Yesterday, President Trump signed an executive order to dismantle President Obama’s climate legacy and policies. The White House claims that these actions will help the economy in general, and coal workers in particular.
This administration has utterly bought into the false narrative that the economy and the environment are at odds. As a senior spokesperson said, “I think the president has been very clear that he is not going to pursue climate change policies that put the U.S. economy at risk. It is very simple.”
Yes, it is simple. These backward-looking policies will damage our economy, place us well behind other major economies, and put the planet at risk (a planet, by the way, that supports the economy and society, not the other way around). The president and his team seem to hold outdated views that tackling climate change is economically damaging, or that we can stop progress in energy technologies and markets. It’s absurd, and factually wrong, for many reasons. Here are three big ones.
First, tackling climate change will create far more jobs and economic growth than looking back to fossil fuels. There are already a lot more people working in the clean economy than in fossil fuels, with renewable energy jobs outnumbering coal and gas jobs 5 to 1 in the U.S. (where there are only 66,000 coal miners). A recent report from Advanced Energy Economy, a national association of businesses advocating for a clean energy system, estimates that the clean economy — which they define broadly to include not just electricity generation but also energy and water efficiency, alternative fuels, and clean transportation — is a $1.4 trillion global market. The U.S. market alone is $200 billion, on par with the pharma industry, and closing in on consumer electronics.
Second, coal is not coming back. Ever. The demise of coal, until very recently, has had little to do with policies of any kind. For example, the Clean Power Plan that Trump is trying to eliminate has not really gone into effect anyway. In reality, coal is in a death spiral because of the economics of both capital and labor. On the labor side, the coal industry has gotten very good at automating and eliminating jobs. On the capital front, the energy companies and the banks know that coal is a bad bet. Here’s Nicholas Akins, the CEO of the $16 billion utility American Electric Power (AEP), back in December 2016: “The industry is moving forward with cleaner energy. We will not be building large coal facilities. We’re not stopping what we’re doing based on the new administration. We need to make long-term capital decisions.”
So the only discussion we should be having about miners now is how to help them as the world quickly transitions away from coal. It would be nice if our politicians prioritized job retraining, education, health benefits, pensions, and relocation services instead of making empty promises to bring back jobs that even coal bosses don’t think are realistic.
Third, unchecked climate change will be incredibly expensive and disruptive. This should be blindingly obvious, but the economy is not at risk from excessive regulations on fossil fuels. No, the real systemic risk comes from climate change. The costs of extreme weather, like floods, droughts, and superstorms, include both money and lives. There are countless reports — from sources including the U.S. government, environmental groups, the World Bank, Citi, and former U.S. treasury secretaries and Michael Bloomberg — calculating the trillions of property and economic value at risk.
But, apparently, this administration is not aware of any of these economic estimates, which is terrifyingly ignorant — especially given the entire supposed basis for this major policy action. Or else those at the top just don’t care, as long as the story they’re telling plays well and gets votes.
Policy Can’t Beat Economics
But there’s some good news: Companies won’t stop reducing carbon. As important and powerful as government policies are, they can’t beat economics. Companies make most decisions based on where they get the best returns. AEP is not alone in prioritizing clean energy. Hundreds of the world’s largest companies have committed to moving toward 100% renewable energy and setting science-based carbon goals (which mean making dramatic cuts in emissions over the next 30 years). Clean energy is just too cheap now, creating enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs and big business alike. In fact, smart energy strategy should now be a C-suite priority.
Companies are too far along to go back. I’ve been asking company execs for months whether they think their sustainability efforts in general, or their energy work in particular, will slow down. So far, the answer is no. Sure, we’re seeing some short-sightedness and weakness in resolve, as business leaders get giddy at the prospect of tax cuts and deregulation; auto companies rushing to weaken fuel efficiency standards stands out as a sad example. But by and large, the sustainability train has left the station. Given the improvement in clean technologies and rising expectations from customers and employees, going clean is good for business.
But the other thing I’ve heard loud and clear from companies is that leaders want to lay low and avoid conflict. Thus, unfortunately, we may not see many CEOs take a public stance against the latest anti-climate political moves. It seems they’re afraid of being attacked in public by the Tweeter-in-chief. So even though a surprising number of companies have been willing to take a stand on immigration, LGBT rights, or other social issues, they’ve been pretty quiet on climate policy.
I hope this relative silence ends soon. This administration’s attack on pro-climate policies is an attack on our economy and our well-being. It’s slowing progress toward a more profitable, cleaner, and healthier future, and, yes, putting our economy at risk.