Donald Trump’s candidacy – with its simplistic policy positions and its undercurrent of racism and sexism – left most of us believing he couldn’t possibly win. Now his victory is a visceral shock from which many have still not recovered.
To better understand what happened – and why – we need to broaden our horizons. If we zoom out a bit, it becomes clear that Trump is not an isolated phenomenon; the forces that put him in the White House have been growing throughout the Western world for some time. Earlier this year, the Brexit vote in the UK was also based on fear and narrow-minded nationalism, not on a sophisticated critique of EU economic policy. Right-wing extremism is on the rise in many other parts of the world – even in my native country of Sweden, where racism was all but absent during my younger years.
If we zoom out even further, a broader pattern emerges. Almost everywhere in the world, unemployment is increasing, the gap between rich and poor is widening, environmental devastation is worsening, and a spiritual crisis – revealed in substance abuse, domestic assaults, and teenage suicide – is deepening.
By looking from a global perspective it becomes apparent that these many crises – including the rise of right-wing sentiments – share a common root cause: an increasingly corporatized and globalized economic system that is devastating not only planetary ecosystems, but the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Over the last three decades, governments have unquestioningly embraced “free trade” treaties that have enriched global corporations while impoverishing their own citizens. By allowing corporations to move unfettered around the globe in search of the lowest wages, these treaties have put workers throughout the industrialized world in competition with workers in the global South who will accept a fraction of a dollar per hour. This is not a contest that workers in the North can win. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) resulted in a net loss of 680,000 American jobs, and the Permanent Normal Trade Relations deal with China led to a net loss of another 2.7 million jobs. These job losses are a direct result of increasing global competition through corporate deregulation.
At the same time, the infiltration of big business throughout the global South – most often with the support of national governments and backed by international financial institutions – has eliminated many of the livelihoods that local economies in those countries once provided. With locally-adapted ways of life systematically undermined by economic policies geared towards the big and the global, millions of desperate people in the South find themselves with just two options: to accept minimal wages and appalling working conditions in industrial metropolises, or to migrate. It is estimated that, as a direct result of heavily subsidized corn flooding the Mexican market under NAFTA, 2.4 million small farmers were displaced, and subsequently funneled into crowded urban centers or across the border to the US.
So the loss of jobs in the US and the migrant crisis in the South are two sides of the same coin. But instead of looking at the flawed rules of the global economy that are behind both problems, people have been encouraged to point the finger at the cultural “other”. As worldwide competition for increasingly scarce jobs has increased, so have divisiveness, fundamentalism and racism.
Until recently, corporate-funded media and think tanks have steered both grassroots activism and high-level policy-making away from consideration of the economic root cause of our social and ecological problems. The global economy was treated as “evolutionary” or inevitable, and the policies promoting it went unquestioned; the crises escalated, and the only ‘solution’ offered was to double down on more of the same: more economic growth, more development, more deregulation. As people’s lives and the natural world deteriorated, it’s no surprise that disenchantment with the political process became widespread.
Nonetheless, the trade treaties – notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – were a hot topic during the recent American elections. First and foremost, this represents an important victory for the people – for the grassroots – whose voice is finally being heard. While the mainstream media has propped up Donald Trump as the figurehead of opposition to the trade treaties, we need to keep in mind that the first cross-sector demonstration against the TPP in the United States was in June 2010 — five years before Trump announced his candidacy. Resistance to the trade treaties has come from diverse people’s movements from around the world, and is growing stronger day by day.
Corporate rule is not only impoverishing people worldwide, it is fuelling climate change, destroying diverse ecosystems and cultures, undermining community and accelerating the spread of consumerism. These are undoubtedly scary times. Yet the very fact that the seemingly distinct crises we face are linked can be the source of genuine empowerment. Once we understand the systemic nature of our problems, the path towards solving them – together, rather than one by one – becomes clear. And that’s why the anti- trade treaty movement has been dubbed “the movement of movements”. By targeting the trade treaties and campaigning for the reregulation of global businesses and banks, we not only resist the increasing corporatization of our planet, we can actively begin to reverse the negative effects of economic globalization in our own communities. We can start to bring the economy home – to localize – by reweaving the social and economic fabric at the local level.
