Carrying Coals to Newcastle … and Katowice

Posted on January 3, 2019 by Zach C. Miller

When Newcastle was the largest British exporter of coal, talk of “carrying coals to Newcastle” meant engaging in something senseless, superfluous, or foolish.  The Trump administration’s recent actions on coal use and climate change have taken the expression to new heights – or depths.

In June 2017, the Trump administration isolated the U.S. by making it the only country in the world to announce plans to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.  Last month the administration made things worse by its actions at the U.N. climate conference in Katowice, Poland – an historic, heavily polluted coal mining area.  Instead of joining the signatories to the Paris Agreement in negotiating the “rule book” for implementing that Agreement, the U.S. delegation presented a “side-event” (some say “side-show”) promoting the use of coal and fossil fuels.  Use of innovative, cleaner technologies to burn coal and fossil fuels would be laudable if combined with sound strategies to transition to cleaner, sustainable energy sources, but that was not the thrust of the side-show.  The coal “pep rally” in Katowice thus highlighted that the U.S., as represented by the current administration, is tone-deaf and no longer a leader in international climate discussions. 

The Trump administration staged a similar coal-booster event at the 2017 U.N. climate conference in Bonn, but with important differences.  In Bonn, U.S. representatives worked extensively with other countries on the Paris Agreement’s rule book, with an eye towards the U.S. possibly not withdrawing from the Agreement.  But most of the key Trump administration insiders who then favored staying in the Paris Agreement are now gone, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, energy adviser George Banks, and economic advisor Gary Cohn.  They’ve been replaced by Paris Agreement opponents:  Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, Wells Griffith, and Larry Kudlow.  As a result, the participation and influence of the U.S. in international climate discussions has become increasingly leaner, weaker and less relevant.

Meanwhile, at the G-20 Summit last month in Buenos Aires, countries led by France and China further isolated the U.S. when the Summit’s final communique stated that all 19 other countries “reaffirm that the Paris Agreement is irreversible and commit to its full implementation.”  The U.S. stuck out like a sore thumb by reiterating there its decision to be the sole nation to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and instead touting “its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access . . . .”

These U.S. actions come directly on the heels of three significant studies, two from the Trump administration itself, that directly refute the administration’s positions.  The October 2018 Report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world’s use of coal for generating electricity will need to be reduced dramatically by mid-century – from 40% down to 1-7% – to prevent catastrophic droughts, fires, floods, and storms resulting from climate change.  Then the recent report of DOE’s Energy Information Administration concluded that regardless of the climate debate, over 500 plants and 75 gigawatts of coal-fired power have been or soon will be retired and U.S. coal use is expected to continue to decrease (44% less than 2007 use), due mainly to market forces such as cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.  Finally, the November 26, 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment – issued by 13 federal agencies and the Trump administration’s own White House – unequivocally states that climate change is already occurring, is partly caused by human activity, and must be urgently addressed to prevent catastrophic impacts.  President Trump’s only response to that overwhelming evidence from his own office: “I don’t believe it.” 

Why does this matter?  Two reasons.  First, if climate change is the severe and urgent problem virtually all climate scientists (and the White House’s own report) conclude it is, the failure of the U.S. to respond to it is an enormous and possibly irreversible blunder.  Second, taking such a position has caused the U.S. to cede its leadership role in the international debate on climate change and the design of creative and appropriate responses to it.  Because others – including China and Russia – are stepping into the resulting void and steering the direction of future actions in this and related environmental and economic fields, the U.S. may never recover that leadership role. 

The Trump administration’s Katowice side-show and similar superfluous actions may pander to the administration’s base.  But these senseless acts are merely “carrying coals to Newcastle” and accomplish nothing, while our most critical environmental problem goes unaddressed by the federal government.



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