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Weak federal powers could limit Trump’s climate-policy rollback

York Dispatch

With Donald Trump about to take control of the White House, it would seem a dark time for the renewable energy industry. After all, Trump has mocked the science of global warming as a Chinese hoax, threatened to kill a global deal on climate change and promised to restore the coal industry to its former glory.

So consider what happened in the middle of December, after investors had a month to absorb the implications of Trump’s victory. The federal government opened bidding on a tract of the ocean floor off New York state as a potential site for a huge wind farm.

Up, up and away soared the offers — interest from the bidders was so fevered that the auction went through 33 rounds and spilled over to a second day. In the end, the winning bidder offered the federal Treasury $42 million, more than twice what the government got in August for oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Who won the bid? None other than Statoil, the Norwegian oil company, which is in the midst of a major campaign to turn itself into a big player in renewable energy.

We do not know for sure that the New York wind farm will get built, but we do know this: The energy transition is real, and Trump is not going to stop it.

Investment: On a global scale, more than half the investment in new electricity generation is going into renewable energy. That is more than $300 billion a year, a sign of how powerful the momentum has become.

Wind power is booming in the United States, with the industry adding manufacturing jobs in the reddest states. When Trump’s appointees examine the facts, they will learn that wind-farm technician is projected to be the fastest-growing occupation in America over the next decade.

Trump’s election left climate activists and environmental groups in despair. They had pinned their hopes on a Hillary Clinton victory and a continuation of President Barack Obama’s strong push to tackle global warming.

Now, of course, everything is in flux. In the worst case, with a sufficiently pliant Congress, Trump could roll back a decade of progress on climate change. Barring some miraculous conversion on Trump’s part, his election cannot be interpreted as anything but bad news for the climate agenda.

Yet despair might be an overreaction.

Role: For starters, when Trump gets to the White House, he will find that the federal government actually has relatively little control over U.S. energy policy and particularly over electricity generation. The coal industry has been ravaged in part by cheap natural gas, which is abundant because of technological changes in the way it is produced, and there is no lever in the Oval Office that Trump can pull to reverse that.

The intrinsically weak federal role was a source of frustration for Obama and his aides, but now it will work to the benefit of environmental advocates. They have already persuaded more than half the states to adopt mandates on renewable energy. Efforts to roll those back have largely failed, with the latest development coming only last week, when Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, vetoed a rollback bill.

The federal government does offer important subsidies for renewable energy, and they will surely become a target in the new Congress. But those subsidies are scheduled to fall drastically over five years, in a deal cut a year ago that gave the oil industry some favors and that passed Congress with many Republican votes.

Republicans: If Trump pushes for an early end to the subsidies, he will find that renewable energy has friends in the Republican Party. Topping that list is Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the senior senator from Iowa. That state — all-important in presidential politics, let us remember — will soon be getting 40 percent of its electricity from wind power.

“Sen. Grassley has been and continues to be an extraordinary leader and champion for the wind industry,” said Tom Kiernan, head of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.

When I spoke with him last week, Kiernan did not sound like a man gnashing his teeth about the impending Trump era. By his group’s calculations, $80 billion of wind industry investment is in the pipeline for the United States during the next few years. “We are creating jobs throughout America, good-paying jobs, and we think President-elect Trump will want that to continue,” he said.

If Trump really wanted to roll back the clock, he could try to get Congress to override all the state mandates, a gross violation of the supposed conservative commitment to federalism. But it would be a titanic fight, some Republican senators would defect on principle, and Trump would almost certainly lose.

Climate change: So if the damage Trump can do domestically is limited by circumstance, what about the international effort against global warming?

That is the prospect that has David G. Victor most worried. Victor, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, is one of the closest observers of global climate politics. While the nations of the world agreed a year ago to a landmark deal to tackle global warming, that consensus is fragile, he pointed out.

The Paris Agreement is really an outline, more promise than reality. Trump has vowed to withdraw. Right now, other countries are saying they will go forward even if he does so, but it is not hard to imagine the thing unraveling.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a joint statement with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City. American consumers and businesses would pay, literally, if President-elect Trump follows through on his campaign pledge to slap big taxes on imports from China and Mexico. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, File)

As part of the negotiations, the Obama administration promised billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers to help poor countries adjust to the devastation of global warming. “That’s a big part of the glue that held the Paris deal together,” Victor pointed out. Trump is considered likely to abandon that pledge.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the climate agenda posed by the incoming administration is not anything Trump might do, but rather what he will not do.

While the energy transition is real, it is still in its earliest stages. Iowa may soon get 40 percent of its power from wind, but for the United States as a whole, the figure is closer to 5 percent. The transition is simply not happening fast enough. The pledges countries made in Paris, even if kept, are not ambitious enough.

To meet the climate goals embodied in the Paris Agreement, the world needed a U.S. president who would have pushed hard to accelerate the energy transition. You can debate whether Clinton would have been that president, but it is certainly clear that Trump will not be.

So as Washington goes into reverse gear on climate policy, seas will keep rising and heat waves will get worse. This month, global monitoring agencies are expected to report that 2016 was the hottest year in the historical record, beating out 2015, which beat out 2014.

If nothing else, the next four years may be a fascinating test of just how far politics can become divorced from physical reality.