In many areas of the world, from the USA to India, from China to Australia, people are beginning to do just that: they are forming local business alliances, starting local finance initiatives, exploring locally-based education and energy schemes, and, most centrally, building a local food movement. All of these efforts are based on the principle of connection and the celebration of diversity.
In communities around the world, the profound environmental, economic, social and even spiritual benefits of reconnecting locally are becoming clear for all to see. As the scale and pace of economic activity are reduced, anonymity gives way to face-to-face relationships, and to a closer connection to Nature. The bonds of local interdependence are strengthened, and a more secure sense of personal and cultural identity begins to flourish. People feel connected to others, rather than in competition with them.
At the same time, localized economies are good for the environment: they increase the number of jobs not by increasing consumption, but by relying more on human labor and creativity and less on energy-intensive technological systems – thereby reducing resource use and pollution. And shifting from global to local promotes “re-wilding” and the restoration of biodiversity.
By spreading economic and political power among millions of individuals and small businesses – rather than in a handful of corporate monopolies – localization also has the potential to revitalize the democratic process. Political power is no longer some distant impersonal force, but is instead rooted in community.
Localization is sometimes painted as élitist – another plum for the already privileged peoples of the global North, but offering little for the less prosperous South. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is only by weaning themselves from dependence on an exploitative global market while increasing national and regional self-reliance that countries in the global South will be able to find lasting prosperity.
Moving towards the local requires more than simply working on the ground within our own communities: we also need to do the hard work of pushing for change at the national and global levels. Treaties need to be re-written, regulations amended, taxes and subsidies reassigned, environmental and human rights strengthened. Unlike the narrow isolationism sought by Donald Trump, opposition to globalization requires cross-border cooperation, while revitalizing local economies demands collaboration and a willingness to learn from others.
The American people have made it perfectly clear that they want fundamental change. Trump may offer the illusion of such change, but little more. Our task now is to show that there is a genuinely different way: a path towards wholeness and sanity. The rapidly-growing localization movement is an unstoppable force. It is still in its early days, but it is already providing hope and sustenance to millions of people around the world.
NOTE: For some figures and analysis on the concentration of corporate wealth and power under globalization, see The Trump Victory, Reports from the Economic Front, 18 November 2016.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helena Norberg-Hodge is founder and director of Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture). A pioneer of the “new economy” movement, she has been promoting an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being for more than thirty years. She is the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, and is the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. She was honored with the Right Livelihood Award for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, and received the 2012 Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”
Beyond Trump: The Path to Real Change
Richard Heinberg and Helena Norberg-Hodge
This article was originally published in
Local Futures, 14/15 December 2016
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
This webinar serves as a hopeful antidote to the paralysis felt by many following the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US President. In it, we go beyond the minutiae of the election campaign and explore the bigger picture, including:
- The increasingly corporatized and globalized economic system which has led to the rise of Donald Trump and counterparts in Europe
- The implications of Trump’s election for the international movement for trade justice, climate action, human rights, and localization
- Why it’s important to differentiate between progressive resistance to free trade and the authoritarian nationalism of Trump
- Most importantly, where we can go from here and how we can move forward with an agenda for positive systemic change
Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from fossil fuels, joined Local Futures’ Director Helena Norberg-Hodge for this webinar, to tackle these issues one by one. Together, they identified some promising strategies, particularly on the local level, for grappling with a post-Trump world, and for rediscovering the political power of community.Resources to complement the webinar
My Thoughts Following the Election, by Richard Heinberg. November 9th, 2016
Trump: The Illusion of Change, by Helena Norberg-Hodge. November 18th, 2016
Localism in the Age of Trump, by Richard Heinberg. December 8th, 2016
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Richard Heinberg (USA) is Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of thirteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis: The End of Growth (2011), Afterburn (2015), Snake Oil (2013), and Our Renewable Future (2016, co-authored with David Fridley). He has written scores of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature Journal, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, The American Prospect, Public Policy Research, Quarterly Review, and Yes! Magazine; and on web sites such as Resilience, Alternet, and Counterpunch.
