Energy in the Executive

Donald Trump’s extraordinary election has upended established expectations for the political agenda in every area, and nowhere is that more true than with climate and energy policy. Where will Trump and his team come down on climate? There is fevered speculation across the spectrum, with predictions ranging from Armageddon to salvation, but the truth is that no one knows how things will shake out in the end—perhaps not even the President-elect.

Unconstrained by a traditional politician’s background, Trump has shown signs of willingness to take a fresh look at complex issues as he prepares to enter the Oval Office. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. The bellicose campaign distracted many from the fact that Trump offered himself as a more pragmatic alternative to the ideologically rigid contenders from the Right and the Left, Senator Cruz and Secretary Clinton. Will he bring those practical sensibilities to climate policy? Finding the proper middle ground between those two poles might be productive—if Trump is willing to embrace the task.

The media has made much of his skepticism about climate science, rarely acknowledging that he has made statements on both sides of the issue. In a November 22 interview with the New York Times, he was equivocal, acknowledging that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and climate while indicating that he was considering the question of withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement “very closely,” and that he has “an open mind to it.”

There have been various interpretations of what he said; many heard a significant softening of his campaign stance, while climate skeptics saw it merely as a reaffirmation of his previous position. Trump’s December 5 meeting with Al Gore, on the heels of reports that Trump’s daughter Ivanka will champion the issue, is further evidence that the President-elect will chart his own course on these questions.

As with climate science itself, predicting Trump’s path on climate policy is fraught with uncertainty. The environment is chaotic, but there are also some fundamental forces at play: Either Trump will engage constructively with the climate challenge, or he will lose the opportunity to set policy on a sound basis for decades to come. Environmental advocates face the same decision: engage constructively with an administration they despise, or foreclose the possibility of creative cooperation. For both sides, the advantages of engagement over abdication should be clear.

For those of us who believe that it will take a Republican President to enact effective climate policy, Trump’s election has been cause for renewed optimism, tempered by a healthy dose of concern. The swamp of conventional climate policy is deep, and deserves to be drained. The potential benefits of undoing the Obama administration’s illegal, ineffective, and needlessly divisive climate policies are enormous. But the paradox of the situation is this: Trump has come to the presidency in a backlash against eight years of Obama’s overreaching—but backlash is not a strong basis for governance. To succeed on climate, Trump will need to accept the legitimacy of the issue itself—albeit in terms distinctly different from activists’ framing—and embrace the need to adopt policies that will address it effectively.

Encouragingly, there is abundant evidence that Mr. Trump’s primary concerns about climate do not have to do with the science itself but with the effects of Democratic climate policies on American businesses, particularly in energy-intensive industries and regions, in return for relatively paltry environmental benefits. One does not have to be a climate skeptic to recognize the legitimacy of these concerns—and doing so should be seen as a necessary step toward identifying practical solutions, not an excuse for inaction. An honest appraisal of the problems with conventional climate policies is the most important prerequisite for serious action.

Democrats have long argued that climate science demands their particular solutions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Climate science indicates that prudent action is in order—but conventional climate policies do not meet that test, substituting symbolism and aspirations for meaningful action. Will the Trump administration be nimble enough to create effective alternative approaches—or will it get bogged down in the same ideological trench warfare that has substituted for policymaking for the last three presidential administrations?

Certainly the presence of some well-known climate skeptics in the Trump transition is an indication of the influence that community has, but that is hardly surprising, and it does not necessarily indicate who will be nominated to lead the environmental and energy agencies (or who may end up steering the ship on these questions in the long run). What matters most is not whether the cabinet nominees are critics of the conventional narrative—they certainly will be—but whether they have the skills, experience, and inclination to chart a better course. Will Trump bring the power of creative destruction to Washington—or just destruction?

After a contentious campaign in which Trump ran against the entire Washington establishment, there are signs he is making an unexpectedly easy transition to his new role, reaching out to past rivals and diverse ideological circles in search of cabinet nominees who would bring experience and vision to the job. It’s one thing to campaign against an agency’s excesses; it is another to become responsible for its actions. President-elect Trump is clearly determined to succeed, and he will want leadership teams that can help their agencies succeed—experienced reformers who can skillfully wield scalpels and surgical thread (all while facing the cameras with a smile), not simply swing wrecking balls.

And that is what the situation demands. There is no reason, for example, to dismantle the Department of Energy; there is every reason to make it a more effective institution. But doing that requires leadership that doesn’t need to learn the agency and its mission before thinking about how to reform it.

Hubris is the most common and destructive disease in Washington; its byproduct is overreach, and its effects are gridlock and failure. The faults of conventional climate policy are serious and well-known—but the danger of overreach in response is real, as well. If the Trump administration settles for an agenda that simply seeks to unwind Obama’s climate policies and put a few roadblocks in the way of future action, such measures are unlikely to outlast the administration, if they even make it that far. Public concern about climate is not high, but anti-environmentalism is not a strong American value, either. To succeed, President Trump will need to craft a constructive alternative that can attract genuine bipartisan support by offering a legitimately superior approach. The opportunity is there, but the path is not well-traveled.

It is worth recalling how the last Republican President handled this issue as he came into office. The George W. Bush administration had both failures and successes in this area, each of which defined the policy landscape we live in today in different ways, and from which we might hope Trump will draw the appropriate lessons.

