Press Room: Press Releases

Solving Climate Change, Trump or No Trump

Glenn Hurowitz

06-13-17

Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement is one of the most irresponsible steps ever taken by an American leader. The United States should be leading the charge for climate action instead of engaging in a hysterical and dishonest ployundercut progress.  As reckless as Trump’s action is, however, it doesn’t need to be the end of climate action.  

Indeed, it seems that Trump’s withdrawal has galvanized more action than might otherwise have occurred from three sectors that have the power to reduce emissions far more than even Obama’s Clean Power Plan was likely to do: since the announcement states and cities and companies have expanded or deepened their pledges to act. Indeed, they’ve launched a joint initiative “We Are Still In” to signal that states and private sector action can actually exceed the United States’ entire Paris commitment.

But to actually translate these commitments into the ambitious climate action we need to avoid severely hotter summers, economically taxing air conditioning bills, and collapse of ecosystems like coral reefs, we need tangible action.

For states and cities, that means policies like requiring 100% clean electricity production, and building out electric vehicle infrastructure. For companies, it means rapidly moving to seize advantage of economic opportunities to drastically reduce emissions and build the economy.

We know the potential is there:

In the energy sector, we have seen campaigns focused on the private sector produce results that exceed even the impacts of government policy. The environmental organization the Sierra Club, for instance, has been working in towns, cities, and states across America to organize communities to persuade utilities to shut down coal fired power plants. In significant part due to their efforts, and despite the lack of climate action at the federal level, more than 250 coal plants in the United States have announced their retirement. Indeed, globally, 2016 saw a 62 percent drop in new coal plant construction starts globally, a 48 percent reduction in worldwide pre-construction activity, and an 85 percent decline in new Chinese coal plant permits.

Nonetheless, we are not shutting down coal plants fast enough, and we cannot fool ourselves that natural gas or biofuels are real solutions. There are significant concerns that both may cause even more climate pollution than dirty old coal.

But the severity of the climate crisis means we cannot let up; we must expand these efforts. Even with the progress I cited above, much of it driven by Chinese government and popular concerns about pollution and financial caution about coal in India, the private sector could do way more. The potential for progress has been clearly demonstrated by the IT sector. In response to campaigns (particularly by Greenpeace), Google, Facebook, and Apple have all committed to source their power from 100% clean energy. These companies either have achieved or are close to achieving those goals. Google’s carbon savings approximate the emissions of the entire city of San Francisco. And Apple has gone a step further and is encouraging its manufacturing suppliers in China and elsewhere to themselves use 100% clean energy. Again, the private sector is acting where government isn’t.

Of course, these flagship IT companies are cash rich and socially conscious residents of my state of California– where climate action has broad support. But to truly move the private sector towards climate action, we can’t just work on the clean, new economy, but need to move heavy industry as well: this sector may not have panache, but heavy industries such as steel, chemicals, manufacturing, paper and oil together are responsible for 36% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Heavy industry has been seen as hard targets: they tend to be more politically conservative and traditionally hostile to environmental regulation. Increasingly, heavy industry facilities are located in the very developing countries still building coal infrastructure, in large part to power heavy industry.

We therefore need a global campaign to move heavy industry to 100% clean energy.  Given the scale of emissions involved, success would make Trump’s efforts to undo climate progress if not irrelevant, then weak enough to give us a fighting chance to still achieve our climate goals. What’s more, such a campaign won’t just have an impact in the United States, but can spread clean energy commitments to China and other countries where a significant amount of the heavy industry that produces goods for American consumption is located (often purposefully sited next to coal fired power plants).

The private sector has been the cause of most of the world’s environmental problems from deforestation to toxic pollution and climate change. But when faced with demand for action and global aspiration, and it has been shown that with engagement from people, it can also be a significant part of the solution. It’s time to make it so.