Helena Norberg-Hodge (Australia) is the founder and director of Local Futures/ISEC. A pioneer of the ‘new economy’ movement, she has been promoting an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being for more than thirty years. She is the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, and the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, described as “an inspirational classic”. She has given public lectures in seven languages, and has appeared in broadcast, print, and online media worldwide. She was honored with the Right Livelihood Award (or ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’) for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, and recently received the Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”
The Macabre Petroleum Waltz of Trump and Putin
This article was originally published in
The Tyee, 21 December 2016
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
Oil has fueled a bully bromance between
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Oil has fueled a bully bromance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Although this revolutionary union possesses a terrifying petro logic, it promises to be as volatile and tragic as any shotgun marriage. The relationship is, as Trump might well tweet, “unpresidented.”
How, after all, can a president-elect openly admire a foreign leader whose shadowy intelligence apparatus played a significant role in undermining the U.S. election by hacking into the files of the Democratic National Committee?
This dysfunctional story is about oil and carbon. The master resource and its climate destabilizing emissions have arranged the ballroom where Trump and Putin now waltz.
The only treason that matters to these oddly paired grandees is any attempt to stop or wind down the frenzied march of petroleum — an industrial composition now 170 years old.
The basic facts are self-evident: the world still runs on fossil fuels (86 per cent of our energy consumption) and Russia now tops the list of petroleum’s three main global players with production of 10 million barrels a day. Next comes Saudi Arabia, followed by the United States at nine million barrels — a short-term feat largely engineered by the brute force of hydraulic fracturing. (The U.S. still must import 52 per cent of what it consumes — largely from Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.)
As a consequence, the energy intensity of American and Russian oil extraction help to explain why these two nations now account for more than one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The global energy industry contributes more than 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
These emissions keep growing because it takes more and more energy to extract expensive and low-grade products such as bitumen, shale oil and offshore Arctic oil.
Energy, not capital, drives the global economy and that economy is now shrinking because shale oil, bitumen and Arctic oil provide lower returns, more volatility and more dangerous debt loads than conventional oil. Their exploitation is not a solution, but a trap that will lead to the collapse of institutions — and societies — built on the assumption that cheap energy would last forever.
Meanwhile the aging oil business leaks toxic carbons and liabilities as carelessly as North America’s 50-year-old pipelines.
Researchers now calculate that approximately two-thirds (63 per cent) of the industrial carbon pollution poured into the atmosphere since 1854 can be directly traced to the carbon mined from the Earth by just 90 enterprises, including 83 producers of coal, oil and natural gas and seven cement makers.
Incredibly, seven companies account for almost one-fifth of all industrial carbon spewed into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. They include the U.S. corporate giant, ExxonMobil, and Russia’s mega-methane firm, Gazprom.
Almost everyone, except for much of the media, acknowledges that Russia behaves like a classic petro state. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, once described the Russian Federation as “an oil and gas company masquerading as a country.”
Putin’s government, for example, gets half its revenue from oil and gas sales to Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Oil accounts for almost 60 per cent of Russia’s exports and a third of its capital investments. The global 2014 oil price crash severely undermined the country’s economy and lowered living standards for ordinary Russians. As a consequence Putin’s oil locomotive is now stagnating and needs foreign investment and higher oil prices.
Unlike most Canadian politicians, Putin has studied the politics of oil. He can even talk about the Dutch disease and other resource curses. As a young intelligence officer he watched a global oil price collapse in the early 1990s unhinge the Soviet Union and does not want to see that experience repeated.
Beginning more than a decade ago, Putin removed the country’s most powerful oligarchs from Russia’s oil and gas companies and nationalized the industry to consolidate his power. He then let in a few western players such as ExxonMobil to help revitalize Russia’s oil patch.
As oil prices rose between 2000 and 2014 Putin used the flow of petro rubles to restore some dignity to the federation in an effort to make Russia great again.
When oil prices languished at $25 a barrel in 2000, Putin remained a friend of the U.S.
But as soon as oil prices escalated in 2007, Putin began to rattle sabres and take aim at the Ukraine. When oil prices hit historic highs in 2014, Putin rejected any form of co-operation with the United States.
