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The other climate change Trump doesn’t understand: How the energy business climate has shifted

By: Philip Bump, The Washington Post
June 2, 2017 Updated: June 2, 2017 at 4:05 pm
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Donald Trump wears a coal miner’s protective hat while addressing supporters at the Charleston Civic Center on May 5, 2016, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo by Ricky Carioti, The Washington Post.

If you were born in 1985 or later, you’ve never lived through a single month in which global land and ocean temperatures were colder than the 20th-century average for that month. Every single January, February, March, etc., that you’ve experienced was hotter than that month was on average during the entire past century.

That fact — which comes thanks to data from the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — doesn’t mean that you’ve never seen snow and it doesn’t mean, by itself, that the scientific consensus on global warming is correct. Paired with several other factors (rising sea levels, increased ocean acidification, more extreme precipitation events, etc.), it’s the sort of thing that you’d expect to see as the world warms. In other words: Scientists broadly agree that the world is warming and that, if the world warms, you’d see effects like those.

Scientists also broadly agree that the cause of that warming is human activity, the increase in the production of gases that trap heat in the atmosphere instead of letting that heat escape into space. This is the greenhouse effect. Those gases — carbon dioxide, mostly, but also methane and some other things — can be identified as a key driver of increased temperatures, as demonstrated in this nice interactive by Bloomberg.

President Trump, despite that data from his own government and despite the arguments of his own scientists, rejects that conclusion. Or, really, it’s not clear what position he holds on the subject; he has held basically every possible position on the subject at some point over the past decade. His disinterest in addressing the projected risks of climate change, though, mean that he’s on the brink of potentially backing out of the most significant climate agreement in world history, a pact signed in December 2015 in Paris. Nearly every country in the world has agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions as part of the deal, excluding Syria and Nicaragua. The United States is poised to join those two nations.

Why? Because of politics. The emergence of climate change as a well-known scientific issue dovetailed with the emergence of staunch partisanship in American politics. The fight to address climate change, meaning the fight to cut emissions from automobiles and electricity production, became a fight between left and right. And in 2017, that means it became a win-at-all-costs battle, regardless of merits.

To make his case, Trump has resorted to arguments that make clear he doesn’t understand another significant change in another realm: the business climate of energy use and production.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a significant change in how energy is produced in the United States. The use of wind and solar energy for this purpose has increased exponentially — but exponential growth in small industries is easy over the short term. The real shift has been toward the use of natural gas in electricity generation, a function of plummeting prices thanks to the boom in production that resulted from innovations in hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking).

Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal. We don’t just mean the sort of difference you might see in a gas grill versus a charcoal grill, though the production of coal ash is itself an environmental problem. When coal is burned, it releases particulate matter and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Natural gas releases less than half as much carbon dioxide and none of the particulates.

The net result? Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production have dropped as power plants transition to using more natural gas.

The net effect of that is that, for the first time since the energy crisis 40 years ago, electricity production emits less carbon dioxide than transportation — that is, than the emissions from trucks and cars.

Natural gas still produces greenhouse gases, of course, including when methane leaks during the extraction process. (Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, doing a much better job of trapping heat.) Over the long term, the growth in the wind and solar sectors, powered in part by innovations that have made solar energy, in particular, much cheaper, will be important. In December, Bloomberg reported that solar energy was the cheapest form of new electricity production in the world.

A report in the New York Times last week very effectively made the point about how the industry has moved away from dirty fossil fuels such as coal. It quotes Chris Beam, president of Appalachian Power, the leading electricity producer in the coal state of West Virginia. Gov. Jim Justice asked Beam to build another coal plant. To which Beam replied, “We’re not going to build another coal plant.”

That’s a power company president in a coal state telling the governor there flatly that the era of coal use for power production is over.

Trump, though, continues to argue that the coal industry can make a comeback. He rolled backfuel economy standards on new vehicles, as well, putting at risk a decline in transportation emissions.

Why? Again, politics, but also because Trump at least publicly doesn’t seem to understand the changing business climate. ExxonMobil, the oil giant that is the former corporate home of Trump’s secretary of state, understands that shift and backs the Paris climate deal. Trump doesn’t.

Two of Trump’s five children, Tiffany and Barron, have never lived through a month in which global temperatures were below the 20th-century average. While their father may not want to address the likely cause of that warmth, the global economy is poised to.

Read this story at The Washington Post.

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