Why does US president Donald Trump spend so much energy winding up climate scientists? It’s clear he sees climate change as the enemy: but, giving him the benefit of the doubt*, it’s hard to believe this is down to ignorance or stupidity.
President Trump’s job is to make America great again – at least, competitive again. In a perfect world, embracing climate change could make a nation more competitive, efficient, cleaner and generally more sustainable.
The problem is China. The world’s largest emitter of carbon, by a long long way, does not play fair.
If supporting climate change means giving concessions and competitive advantage to China, while costing US businesses more (at least in the short-term) it’s clear why Trump might be in such an antagonistic mood. Examples are everywhere: China’s paid by UN schemes to fix pipeline leaks, US businesses are penalised for the same (and, under pre-Trump rules, required to monitor on a state AND federal level, double the regulatory burden). China’s paid to make coal more efficient, Trump is blasted for giving a tiny sum to the EPA to see if existing US businesses can be helped in the same way. China earns billions from carbon credits which support frankly dirty projects – and without so much as a peep from the NGOs and organisations such as Extinction Rebellion which should be on top of this.
China: aviation climate plan “Short on scientific justification”
We can get a peek into China’s real views on climate change from a communiqué it wrote to the International Commercial Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2016, to protest ICAO’s proposed carbon offsetting scheme CORSIA:
“The objective of neutral carbon growth by 2020 is short of scientific justification, fairness and feasibility… The practice of artificially restricting the range of emissions units available for international aviation is most likely to push up the cost of emissions reduction and provoke unfair competition in the international aviation industry.”
This statement from China, that there was no scientific justification for the proposed carbon reduction, received no press outside of very technical trade journals. Indeed, much of the western press views China as the world’s climate darling. Breathless writers will expound upon its solar achievements and cashless society as though it’s the utopia we’ve all been waiting for. China’s very public support of the Paris Agreement, while the US stands aside, are taken as proof that China is the world’s climate leader.
This is obviously nonsense – perhaps it’s the “enemy of my enemy” effect or because of Chinese propaganda, or simply because the country is still quite alien, in terms of language, transparency, culture, and the difficulty in journalists getting around to see what’s what. Few people are asking tough questions: the ”renewable” project selling carbon credits to Europeans? It’s likely a coal plant which tweaked its efficiency up 2%. There’s outright scams and there’s simply political propaganda and none of it is helping the planet.
I visit Chinese cities where solar water heaters jostle on hundreds of thousands of rooftops, where electric buses glide – not at all silently, as many report, but at least relatively free of the diesel roar – through the streets. And yet on my visits to industrial sites, the power source of preference is always coal. It’s cheap, but that’s not the reason: it’s reliable, over time. The technology is centuries old. Even advanced “clean coal” technology can be 40 years old, well tried, well tested in the field, redundancy is cheap and systems can be fixed by a 19-year-old apprentice with a welding certificate and a shovel. Those promoting “new energy” solutions seem to fail to understand that industrials don’t just “switch off” for 10 minutes if there’s a power or heat interruption: for chemical processes, the downtime from even a short power or heat outage could be weeks or months, with millions of dollars of feedstock ruined and supply chains backed up to chaos. Those saying coal will be gone in a few years are dreaming: I’ve seen plenty of industrial 10-year coal equipment operation contracts signed just last year.
Yes, China added huge amounts of solar power last year: but the entire solar and wind electricity production for 2018 did not cover the annual growth in electricity production the same year. The new renewables are merely catching the excess – China’s baseload is still fossil fuels, and fossil continues to grow faster than renewables.
Paris is free
China publicly supports Paris because it’s not legally binding, there’s no financial penalty for going along with it and because any improvements it makes to support Paris are things the government was planning anyway. In other words, Paris is free. The aviation plan, CORSIA, on the other hand, costs money. It requires direct purchase of carbon credits to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint. Cash will change hands. China, which plans to be the world’s largest aviation market by 2035 and will double the number of airports by 2030, will have to shell out considerable currency. It’s not going to do that. And that, perhaps, is what draws Trump’s ire.
If climate scientists want to make a difference with Trump, there’s no point showing him graphs (or getting angry and turning them upside down, as funny as this is). Engage with the issue at hand: China’s carbon. The first popular climate scientist to stand up and loudly say “we need to do something about China” may be the first climate scientist president Trump listens to.