King Trump orders the waves to recede

The Aletsch glacier in Fiesch, Switzerland, in July 2015. (CNS/Dominic Steinmann, Reuters)

Reading about President Donald Trump's executive orders aimed at rolling back environmental protection regulations, a visual image entered my mind: King Canute ordering the waves to recede.

The original tale of King Canute is usually reversed in popular telling. As a lad, I was told that anecdote as an example of the hubris of the king when, in fact, the original legend proved the opposite. Canute brought his courtiers to the sea to demonstrate that he could not command the waves, that there were powers belonging to God that were greater than the powers he could exercise as king. He was actually offering a lesson in humility.

That is not a lesson our president has learned. Although the waves are rising, not on God's orders but as a result of human's reckless despoliation of the earth, Trump wishes to ignore all the evidence of climate change and roll back the clock. We have no reason to think that Trump has thought long and hard about the issue of climate change — or anything else for that matter. He wanted to win the votes of those who lived in depressed areas of the country in which the closing of the coal mines was part of the reason for a more general decline, and certainly symbolic of that decline. And, like virtually all Republicans, he wanted to do what he could to help the extraction industries.

More: "Catholics rebuke executive order on climate, energy policy​" (March 29, 2017)

Trump probably would have won coal country anyway, but he exceeded Mitt Romney's margins in 2012. That year, in southwestern Pennsylvania, Romney beat President Obama in Washington County by 56 percent to 42 percent, in Westmoreland County by 61 percent to 38 percent, and in Greene County by 58 percent to 40 percent. In 2016, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in those same three counties by even wider margins of 60 to 36 percent in Washington County, 64 to 33 percent in Westmoreland County, and a stunning 68 to 25 percent in Greene County.

Candidate Trump's promises to bring back mining jobs will prove more difficult to realize than he anticipates, as this article in yesterday's Washington Post indicates. Six coal powered generating stations have closed since Trump won the White House in November. Another 40 are slated to close before the end of his first term. There is already a glut of coal on the market, and so companies are unlikely to pursue leases to mine more of it.

Another article in the Post illustrated why there is a glut: Power companies have already begun the switch to more sustainable energy sources and have no plans to turn back. "Marijke Shugrue, a spokeswoman for another major utility, NRG, said the company ‘set our sustainability goals back in 2014 unconnected to the [Obama] Clean Power Plan. Whatever happens to that, our goals still stand. It made sense before and it still makes sense.' The plan set a goal of reducing NRG's carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030," according to the article.

Mayors and governors in red cities and states as well as blue ones have begun pursuing alternative, sustainable energy sources and many see no reason to turn back. Carmel, Indiana, a red city in a red state, features in the Post article, and the city's mayor told the Post, "Cities aren't going to stop. They were working on things that save money and provide a better environment long before the federal government got involved with the Clean Power Plan, and they'll continue to do so."

It would be courting danger to say that Trump has "missed the bus" on the energy revolution that has already begun to take shape in this country. Two of his principal campaign donors, Rebekah and Robert Mercer, may think that climate change is a hoax,and they attended a recent meeting of the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial organization that operates at the fringes of policy and intellectual life. (Think Acton Institute, only for climate issues.) But, whether the Mercers believe in climate change or not, and whatever Trump actually thinks, the rest of the planet knows that it is happening and they are not going to stop their plans to confront it.

Still, no one should be sanguine about the steps the President has taken. Battling climate change is one of those "all hands on deck" issues if ever there was one. It is great that so many state and local governments are taking steps to transition to sustainable energy sources and less energy intensive infrastructures. It is great that so many power companies are looking to the future and don't see much of a role for coal in that future. But, the federal government has enormous resources it can bring to bear on this critical issue. We can't afford to lose four years of effort when no one really knows where the tipping points are for key problems we need to eliminate or at least diminish, like the melting of the polar ice caps.

Indeed, it would be a good idea for a Democrat to stand up to the Harvard profs and rich, liberal Bostonians who summer on Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and who oppose the installation of wind farms off the Cape because it will spoil the view. Can you say "NIMBY" with a Boston Brahmin accent?

Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si' #11: "The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world's poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded."

Urgent. The president's decision to roll back his predecessor's regulations aimed at protecting the environment is wrong and foolish, if unsurprising. Nor will Trump be moved by the plight of the poor in those developing countries that will bear the brunt of the damage caused by those of us in the rich industrialized countries if we do not persevere in our environmental efforts. But, Trump may learn that even if he promises coal country that their jobs are coming back, that does not mean those jobs are coming back, and there will be hell to pay when they don't. Canute's lesson about humility would serve Mr. Trump well, but I doubt he has the ears to hear. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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