My climate journey through Trump’s America

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“We don’t engage in the debate about climate change…we’re using markets and economics to improve our environment,” explained Michael Teague, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Energy. [Gene / Flickr]

Does Trump speak for the American heartlands on climate change? Rosalind Cook spent two weeks travelling across the country meeting a range of people to ascertain what the thinking is at grassroots level. And it wasn’t what she expected.

Rosalind Cook is a senior policy advisor working EU climate and energy policy for the global climate change think tank E3G.

Climate Week in New York from September 18 to 24 is unlikely to loom large in Donald Trump’s consciousness. The President has made it painfully clear that he does not care about climate change.

His decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was, of course, an act of shocking political short-termism. It came as a major new poll showed climate change topped the global ranking again on what people regard as the greatest threats to the world, second to ISIS. The devastation of Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma followed, showing the very real consequences of denying climate change.

Al Gore and California’s governor Gerry Brown were quick to make it clear that Trump was not speaking in their name, and Climate Week will almost certainly be a rallying point for his other critics, but, all the same, the President’s direction of travel has left many in Europe wondering how to handle the new transatlantic relationship.

Does Trump speak for the American heartlands on this issue? I spent two weeks travelling across the country meeting a range of people to ascertain what the thinking is at grassroots level. I was part of the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Programme on energy and climate change alongside nine fellow ‘future leaders’ from Europe selected under the Obama administration.

From the centre of the federal government in Washington DC to proud Pittsburgh and on to Republican fossil heartlands in rural West Virginia and Oklahoma, I got a clear picture of how Americans regarded their president’s decision to give up on the Paris Agreement. And it wasn’t what I expected. I found while the federal dialogue on climate change in D.C has shut down, it’s alive and kicking in even the most deeply conservative areas.

First, in Washington DC I got ‘insights’ from Myron Ebell, Director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and climate denier who lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition team. , But as he repeated his well-known campaign on Paris withdrawal and discrediting climate science, there was no persuasive argument from him. It was a depressing start to my journey.

As we moved on to Federal Departments, officials, acutely aware of the absence of a clear federal policy, pointed to continuing state and city climate leadership. It was an unsettling picture of the administration’s disengagement on climate change.

When I got to Georgetown, Vicki Arroyo, Executive Director of its Climate Centre, was energised by local leadership but concerned about the  vacuum at the centre of government. “If this is the federal government’s narrative about how we’ll continue to make progress, I hope that means we will see more support for state and local leadership,” she said.

Outside D.C though was a different story. As our bus rolled into the former industrial city of Pittsburgh, we found the city buzzing after mayor Bill Peduto’s hit back at Trump that he would follow the Paris Agreement. “Trump picked on the wrong city,” quipped our local tour guides.  At the Mayor’s Office, they had been inundated with press calls and were feeling energised. “We’re happy to tell everyone we cleaned up our act and re-invented our economy around clean energy, environmental design and biomedical technology,” said Sustainability Coordinator Aftyn Gilles. We could see it stepping back out onto the street. Uber were testing their new electric driverless cars and small crowds of pedestrians cheered as the drivers did a turn in the road while waving madly with both hands out the window. Elders of the University of Pittsburgh enthusiastically talked us through the detail of how the city was planning to meet its commitment to transition to 100% renewable-energy sources by 2035 by upgrading their energy system, integrating more renewables and encouraging electric vehicle uptake. While they pointed out “Washington State and New York were still way out ahead” they were confident on their plan and Trump’s decision was not going to impact its roll out.

Next, our journey took us up through the Mountains of West Virginia to the National Research Centre for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University. The staunchly Republican state relies on coal for 97% of their energy and Trump’s withdrawal from Paris was welcomed by WV Senators. But the local experts were deeply concerned. As James Van Nostrand, Professor of Energy Law explained to us: “The reality is no investor is loaning money for new coal power plants and it just can’t compete with gas and renewables. We need to start having a hard conversation on coal not coming back and Trump has set us back”. The mood was downbeat as we took in the scale of the challenge, especially the political leadership that is needed to change the current tax breaks for coal that are hard wired into the system. But, all saw the transition as inevitable and absolutely crucial to engage on. As one consultant put it “we have a choice: to fight for the coal industry or fight for renewable energy. It will blow so we might as well be left with something.”

As we left the rustbelt, our journey took us next to the Midwest to Tulsa, Oklahoma where a storm was breaking out as we touched down. We expected to find strong support for Paris withdrawal but we didn’t and the people we met were more interested in the market signals. “We don’t engage in the debate about climate change…we’re using markets and economics to improve our environment,” explained Michael Teague, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Energy. The cost competitiveness of natural gas (from fracking) and wind energy had dramatically changed their energy mix away from coal and Mr. Teague saw solar as the “next opportunity”.  There was no specific climate policy but outside the governor’s office, the city had done pioneering work on climate resilience. Tim Lovell, Executive Director at the non profit Disaster Resilience Network explained that Tulsa was “once considered the most flood-prone city in America”. Their program on public buy outs and relocation from flood risk zones has conclusively saved lives and brought down insurance premiums.

Oklahoma seemed to be on the cusp of change. The local utility company, Public Service Company of Oklahoma, part of American Electric Power (AEP) showed us how they were investing more in renewables and their CEO had advised Trump to stay in the Agreement. However, the transition wasn’t happening without a fight. The day we left, the local newspaper reported wind subsidies had been cut three years earlier than planned after the oil and gas industry lobbied with “with pitchforks and torches” causing uncertainty about future investments.

Trump may have silenced the federal government on climate change, but outside Washington DC his decision to pull out of Paris and pursue fossil fuel dominance has just turned the dial up on the debate. US towns, cities and states must now decide which side they are going to be on. For us in Europe, the transatlantic dialogue just got more complicated. It will need to shift to a much stronger cooperation with states, cities and businesses who are still committed to climate ambition so we can keep the door open for when the US re-engages. It’s going to be a challenge to speak with 50 states but if the US managed 28 US Member States, it surely can be done.

I was surprised to have the most open and profoundly honest dialogue in West Virginia and Oklahoma and I am clear from our conversations that engaging across political lines on core issues of quality of life and future generations will be crucial. The next US election will in many ways be a referendum on the Paris Climate Agreement and the outcome is – so far as I can see – far from settled.