Now that they have nosedived, and Russian hackers have successfully intervened in the U.S. election to help Trump, Putin says he’s ready for peace and love — and a waltz with his U.S. admirer.
In the Washington Post, Russia observer Maria Snegovaya explained the Jekyll and Hyde petro dynamics lucidly: “High oil revenues lower leaders’ domestic political accountability and responsibility for policy decisions while increasing risks of international adventurism.”
The U.S., of course, is the world’s original petro state. Although oil doesn’t dominate the economy the same way it does in Russia, its revenues have contaminated the country’s politics. ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest corporations, funded climate change-denying lawmakers and lobbyists for decades and remains one of the largest donors to the Republican Party. Blue states tend to consume energy and vote Democrat, while red states extract oil or gas. Most supported Trump.
In recent years two right-wing U.S. oligarchs, the Koch brothers, have changed America’s political landscape. Using billions made by processing Canada’s cheap raw bitumen into value-added fuels at their refineries, the Koch brothers conducted a concerted campaign to undermine U.S. democracy by weaponizing philanthropy. In the process they disguised corporate self-interest as a populist revolt against government political elites.
As documented by Jane Mayer in her excellent book Dark Money, the Koch brothers used charities and think tanks to champion unfettered oil production, mock climate change and sow doubt about the role of government. All echoed their libertarian grievances against the state.
Years of Koch propaganda convinced Americans having trouble buying a meal, let alone securing a reliable job, that action on climate change would take away their freedom and more importantly, their guns.
Ultimately what Mayer calls the “single most effective special interest group in the country” helped elect the demagogue Donald Trump by promoting a climate of fear, hate, doubt and distrust. Elite billionaires preyed on the weak to elect another elite billionaire.
Trump has now assembled a well-heeled cabinet that will likely fulfill the Koch brothers' political wish list: halt action on climate change, permit uranium mining, deregulate mountaintop removal for coal mining and gut environmental regulations.
In an effort to make America great again, Trump promises to wipe out climate change action and allow drilling and fracking everywhere in attempt to make the U.S. “energy independent.”
Trump has assembled a cabinet that serves oil and its powerful masters first and foremost. Many come from oil exporting states such as Oklahoma and Texas. The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, a Republican Oklahoma attorney general, flatly denies climate change and even let oil company lawyers draft letters that Pruitt then signed and sent to federal regulators. Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil and fervent pusher of hydraulic fracturing, has been nominated for secretary of state. Rick Perry, the former governor of oil-soaked Texas, will head the energy department. Perry is another climate change denier. “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense,” he has said.
So petroleum now has a Darth Vader voice in Washington as ruthless and powerful as Putin’s in the Kremlin.
Although Trump and Putin come from dissimilar backgrounds, the world’s oil czars share a number of traits that makes them ideal dancing partners.
Both men, for example, prefer “managed democracies” where a supreme leader permits citizens to play the role of eternal apprentices. (Fading empires are like trapped animals: they select the most bully-minded leaders to restore what cannot be restored.)
As expert communicators both men appreciate the power of political lies and show no reluctance to employ them. They dislike an accountable media and prefer to speak through their own state or social media channels.
Neither oligarch likes Muslims. Putin conducted a scorched earth campaign against Muslims in Chechnya and Trump proposed barring Muslims from the U.S. during his campaign. (It is no accident Muslims or “radical Islam” just happen to occupy a region that is the world’s number one source of conventional oil.)
Not surprisingly, both leaders have the backing of Christian extremists and right-wing nationalists. U.S. white supremacists have even identified Putin as “leader of the free world.”
Many U.S. religious conservatives openly admire Putin because his government champions “traditional values” and “Christian civilization” while attacking gays.
Last but not least, both men nurse a calculated disdain for the evidence on climate change. Putin once quipped that climate change wasn’t a bad thing because in a warming world Russians would just spend less on fur coats and grow more grain.
Although Putin has recently paid lip service to the significance of climate change, the Russian government, as a whole, has expressed little concern about fossil-fuel induced weather chaos.
