This is an outbreak of amnesia that Washington can ill afford. It is disconcerting to see a serious issue abruptly buried by the White House’s slowness to reconsider some of its own policies. President Trump may not recognize it, but the global clean energy revolution under way was not all about the U.S. The question of where and how to produce more clean energy is even more fraught today than when the incoming president dismissed climate science as “fake news.”
Yet it is hard to imagine that many of the same administration officials who falsely claimed that there would be no repercussions for American coal producers now believe that climate is not the top environmental problem of our time. The plight of the coal industry is the most dire environmental issue of our time. The business case for unleashing more of the coal-fired electricity plants that are ill-suited to the time of day they operate could not be weaker.
It is also important to emphasize that climate change does not cause extreme weather events. Climate impacts are often more complicated than well-defined, isolated events. Think of droughts, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. Droughts and hurricanes may be severe, but there are many stormy days in any year. And we can’t eradicate future disasters entirely. They are inevitable. Our response must be continuous and focused on making the most out of the good that can happen in the short term.
Making progress on climate change in the decades ahead depends on the urgency of the problem at hand, which is pressing faster than we would like. But it also depends on whether we can handle hard choices and on whether we can get started fast enough to improve lives at a dramatic scale. We aren’t getting started fast enough yet.
The United States is not a powerhouse when it comes to clean energy. We must carry forward the great promise of the last century. We must become a global clean energy powerhouse.
A few examples:
Electric vehicles now account for more than 10 percent of new car sales and nearly 5 percent of the vehicles on the road in the United States and China, respectively. These vehicles contribute just a fraction of the energy used by American households. If EVs were replaced with conventional vehicles, electricity use would increase. Less electricity used, more conservation measures taken — all good, yes. But even if EVs can be expected to peak around 2035 at about 15 percent of sales, they are still decades away from displacing gasoline and diesel-powered cars.
Solar power is already generating power equal to that of several nuclear plants in South Carolina, and it now accounts for one-quarter of the U.S. electricity supply. Basing the country’s energy future on fossil fuels — let alone coal — is a false promise for the future.
There are dozens of other areas that could be a boon to U.S. energy supply, especially for renewables. The fact that oil and gas emissions still exceed clean energy emissions by a wide margin shows that those resources represent a big part of the problem as well as the solution.
Clean energy may help the world, but for the U.S., the trend is in the other direction. Recent data show that America is becoming even less dependent on foreign oil. The Trump administration would do well to support energy efficiency as well as our key climate allies, such as Canada, Mexico and the E.U. In the coming decades, clean energy will likely lead to lower energy bills and a reduced carbon footprint. But we need to do so much more than that. It is the United States that can go the furthest and speedily do so.
See much more of Times coverage of the global clean energy revolution.