When Bush entered office in January 2001, he inherited an international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, that the Clinton administration had signed in direct defiance of the Senate’s guidance (expressed in the 1997 Byrd-Hagel sense-of-the-Senate resolution, which passed by a vote of 95-0). Representing the United States at the Kyoto negotiations, Vice President Gore was presented with the opportunity to endorse an unratifiable and ineffective treaty that would nevertheless please his political base in the run-up to his own presidential campaign. He didn’t blink, knowing that President Clinton would never submit it to the Senate for an embarrassing vote that it would inevitably lose.

Kyoto was the emperor with no clothes but the symbolism satisfied climate campaigners—until President Bush took office and announced that, like his predecessor, he didn’t intend to submit it for ratification. Suddenly climate activists rediscovered their sense of outrage. Adding to the controversy, the President did not immediately propose an alternative policy approach, allowing critics to tag him with a do-nothing label he never shook.

As the communications director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality at the time, I received countless calls from environmental journalists in high dudgeon over these developments. I always explained that I saw this as paradoxical progress: Recognizing failure was the first step toward success, even if it was not yet clear what the next steps would be. Environmental organizations that had complacently accepted the fiction of Clinton and Gore’s treaty-that-wasn’t were now incensed—and vigorously engaged in creating an alternative. Wasn’t that progress? As I recall, not a single reporter found that line of thought plausible—but in fact the dynamic was exactly as I described.

Where events went from there mattered a lot to the world we live in today. By abandoning Kyoto’s illusions, President Bush put the international climate negotiations on a road that ultimately produced the Paris Agreement of 2015. For all its faults in the American context—chiefly, President Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives in such matters—it should be appreciated nevertheless that the Paris approach did do a great deal to address Kyoto’s fundamental flaws—such as the free pass for developing nations and the emissions formula that imposed grossly disproportionate obligations on the United States. Obama refused to take advantage of the opportunity he had to work with Congress on America’s national commitment in Paris, but the fact that the treaty structure gave him the freedom to do so was important.

Bush and his State Department team will never get credit for their success in reshaping the international climate negotiations, in part because Americans are far more aware of the area where he failed spectacularly: domestic climate policy. The Bush team had a better vision for the international climate negotiations, and it flourished even after they left office. The administration’s domestic vision was essentially bankrupt, and consequently its only lasting legacy on that side of the ledger was an eight-year pause in the conventional narrative on climate. The opportunity for a lasting policy reset was lost.

What can Trump do to succeed? Like George W. Bush, he knows that his predecessor’s climate plan is a recipe for failure: It substitutes symbolism for meaningful action, relies on executive action to supersede congressional authority, and imposes arbitrary burdens on politically disadvantaged populations and industries, mandating the use of expensive energy sources that won’t solve the problem.

Existing law did not give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to develop effective climate solutions—which, in fact, would require coordinated actions with other agencies—but no government agency is going to let a little inconvenience like that stand in its way. So the Obama administration did an end-run around Congress that, ironically, would only ensure that emissions remain not far below business-as-usual. This was a plan to lock in failure, not achieve success. If a Republican President had proposed it, environmentalists would have considered it an outrage, but because it came from a Democrat, its natural critics were its greatest cheerleaders.

Obama’s failures—and Bush’s before that—point to the potential path for Trump’s success. Where Obama tried to force states to use expensive clean-energy technologies, Trump should focus the resources of the federal government on accelerating innovation in clean energy technologies, while crafting market-leveling reforms that will make it easier for all technologies to compete fairly and be compensated appropriately for their value to the energy system. Where Bush relied on voluntary industry actions, the Trump team should craft a role for government in facilitating innovation in clean energy technologies. Where Obama sought to make dirty energy expensive, Trump can work to help the private sector make clean energy affordable and reliable. Where Obama elevated climate above other values (such as affordable, reliable, power-dense electricity), Trump can use an innovation-first approach to climate that drives emissions reductions while maintaining the fuel diversity and affordability of electric power generation in America.

In particular, it is increasingly understood by scholars that the most cost-effective way to decarbonize electric power systems is to rely on a diverse portfolio of low-carbon generation resources, including a substantial contribution from baseload low/zero-emissions generators such as nuclear or fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration. A practical clean-energy system can’t be built from just intermittent generation. Yet the overwhelming focus of policies such as the Clean Power Plan or state renewable portfolio standards is on promoting solar, wind, and energy efficiency projects. These are classic feel-good projects that cannot produce deep emissions reductions at a reasonable cost.

To seize the high ground on climate (while still satisfying his desire to rebuke environmental idealism) President Trump could start with two things: making America’s nuclear industry great again through regulatory and research enhancements, and support the commercialization of the “clean coal” technologies that he touted on the campaign trail.

Honest environmentalists know that this approach could produce a climate legacy that could exceed Obama’s. As Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute has observed:

A Trump administration prepared to invest in advanced nuclear energy and next-generation solar panels and batteries, keep America’s existing nuclear fleet online, and support the ongoing transition from coal to gas—even as it withdraws from the Paris Accord, repeals the Clean Power Plan, and continues to deny climate science—could end up with more to show in terms of emissions reduction than a Democratic Administration committed to a green agenda that has failed to have much impact upon the trajectory of carbon emissions, in the United States or globally, for almost three decades.

But don’t break out the champagne just yet—it always takes two to tango. Just because Trump could save the planet doesn’t mean that Nordhaus wants to work with him. Trump frightens him, and many other environmentalists. Whether the next administration is the beginning of a new era of bipartisan cooperation on climate or just plus ça change will depend on how much both sides grow in the coming years.