The prominent Russian ecologist Alexey Yablokov attributes the indifference to petroleum’s unholy grip on the national pysche: “That's our ideology, that's why we only think about drilling for more and more oil and selling it to the West. Who’s thinking about ecology? Who cares that 10 per cent of oil will spill or leak out while being transported to the West? No one does.... That’s not important, what's important is getting the money, building a new house and buying new cars.”
Both Trump and Putin, in short, derive their political power from a resource whose future depends on denying climate change and ignoring the environmental costs of extracting ever more risky and energy intensive reserves. ExxonMobil, the world’s eighth largest company based on revenue, has a limited future without access to Arctic oil, just as the Russian state has a limited future without higher prices for its hydrocarbons.
And herein lies the core of their authoritarian attraction. Both men know that responsible action on climate change to limit global temperature increases to a still punishing two degrees means that $2 trillion worth of fossil fuels must be kept in the ground. Most of those extreme fuels consist of higher cost U.S. shale oil, Canadian oilsands, Russian conventional oil and Arctic reserves. They know that groups such as the independent financial think tank Carbon Tracker have said the onus to cut production will fall heaviest on nations producing the ugliest and costliest hydrocarbons.
And any move to keep these resources in the ground would spell the end of ExxonMobil, Russian energy giant Gazprom, the Koch brothers and Putin himself. It could also bring down many of the world’s financial institutions that have unwisely let the oil and gas sector accrue historic debt loads to exploit uneconomic resources.
Alex Steffen, a U.S. futurist and sustainability expert, has set out the steps the petroleum industry and its allies would have to take to preserve the status quo.
“You’d dispute climate science, making scientists’ predictions seem less certain in the public mind, and work to gut the capacity of scientists to continue their work,” he writes. “You’d attack global climate agreements…. You’d attack low-carbon competitors politically.”
“You would ally with extremists and other sources of anti-democratic power, in order to be able to fight democratic efforts to cut emissions,” he adds.
Michael Mann, the Pennsylvania State University geoscience professor who famously illustrated the threat of climate change with a hockey-stick graph showing warming temperatures, confessed to Jane Mayer in Dark Money that climate change scientists completely underestimated the power of Big Oil.
Environmentalists, politicians and the media did the same. They thought evidence and reason would rule the day, but that’s not how wealthy czars or bloody cartels behave. Power is not something they surrender like some piece of cake.
“What we didn’t take into account was the ferociousness of the moneyed interests and the politicians doing their bidding,” admitted Mann.
“We are talking about a direct challenge to the most powerful industry that has ever existed on the face of the earth. There’s no depth to which they’re unwilling to sink to challenge anything threatening their interests.”
Years ago the great U.S. political scientist Terry Lynn Karl warned that the rise of petro states had global implications. Petroleum busts and booms created pipelines for poverty, inequality and political crises, she wrote, and these crises “subsequently produce new oil shocks that may have profound and unforeseen consequences… because they reverberate powerfully through world markets and even threaten global peace.”
And that is the waltz Trump and Putin now dance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. His book The Energy of Slaves outlines the perils of petro politics in a global economy.
Drowning the World in Oil:
Trump's Carbon-Obsessed Energy Policy
and the Planetary Nightmare to Come
Michael T. Klare
This article was originally published in
TomDispatch, 15 December 2016
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
"His slogan should be: Make America Smoggy Again."
Scroll through Donald Trump’s campaign promises or listen to his speeches and you could easily conclude that his energy policy consists of little more than a wish list drawn up by the major fossil fuel companies: lift environmental restrictions on oil and natural gas extraction, build the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, open more federal lands to drilling, withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan, revive the coal mining industry, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. In fact, many of his proposals have simply been lifted straight from the talking points of top energy industry officials and their lavishly financed allies in Congress.
If, however, you take a closer look at this morass of pro-carbon proposals, an obvious, if as yet unnoted, contradiction quickly becomes apparent. Were all Trump’s policies to be enacted -- and the appointment of the climate-change denier and industry-friendly attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests the attempt will be made -- not all segments of the energy industry will flourish. Instead, many fossil fuel companies will be annihilated, thanks to the rock-bottom fuel prices produced by a colossal oversupply of oil, coal, and natural gas.
