillion yuan (nearly $145 billion) into solar energy over the next five years, quintupling the country’s production. Experts and economists are still assessing how China became the dominant player in this market—what mix of tax benefits and incentives caused the industry’s unruly growth there, and how America got lapped—but it’s clear that Trump has no real interest in helping the U.S. attempt to regain its dominance. Meanwhile, even India has realized it can get by without investing in another coal-fired power plant.
As Mike Pence’s appearance in West Virginia this past weekend shows—the vice president assured coal miners they’d get their jobs back—Trump’s policy is more of a stunt than an attempt to, you know, help America. Beyond being a powerful economic engine, renewable energy is popular—even among Trump voters and climate change deniers. A post-election survey conducted by the University of New Hampshire found that 73 percent of respondents thought renewable energy should be a higher priority than oil exploration. Trump voters showed the lowest preference, but even 48 percent of them favor renewable energy exploration.
Trump’s own rhetoric on renewable energy has vacillated wildly—in front of some crowds he professes to love it while at other times he laments that wind turbines occasionally kill birds (a bargain anyone with an actual understanding of the numbers is happy to accept). Mostly, he views renewable energy as a cute side project, and he sees coal, oil, and fossil fuels as the heavy hitters. No doubt this is a manifestation of his desire to seem strong and powerful—and also likely his desire to continue to reward his friends who are heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry. Regardless of Trump’s motivation, his willingness to make bad economic policy based on these misconceptions is troubling.
If Trump were really interested in securing the country’s energy future, he would do well to learn from one of his predecessors. In the 1950s, Harry Truman commissioned a report on the state of America’s resources titled, Trumpishly, “Resources for Freedom.” Even back then, when America was supposedly great, government officials were worried about resources, sustainability, and the long run. Would there be enough steel to do all the construction necessary for the country’s growing infrastructure? Would we have enough oil to heat our homes?
“The long-term trend toward scarcity and higher costs of materials for the Nation’s rapidly expanding economy can be checked only through new and vigorous policies and actions,” Truman wrote in a letter to Jack O. Gorrie, the chairman of the National Security Resources Board. It was 1952, and Truman was thanking Gorrie for the work he and his team had done in assessing the nation’s material security. “The American people, therefore, have an important stake in the development of sound programs in this area.”
Truman’s report devoted ample space to renewable energy while assessing the limits of fossil fuels. (The chapter on oil was titled “How Much? How Long?”) In Chapter 15 of that report, the president’s Materials Policy Commission provided its assessment of the current state of solar energy: The sun provided plenty of energy—we just didn’t have the technology to effectively capture it yet. Decades before climate change and carbon emissions became a matter of critical importance for both world health and national security, an assessment of resources pointed to renewables as the way forward for true energy independence. The chapter concluded that “it is time for aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy—an effort in which the United States could make an immense contribution to the welfare of the free world.”
In the decades since “Resources for Freedom” was published, capturing solar energy has become efficient and commercially viable. The United States has not led the way. Trump’s latest executive order could eliminate the possibility that we’ll ever catch up.