Obama's Clean Power Plan is dead. Time to get serious on climate change.
In 10,000 years, if there are still human beings around, it's pretty likely that most things about President Trump will have been long forgotten. The fading, gold-plated letters will all have fallen from Trump's Manhattan skyscrapers. His gaudy, bankrupt hotels will have crumbled to dust. With any luck, even the history books will barely mention his name.
But there is one big exception: Even 10,000 years from now, Trump's effects on the climate of our planet will still be felt.
This week, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt carried out one of the most consequential actions of any administration in history, when he obeyed Trump's order to cancel former President Obama's Clean Power Plan, which set national limits on carbon pollution from power plants. This is crazy. We are living through an absolutely critical moment for climate policy. In a sane world, rich countries would be ratcheting down emissions at something like 10 percent per year. Four years of an unhinged climate denier in the White House could not have come at a worse time. Humans will feel the effects of this for millennia to come.
However, we must also acknowledge that the Clean Power Plan, while positive, was not itself remotely sufficient to get emissions down fast enough to save humanity. When Trump is out of office, the most aggressive possible climate policy must become an urgent national priority.
It's unclear exactly what will happen with the Clean Power Plan. Certainly, there will be a firestorm of litigation. It's just hard to tell where it will end up. The EPA is required to regulate carbon dioxide somehow, according to a 2007 Supreme Court case, but Pruitt — a stooge for the oil, gas, and coal industries if there ever was one — has considerable bureaucratic tools at his disposal to delay things. If I had to guess, I would say the Clean Power Plan will be halted but not completely killed off, and the EPA will be tied up in litigation for the remainder of Trump's presidency.
Pruitt's action will also probably only slow the long decline of coal, which is being out-competed in the energy market. It will similarly only slow the growth of renewable energy, which has been seeing by far the fastest technology advances in energy. Furthermore, the rest of the world — most importantly Europe, China, and India — will continue at least some form of climate policy, so renewables will find markets there too.
It won't, in other words, be an immediate catastrophe — it will just enable a slow-moving one far down the road. (It's somewhat akin to Stalin purging the best general and military theoreticians in Russia in 1936.)
But the fact that it is not a sudden emergency should give pause to liberals (especially Obama himself) who have been talking big on climate change for years but whose actions and favored policies have been utterly incapable of achieving their stated goals. "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," Obama declared on June 3, 2008. Um, no. And so, halting the Clean Power Plan in its tracks is not itself a world-historic disaster only because it was insufficient to begin with. But the Trump administration's overall posture toward climate change still absolutely imperils the future of human civilization.
America needs a hugely aggressive plan of climate policy, in line with a war mobilization in terms of scope. It would be impossible to outline comprehensively at this point, but it means things like a heavy tax on carbon emissions; a gigantic build-out of renewable energy, both through direct public projects and through private subsidies; and electrification of everything possible, from shipping to industry to personal cars.
It means a huge expansion of research spending on any and all energy technology, both for renewables and for moon-shot ideas like thorium reactors; a top-to-bottom overhaul of the electrical grid, to accommodate increased renewable capacity, increased resilience, and increased energy efficiency; sharply increased mandates for airline efficiency; and a massive investment in high-speed passenger rail.
That is a brief and highly incomplete picture of what a climate policy actually in line with the conclusions of climate science — the stated objectives of all nearly all elite American liberals — would look like. No doubt many would argue with the specifics, but the overall scale is about right.
It would be a huge undertaking. But it is well within the grasp of a determined American state. In 1939 the American military was rather small: The U.S. Army had a 187,000 troops, the Air Force had 26,500 men and 2,500 aircraft, and the Navy had 110,000 sailors and 394 ships. Six years later — not even two presidential terms — the Army had 8.3 million soldiers, the Air Force had 2.3 million people and 64,000 planes, and the Navy had 3.4 million and 6,768 ships.
That is what true determination looks like. When the physical security of the country is threatened, you don't fiddle around with penny-ante incentive schemes. You just mobilize as much as you can, as fast as you can. By the time Trump's crew of corrupt goons is done, this is what America will need.