Last Thursday, President Trump was strolling out to the Rose Garden podium, following the U.S. Marine Band’s rendition of “Summertime” (“Summertime” – seriously? – you couldn’t make this stuff up), to explain to us how the U.S. will join the other two global technical superpowers, Nicaragua and Syria, in uniquely having this climate and energy thing all figured out. Meanwhile, this was happening a few thousand miles away:
Showing both events on a split screen would’ve made for some good TV.
The photos above, of a crack in the Antarctic Larsen C ice shelf, were taken last November. But throughout last week, scientists watched as the greater than 120-mile long crack advanced 11 miles, leaving the crack tip only 8 miles from the edge of the ice shelf. This chunk of the ice shelf is expected to break off soon, freeing an iceberg roughly the size of the state of Delaware.
The floating ice shelves slow down the draining of land-based glaciers into the ocean, a draining process which directly causes sea-level rise. I posted previously about the 2002 collapse of a large section of the nearby Larsen B ice shelf that had previously been stable for at least 10,000 years. Following the collapse, the land-based glaciers previously buttressed by Larsen B began draining an additional 6.5 cubic miles per year of water into the ocean. 15 years later, those glaciers are still flowing at an accelerated rate.
As I explained in my previous post, these ice shelf collapses in Antarctica are attributed directly to human-caused global warming. They are getting bigger and bigger. Along with thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm, melting polar ice is among the climate change driven processes that are actively destroying coastal communities in Alaska. These processes threaten to flood Manhattan, New Orleans, and Miami if the industrial nations of the world fail to work together to decarbonize our energy sources.
“…by 2040, compliance with the commitments put into place by the previous administration would cut production for the following sectors: … coal – and I happen to love the coal miners – down 86 percent.”
-President Trump, explaining in the Rose Garden a shocking prediction that informed his thinking on exiting the Paris Climate Agreement
Um, duh. Replacement of CO2-emitting fuel sources with renewable ones is, literally, the point of the Paris Climate Agreement. So, yeah, parties to the agreement will be burning less coal. On account of trying to prevent the flooding described above, among other terrible consequences predicted if we continue “business as usual.”
A partial list of other industries that have succumbed to the relentless march of progress: horse and buggy manufacturing; rotary dial phone manufacturing; typewriter manufacturing; Betamax, VHS, 8-track, and cassette tape manufacturing; vinyl records; floppy discs; phone booths; dial-up modems; parachute pants (at least, until they come back); cathode ray tube televisions.
Does President Trump weep for the disappearance of those obsolete industries, each of which previously employed Americans? Most of us don’t weep, because those industries have all been replaced by new ones, to everyone’s benefit. Coal is no different. It’s served a valuable purpose, enabling much of the world to industrialize. But now we have economical solar energy, and it’s better.
The single part of Trump’s speech that had merit was his concern for workers in the coal industry, who are suffering from diminishing employment opportunities. As it turns out, this has very little to do with the Paris Climate Agreement, however. As has been widely reported (link, link, link), coal jobs are disappearing primarily due to automation (human coal miners get black lung; machines don’t), cheap natural gas, and cheap renewables. So, in the case of this one meritorious element of Trump’s argument, he has prescribed the wrong medicine for the right diagnosis. It may make some people feel good when they watch him on TV, but it’s not going to work, and in literally giving the entire Earth a fever, it has some serious side effects.
If Trump really cares about coal miners, one can envision productive policies that might actually help them. For example, upgrades to the U.S. electrical grid can help utilize renewable energy sources more efficiently (easy-to-read article, scientific study). The President’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan could include some of these upgrades, with a provision to re-train coal miners to do the work.
In an impressive feat of linguistics, President Trump managed to deliver his 2,000 word speech about exiting the Paris Climate Agreement, an agreement directed at preventing the worst potential consequences of climate change, without even once mentioning, well, climate change. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, in a follow-up interview, further clarified this:
“This is not about whether climate change is occurring or not.”
-Scott Pruitt, head of a federal agency with “environmental protection” in its name, clarifying his takeaways from the President’s statement Thursday announcing plans to withdraw the U.S. from the cooperative international effort to protect the environment from climate change, which is occurring
If climate change is occurring (it demonstrably is), then its terrifying potential consequences – destruction of the Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago, followed by an existential threat to the survivability of humans on Earth – would surely outweigh any of the purely short-term economic harms Trump mentioned in his speech. So, of course, this is precisely about whether climate change is occurring or not.
With respect to climate change, our federal government is failing us. The executive branch has just aligned us with Nicaragua and Syria in some sort of Axis of Environmental Villainy, spouting nonsensical declarations about climate change along the way (that it’s a hoax, it’s not happening, the science is “not in,” etc.) But Congress is entirely complicit. As I documented on another page, the attitudes of Congress members with regard to climate change fail to reflect those of the general public, let alone the scientists whose attitudes have been informed by actual data. The Supreme Court largely put Congress up for sale with its Citizens United decision. By equating monetary contributions with “speech,” this decision handed a virtually infinitely sized bullhorn to any corporate interest with deep pockets, an unimaginative business plan, and a callous disregard for future humans. As described in this New York Times article, Koch Industries and other fossil fuel interests have used this to great effect, systematically funding successful primary challenges to Congress members expressing concern about climate change, among other activities.
Here’s the thing, though. The Earth doesn’t care. As long as we continue “business as usual,” ice chunks equated with the sizes of ever larger U.S. states will continue breaking off of Antarctica and Greenland. This will happen whether Trump talks about it or refuses to talk about it, whether the EPA has a global warming website or not, or whether Trump is successful in his efforts to de-fund the very science activities with which we observe the climate.
A group of people – any group of people, including the President’s administration – who remains too thoroughly and too long divorced from reality will inevitably become irrelevant, because truth will eventually show them to be ridiculous. If an ice shelf collapses in Antarctica and no scientists are funded to see it, does it make a sound? Yes. Eventually, the sound of waves lapping at the base of the Mar-a-Lago.
The silver lining in all this, for me, is it has been a powerful civics reminder of the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, who created a federalist government replete with checks and balances, not only at the federal level, but between the various levels of government themselves. In the event that the federal government goes off the rails, states and cities retain substantial independence and power. In the wake of Trump’s shameful and irresponsible announcement of his administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the following events have unfolded:
- In response to the part of Trump’s speech in which he explained his shameful decision by saying he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the mayor of Pittsburgh tweeted, “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”
- The governors of New York, California, and Washington announced the formation of the United States Climate Alliance to convene states that will uphold the commitments of the Paris Agreement no matter what the federal government does (read more). Together, these states are the 5th largest economy and the 6th largest carbon emitter in the world.
- The mayors of over 85 U.S. cities signed a letter making a similar commitment.
- Many of America’s most innovative corporations also expressed their intention to support the Paris Agreement.
While the federal government could (and should) certainly help, the fact is, in our federalist nation, it need not define us. If a sufficient number of states, cities, and corporations only want to buy renewable energy, then fossil energy will go the way of Betamax.
I started this blog because I was worried the events of last Thursday might unfold. They unfolded. Now, we need to shift our attention and support to the leaders who remain engaged with reality. Being as informed as possible is an important part of that.
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