Indeed, stop thinking of Trump’s energy policy as primarily aimed at helping the fossil fuel companies (although some will surely benefit). Think of it instead as a nostalgic compulsion aimed at restoring a long-vanished America in which coal plants, steel mills, and gas-guzzling automobiles were the designated indicators of progress, while concern over pollution -- let alone climate change -- was yet to be an issue.
If you want confirmation that such a devastating version of nostalgia makes up the heart and soul of Trump’s energy agenda, don’t focus on his specific proposals or any particular combination of them. Look instead at his choice of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state and former Governor Rick Perry from oil-soaked Texas as his secretary of energy, not to mention the carbon-embracing fervor that ran through his campaign statements and positions. According to his election campaign website, his top priority will be to “unleash America’s $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves.” In doing so, it affirmed, Trump would “open onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands, eliminate [the] moratorium on coal leasing, and open shale energy deposits.” In the process, any rule or regulation that stands in the way of exploiting these reserves will be obliterated.
If all of Trump’s proposals are enacted, U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will soar, wiping out the declines of recent years and significantly increasing the pace of global warming. Given that other major GHG emitters, especially India and China, will feel less obliged to abide by their Paris commitments if the U.S. heads down that path, it’s almost certain that atmospheric warming will soar beyond the 2 degree Celsius rise over pre-industrial levels that scientists consider the maximum the planet can absorb without suffering catastrophic repercussions. And if, as promised, Trump also repeals a whole raft of environmental regulations and essentially dismantles the Environmental Protection Agency, much of the progress made over recent years in improving our air and water quality will simply be wiped away, and the skies over our cities and suburbs will once again turn gray with smog and toxic pollutants of all sorts.
Eliminating All Constraints on Carbon Extraction
To fully appreciate the dark, essentially delusional nature of Trump’s energy nostalgia, let’s start by reviewing his proposals. Aside from assorted tweets and one-liners, two speeches before energy groups represent the most elaborate expression of his views: the first was given on May 26th at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, North Dakota, to groups largely focused on extracting oil from shale through hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken shale oil formation; the second on September 22nd addressed the Marcellus Shale Coalition in Pittsburgh, a group of Pennsylvania gas frackers.
At both events, Trump’s comments were designed to curry favor with this segment of the industry by promising the repeal of any regulations that stood in the way of accelerated drilling. But that was just a start for the then-candidate. He went on to lay out an “America-first energy plan” designed to eliminate virtually every impediment to the exploitation of oil, gas, and coal anywhere in the country or in its surrounding waters, ensuring America’s abiding status as the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels.
Much of this, Trump promised in Bismarck, would be set in motion in the first 100 days of his presidency. Among other steps, he pledged to:
* Cancel America's commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs
* Lift any existing moratoriums on energy production in federal areas
* Ask TransCanada to renew its permit application to build the Keystone Pipeline
* Revoke policies that impose unwarranted restrictions on new drilling technologies
* Save the coal industry
The specifics of how all this might happen were not provided either by the candidate or, later, by his transition team. Nevertheless, the main thrust of his approach couldn’t be clearer: abolish all regulations and presidential directives that stand in the way of unrestrained fossil fuel extraction, including commitments made by President Obama in December 2015 under the Paris Climate Agreement. These would include, in particular, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, with its promise to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired plants, along with mandated improvements in automotive fuel efficiency standards, requiring major manufacturers to achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon in all new cars by 2025. As these constitute the heart of America’s “intended nationally determined contributions” to the 2015 accord, they will undoubtedly be early targets for a Trump presidency and will represent a functional withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, even if an actual withdrawal isn’t instantly possible.
Just how quickly Trump will move on such promises, and with what degree of success, cannot be foreseen. However, because so many of the measures adopted by the Obama administration to address climate change were enacted as presidential directives or rules promulgated by the EPA -- a strategy adopted to circumvent opposition from climate skeptics in the Republican-controlled House and Senate -- Trump will be in a position to impose a number of his own priorities simply by issuing new executive orders nullifying Obama’s. Some of his goals will, however, be far harder to achieve. In particular, it will prove difficult indeed to “save” the coal industry if America’s electrical utilities retain their preference for cheap natural gas.
