‘We’re Not Going Back from a Low-Carbon Future’

Former US officials criticize Trump’s decision to quit Paris climate deal

While US President Donald J. Trump predicated his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord on the protection and restoration of US coal jobs, clean energy technology is not only the most effective, but an essential path toward improving the economy and fighting climate change, according to former US energy and environment officials.

“We’re not going back from a low-carbon future,” Ernest Moniz, who served as US secretary of energy under former US President Barack Obama, said at the Atlantic Council’s Tipping Points conference on June 21-22, hosted by the Millennium Leadership Program. “The clean energy global economy is going to be a multi-trillion-dollar economy,” he added.

“We have shown that you can have a clean and green environment, make environmental progress, and have our economy grow,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the administration of former US President George W. Bush.

While “there is a lot happening on the carbon front as utilities try to determine a way to process coal and allow the industry to continue to a degree,” said Whitman, Moniz contended that “frankly, coal just isn’t competing” with clean energy technology. Consequently, according to Whitman, to promise that coal jobs will make a revival “is very unfair.”

At a rally in Iowa on June 21, citing the opening of a new coal mine in Pennsylvania, Trump claimed: “We’ve ended the war on clean beautiful coal. And we’re putting our miners back to work.” However, the mine in question added only seventy jobs.

Moniz described how, while 30,000 coal jobs have been lost in recent years, over 200,000 jobs have been added in the solar power sector. He said that innovation and clean energy technology will open up the greatest job market for the future, yet Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts innovation investments nearly in half. According to Moniz, “that’s a job-killer.”

However, coal jobs and solar or other renewable energy jobs exist in different parts of the country, the Midwest versus the West and East coasts, respectively. “This points to a failure in our policy,” said Moniz.

According to Whitman, a solution to both environmental and economic woes must address how to help those displaced in the move away from carbon and coal. “We’ve got to be smarter about that,” she said. Otherwise, added Moniz, “we’re going to have strong political headwinds to deal with in reaching our carbon goals.”

“The areas of the world today that are most troubled… are areas that are left behind,” Chuck Hagel, who served as secretary of defense in the Obama administration, said in a keynote address at the conference. While Trump seeks to restore traditional jobs lost, “technology is now driving everything, and we’ve got to be smart enough to use technology to the benefit of mankind,” said Hagel.

However, the issues of addressing lost jobs, renewable energy, and climate change are “framed from a partisan perspective, not a policy perspective,” said Whitman. “That’s not how we solve this problem,” she added. In order to meet a challenge of this magnitude, Hagel said: “We have to get ourselves above the fray and move into some zone of cooperation and mutual appreciation and understanding.”

Policymakers must find a way to address the concerns of those affected in the transition to low-carbon societies, but the real focus must be on fighting climate change, said Hagel. “I don’t know of an issue as dominant as climate change that represents the intersections of interests of all people,” he said.

“The specifics of climate change, whatever your interpretation of that is… the fact is that the glaciers are melting, the sea levels are rising, and there are consequences and effects,” said Hagel. He said, as global warming continues, “the different issues connected to all of that—stability, security, conflict, resources—it changes in every way.”

If warning signs are left unheeded, said Hagel, global warming poses the greatest threat to not only national, but global security. “As weather patterns change, [there is] less productivity, more human suffering, more misery, more openings for terrorists,” he said, adding: “When people are desperate, they do desperate things.”

According to Hagel, “there can only be one outcome in many of these areas if we don’t get ahead of this and get some consensus on climate change, and that’s conflict.” Ultimately, “that is going to happen,” he said, “and it’s already happening to some extent today, but not to the extent it’s going to happen if we don’t get ahead of this.”

However, getting ahead of the problem of global warming requires international cooperation. While “the Paris treaty is not perfect,” said Hagel, “there is no institution, no person, no country that can solve the problems of the world. It takes common interest,” and nations working together. In that regard, the Paris Agreement, a deal currently adopted by all countries in the world—with the exception of Nicaragua, Syria, and the United States—is a good starting point.

Trump’s decision to take the United States out of the Paris Agreement is “an affront” to the fight against climate change which will cede US leadership in such a way as negatively impacts the economy, said Whitman. The new clean energy technologies, which will become an integral part of the global toolkit, will not be designed, developed, or built in the United States, she said, adding that countries like China will fill the void Washington has left behind.

Not only innovative technology, but science, is at risk with Trump’s vision for the renewal of coal in the United States. Following Trump’s June 1 announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, French President Emmanuel Macron invited US scientists to come to France to continue their work. If this continues, said Whitman, “We [the United States] are going to be the losers.”

“There is no question, from the science, that there is a need for risk management,” said Moniz, adding that “a decision to withdraw from Paris flies in the face of the science.”

According to Moniz, Trump’s “most unwelcome” announcement “is one more example where the president, the candidate, the administration more broadly has certainly weakened if not undermined the confidence of our friends and allies.”

However, said Whitman, “I think the American people are going to push back.” Governors, mayors, universities, and business leaders have all set forth their own commitments to the Paris deal, despite Trump’s declaration. It is at these levels that innovative technologies will be developed and implemented, not only in response to the urgent threat of global warming, but also because “there is a large premium to those are successful” in creating clean energy technology.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will lead to bumps in the road and make the process more expensive, said Moniz, but he asserted: “I am not pessimistic about the long term in the sense of commitment to low carbon.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts:

Image: “There is no question, from the science, that there is a need for risk management,” said Ernest Moniz, who served as US secretary of energy in the Obama administration, adding that “a decision to withdraw from Paris flies in the face of the science.” (Atlantic Council)