Trump’s cli­mate de­ci­sions al­ready trou­ble­some

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Seth Wig­gins

ur cli­mate is clearly chang­ing. 2016 will al­most cer­tainly be the warm­est year ever recorded, fol­lowed by 2015, and then 2014. Phys­i­cal sci­en­tists have demon­strated that the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els has been the pri­mary cause. To avoid the most se­ri­ous dam­ages, we need a strong and con­certed ef­fort to re­duce the at­mo­spheric con­cen­tra­tion of green­house gasses. How­ever, de­spite years of warn­ing with in­creased pre­ci­sion, our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have dragged their col­lec­tive feet. They were aided by busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als to whom the sci­en­tific re­al­ity was in­op­por­tune.

The elec­tion of Don­ald Trump ap­pears to be more of the same. He has said hu­man-caused cli­mate change is a myth per­pet­u­ated by the Chi­nese. Some hope does ex­ist: with each cam­paign pledge he breaks, from his opin­ion on tor­ture to pur­su­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton legally to “drain­ing the swamp,” one could be­lieve he might come around on cli­mate pol­icy. Since the elec­tion, he’s even said he’d keep an “open mind” on cli­mate change. Don’t be­lieve it. His ap­point­ment to the ad­min­is­tra­tion to lead the tran­si­tion at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency tells us all we need to know.

For bet­ter or worse, the EPA has be­come the fore­front of cli­mate pol­icy. There are a num­ber of ways con­gres­sional law­mak­ers could help ad­dress our mas­sive cli­mate prob­lem, but econ­o­mists agree that ei­ther a car­bon tax or a cap-and-trade pro­gram would do so at the low­est cost. These un­for­tu­nately re­quire Congress.

Given leg­isla­tive in­ac­tion, the EPA has stepped for­ward. It has en­acted rules such as fuel econ­omy and power plant emis­sion stan­dards in an ef­fort to re­duce heat-trap­ping emis­sions. This is a sec­ond-best op­tion, as these rules are more ex­pen­sive and smaller in scope than what could be achieved through a more com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy. They are crit­i­cal to show the world that we are taking cli­mate change se­ri­ously. But Trump’s choice of My­ron Ebell to lead the EPA tran­si­tion puts even these mod­est steps in dan­ger.

Ebell is not a sci­en­tist, or even an ad­min­is­tra­tor. Why choose him? Be­cause he’s made a ca­reer out of op­pos­ing ev­ery cli­mate pol­icy he could find. He has worked with a num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions spread­ing bi­ased and mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion to ad­vance a cause sup­ported and funded by fos­sil fuel in­ter­ests. He has re­peated the con­spir­acy the­ory that cli­mate sci­ence is a co­or­di­nated po­lit­i­cal move­ment. By se­lect­ing him, Trump sends a clear sig­nal about direc­tion of his cli­mate pol­icy.

To choose Ebell in a lead­er­ship role, even tem­po­rar­ily, is prob­lem­atic. We face some dif­fi­cult choices right now, es­pe­cially in the field of en­ergy. Oil is not go­ing away; a re­cent United States Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey oil field find in Texas sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases our proven re­serves. Shale pro­duc­tion will keep nat­u­ral gas prices low far into the fu­ture. This is good for the cli­mate in the short run, as burn­ing nat­u­ral gas emits fewer green­house gasses than coal, and nat­u­ral gas pairs well with in­ter­mit­tent wind and so­lar gen­er­a­tion. How­ever, an overde­ploy­ment of nat­u­ral gas gen­er­a­tion now could make fu­ture nec­es­sary re­duc­tions more ex­pen­sive. The EPA has an out­sized role in nav­i­gat­ing these and other chal­lenges, es­pe­cially as the costs we will pay in­crease the longer we wait.

The case for im­me­di­ate, sig­nif­i­cant cli­mate ac­tion has al­ready been made by both the phys­i­cal and so­cial sci­ence com­mu­ni­ties. Many busi­ness lead­ers, in­clud­ing a large num­ber from the en­ergy in­dus­try, sup­port it as well. But by se­lect­ing some­one who de­nies the ba­sic premise of the prob­lem, and who has spent a ca­reer fight­ing against it, Trump has sug­gested his in­ten­tion to limit the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s in­volve­ment. To meet this chal­lenge, those fa­vor­ing re­spon­si­ble cli­mate and en­ergy poli­cies will need to make our voices even louder. Seth Wig­gins is a pro­fes­sor at the Colorado School of Mines. He re­searches and teaches en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal eco­nomics.

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