Ignoring Market Realities
This last point speaks to a major contradiction in the Trump energy plan. Seeking to boost the extraction of every carbon-based energy source inevitably spells doom for segments of the industry incapable of competing in the low-price environment of a supply-dominated Trumpian energy marketplace.
Take the competition between coal and natural gas in powering America’s electrical plants. As a result of the widespread deployment of fracking technology in the nation’s prolific shale fields, the U.S. gas output has skyrocketed in recent years, jumping from 18.1 trillion cubic feet in 2005 to 27.1 trillion in 2015. With so much additional gas on the market, prices have naturally declined -- a boon for the electrical utility companies, which have converted many of their plants from coal to gas-combustion in order to benefit from the low prices. More than anything else, this is responsible for the decline of coal use, with total consumption dropping by 10% in 2015 alone.
In his speech to the Marcellus Coalition, Trump promised to facilitate the expanded output of both fuels. In particular, he pledged to eliminate federal regulations that, he claimed, “remain a major restriction to shale production.” (Presumably, this was a reference to Obama administration measures aimed at reducing the excessive leakage of methane, a major greenhouse gas, from fracking operations on federal lands.) At the same time, he vowed to “end the war on coal and the war on miners.”
As Trump imagines the situation, that “war on coal” is a White House-orchestrated drive to suppress its production and consumption through excessive regulation, especially the Clean Power Plan. But while that plan, if ever fully put into operation, would result in the accelerated decommissioning of existing coal plants, the real war against coal is being conducted by the very frackers Trump seeks to unleash. By encouraging the unrestrained production of natural gas, he will ensure continued low gas prices and so a depressed market for coal.
A similar contradiction lies at the heart of Trump’s approach to oil: rather than seeking to bolster core segments of the industry, he favors a supersaturated market approach that will end up hurting many domestic producers. Right now, in fact, the single biggest impediment to oil company growth and profitability is the low price environment brought on by a global glut of crude -- itself largely a consequence of the explosion of shale oil production in the United States. With more petroleum entering the market all the time and insufficient world demand to soak it up, prices have remained at depressed levels for more than two years, severely affecting fracking operations as well. Many U.S. frackers, including some in the Bakken formation, have found themselves forced to suspend operations or declare bankruptcy because each new barrel of fracked oil costs more to produce than it can be sold for.
Trump’s approach to this predicament -- pump out as much oil as possible here and in Canada -- is potentially disastrous, even in energy industry terms. He has, for instance, threatened to open up yet more federal lands, onshore and off, for yet more oil drilling, including presumably areas previously protected on environmental grounds like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the seabeds off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In addition, the construction of pipelines like the embattled one in North Dakota and other infrastructure needed to bring these added resources to market will clearly be approved and facilitated.
In theory, this drown-us-in-oil approach should help achieve a much-trumpeted energy “independence” for the United States, but under the circumstances, it will surely prove a calamity of the first order. And such a fantasy version of a future energy market will only grow yet more tumultuous thanks to Trump’s urge to help ensure the survival of that particularly carbon-dirty form of oil production, Canada’s tar sands industry.
Not surprisingly, that industry, too, is under enormous pressure from low oil prices, as tar sands are far more costly to produce than conventional oil. At the moment, adequate pipeline capacity is also lacking for the delivery of their thick, carbon-heavy crude to refineries on the American Gulf Coast where they can be processed into gasoline and other commercial products. So here’s yet one more Trumpian irony to come: by favoring construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Trump would throw yet another monkey wrench into his own planning. Sending such a life preserver to the Canadian industry -- allowing it to better compete with American crude -- would be another strike against his own “America-first energy plan.”
Seeking the Underlying Rationale
In other words, Trump’s plan will undoubtedly prove to be an enigma wrapped in a conundrum inside a roiling set of contradictions. Although it appears to offer boom times for every segment of the fossil fuel industry, only carbon as a whole will benefit, while many individual companies and sectors of the market will suffer. What could possibly be the motivation for such a bizarre and planet-enflaming outcome?
