Did you catch this gem on CNN.com from April 6? “The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, owned by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, is switching to solar power to save money. … Communications director Brandon Robinson told CNN affiliate WYMT that the project ‘will help save at least eight to ten thousand dollars, off the energy costs on this building alone.’”
Go figure. The coal mining museum is going solar, for solid economic reasons, and President Donald Trump is reviving coal, with no economic logic at all. This bizarre contrast speaks to a deeper question of leadership and how we judge presidents.
Trump took two major national security decisions in the past few weeks. One was to strike Syria for using poison gas. Trump summoned his national security team, asked for options on Syria, chose the cruise-missile strike – which was right – and won praise for acting “presidential.”
The other decision you didn’t see. It was Trump dismantling budgets and regulations undergirding U.S. climate and environmental protection policies – in his nutty effort to revive U.S. coal-fired energy – while quietly announcing plans to withhold a promised $32.5 million U.S. contribution for the U.N. Population Fund, which supports family planning and maternal health.
Unlike the Syria decision, Trump made the second move without seeking a comprehensive briefing from experts – he controls the world’s greatest collection of climate scientists at NASA, NOAA, the EPA, the Pentagon and the CIA – and without ever asking for an intelligence briefing on how the combination of climate change, environmental degradation, drought and population explosions helped trigger the civil war in Syria, spawn terrorist groups like Boko Haram around Africa’s central Lake Chad (which has lost 90 percent of its water mass since 1963) and become the main force pushing tens of thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa into Europe each year, and from Central America up to the U.S.
I promise you that Trump will spend the rest of his presidency dealing with the disruptions caused by this cocktail of population explosion and climate/environmental degradation – and his generals know it. But in today’s politics, bombing is considered presidential and ignoring science and defunding family planning, when populations are exploding and droughts expanding, are ho-hum back-page news.
Since Trump seems to be pivoting from some of his campaign nonsense, one can only hope he will do the same on these issues. If Trump is looking for a blueprint, he could not do better than to read a smart new book, “Climate of Hope,” by a most unlikely duo: former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope and billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
When Carl met Mike … It was 2011, Pope went to Bloomberg with a plan for generating bottom-up community activism to help shut down as many coal-fired power plants in America as possible, so another generation of American kids wouldn’t be afflicted with childhood asthma and another generation of coal workers wouldn’t have to make a living breathing coal dust.
Bloomberg put $50 million into the effort, and the rest is – helping to make coal – history, thanks to the Sierra Club mobilizing communities and technology making natural gas (when the methane leakage is controlled) a much cleaner, cheaper base-load power source for utilities, and wind and solar energy so much more cost-effective.
When the Sierra Club and Bloomberg started in 2011, there were 514 coal-fired power plants in America; since then, 254 have announced they will shut down. They expect that fully two-thirds will be phased out by 2022 – no matter what Trump says or does.
“Climate of Hope” is about how to build on this, by reframing the interrelated challenges of climate change, clean air, clean water and population “from questions of who is going to sacrifice to who is going to grab the profits,” Bloomberg explained in an interview. Each of these challenges, he said, can be met in ways that enable cities and countries to make themselves more prosperous, innovative, healthy and secure – if we just get the incentives right.
Imagine, added Pope, that every U.S. company joined Anheuser-Busch in committing to getting all of its electricity from renewable sources. Imagine that instead of subsidizing surplus cotton, destroying the livelihoods of small farmers in Africa, the U.S. government subsidized our farmers to grow crops that restore carbon and store water in their soils, thus drought-proofing Texas and California.
Imagine every U.S. city joining those already buying electric self-driving vehicles, thereby scaling a new auto-on-demand industry – while reducing the need for personal cars and the parking places and garages for them – thereby unlocking so much real estate for growth and easing urban housing prices. Imagine that instead of vowing to bring back coal mining jobs, our president offered to link West Virginia and the nation’s most prosperous metropolitan economy – Washington, D.C. – with high-speed rail service.
Imagine … we could actually make America great again, not just prolong a dying coal industry! Now that would be presidential.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.