Sunday, June 18, 2017

I thought Quitting was for Losers

They said these jobs are goin’ boys, and they ain’t coming back.” – from My Hometown by Bruce Springsteen, 1984

I was not at all surprised that President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord.

Disappointed, but not surprised. Anyone who thought he could be persuaded otherwise was deluded.

For crying out loud, they day after Trump met with Al Gore, Trump appointed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Pruitt has sued the EPA at least 20 times on behalf of Oklahoma oil and gas companies and also doesn’t think much of climate science.

Trump also ignored the reasoned pleas of Bank of America, Citigroup, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Chevron, Procter & Gamble, and even ExxonMobil to remain a part of the accord.

No, Trump was just keeping a promise to his base, including the out-of-work miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, regardless of all the factually inaccurate justifications he used in his Rose Garden announcement last week.

President Trump still thinks he can bring back the coal industry by the simple fiat of cancelling the Paris Accord, as if that was the reason why the coal industry was collapsing in the first place.  As I wrote last October, coal-generated power has declined in the U.S. from 50 to 30% since 1997, right through the administration of George W Bush. If Bush could not save the coal industry, what makes Trump think he can?

Let’s put this into perspective. There are now about 50,000 coal miners in the US and perhaps another 124,000 who transport coal or work in coal-fired power plants. In 2015, the solar energy and wind energy industries employed 297,000 people and grew 20% from just the previous year.  Heck, more people work at JC Penny than mine coal.

Yet we pulled out of a voluntary international agreement signed by every other country in the world, other than Nicaragua and Syria, to keep a promise to the coal miners that Trump had their backs.

The only way the coal industry could conceivably come back would be for the price of natural gas to permanently go sky high and that is highly unlikely in the near term. The combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies which allow extraction of natural gas from vast shale formations throughout the country now means that the US has enough natural gas to last almost a century at minimum. It is doubtful that natural gas prices will ever reach levels needed to make coal economic for the next four generations, let alone the next four years.

The irony is that if Trump really wanted to blame somebody for the decline of coal, he would blame oil and gas companies.

Even if coal came back, the jobs won’t. Like many other industries, coal mining has joined the trend towards automation. The days of pick and shovel mining are long gone, especially now that coal companies can blast the tops off of mountains and use massive dragline excavators to extract coal.

Let me be clear, the voluntary Paris Accords by themselves are not sufficient to keep global temperatures below the 1.5 degree C target the agreement called for, but it’s a start, a start that should have happened a couple of decades ago, but a start nonetheless.

What I was heartened by were the announcements by state and local governments throughout the country that they will work to meet the goals of the Paris Accords, including Massachusetts and coastal cities, which have the most to lose as sea level rises.

These cities include Boston, Houston, Anchorage, Los Angeles, Charleston, Seattle, Miami, Newark, New Orleans, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. So far, 187 US cities in blue states and red have agreed to uphold the accords.

Other climate news from last week which got lost in the chatter about the US exit from the Paris Accords include:

  • Carbon dioxide levels exceeding 409 ppm for this first time in the instrumental record. Geologic data indicates that levels exceeding 400 ppm last occurred more than 3 million years ago. 
  • The imminent calving of an iceberg the size of Delaware from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. This event could presage the collapse of the Larsen C shelf, the way similar calving events occurred prior to the collapse of Larsen A and B, in 1995 and 2002, respectively.

 “Well I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in askin’, Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” – from Paradise by John Prine, 1971

Published in the Westborough News, June 17, 2017

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