To some degree, no doubt, it comes, at least in part, from the president-elect’s deep and abiding nostalgia for the fast-growing (and largely regulation-free) America of the 1950s. When Trump was growing up, the United States was on an extraordinary expansionist drive and its output of basic goods, including oil, coal, and steel, was swelling by the day. The country’s major industries were heavily unionized; the suburbs were booming; apartment buildings were going up all over the borough of Queens in New York City where Trump got his start; cars were rolling off the assembly lines in what was then anything but the “Rust Belt”; and refineries and coal plants were pouring out the massive amounts of energy needed to make it all happen.
Having grown up in the Bronx, just across Long Island Sound from Trump’s home borough, I can still remember the New York of that era: giant smokestacks belching out thick smoke on every horizon and highways jammed with cars adding to the miasma, but also to that sense of explosive growth. Builders and automobile manufacturers didn’t have to seriously worry about regulations back then, and certainly not about environmental ones, which made life -- for them -- so much simpler.
It’s that carbon-drenched era to which Trump dreams of returning, even if it’s already clear enough that the only conceivable kind of dream that can ever come from his set of policies will be a nightmare of the first order, with temperatures exceeding all records, coastal cities regularly under water, our forests in flame and our farmlands turned to dust.
And don’t forget one other factor: Trump’s vindictiveness -- in this case, not just toward his Democratic opponent in the recent election campaign but toward those who voted against him. The Donald is well aware that most Americans who care about climate change and are in favor of a rapid transformation to a green energy America did not vote for him, including prominent figures in Hollywood and Silicon Valley who contributed lavishly to Hillary Clinton’s coffers on the promise that the country would be transformed into a “clean energy superpower.”
Given his well-known penchant for attacking anyone who frustrates his ambitions or speaks negatively of him, and his urge to punish greens by, among other things, obliterating every measure adopted by President Obama to speed the utilization of renewable energy, expect him to rip the EPA apart and do his best to shred any obstacles to fossil fuel exploitation. If that means hastening the incineration of the planet, so be it. He either doesn’t care (since at 70 he won’t live to see it happen), truly doesn’t believe in the science, or doesn’t think it will hurt his company’s business interests over the next few decades.
One other factor has to be added into this witch’s brew: magical thinking. Like so many leaders of recent times, he seems to equate mastery over oil in particular, and fossil fuels in general, with mastery over the world. In this, he shares a common outlook with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on harnessing Russia’s oil and gas reserves in order to restore the country’s global power, and with ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, said to be Trump’s top choice for Secretary of State and a long-term business partner of the Putin regime. For these and other politicians and tycoons -- and, of course, we’re talking almost exclusively about men here -- the possession of giant oil reserves is thought to bestow a kind of manly vigor. Think of it as the national equivalent of Viagra.
Back in 2002, Robert Ebel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put the matter succinctly: “Oil fuels more than automobiles and airplanes. Oil fuels military power, national treasuries, and international politics... [It is] a determinant of well being, national security, and international power for those who possess [it] and the converse for those who do not.”
Trump seems to have fully absorbed this line of thinking. “American energy dominance will be declared a strategic economic and foreign policy goal of the United States,” he declared at the Williston forum in May. “We will become, and stay, totally independent of any need to import energy from the OPEC cartel or any nations hostile to our interests.” He seems firmly convinced that the accelerated extraction of oil and other carbon-based fuels will “make America great again.”
This is delusional, but as president he will undoubtedly be able to make enough of his energy program happen to achieve both short term and long term energy mayhem. He won’t actually be able to reverse the global shift to renewable energy now under way or leverage increased American fossil fuel production to achieve significant foreign policy advantages. What his efforts are, however, likely to ensure is the surrender of American technological leadership in green energy to countries like China and Germany, already racing ahead in the development of renewable systems. And in the process, he will also guarantee that all of us are going to experience yet more extreme climate events. He will never recreate the dreamy America of his memory or return us to the steamy economic cauldron of the post-World War II period, but he may succeed in restoring the smoggy skies and poisoned rivers that so characterized that era and, as an added bonus, bring planetary climate disaster in his wake. His slogan should be: Make America Smoggy Again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.