A chameleon in Paris

Guessing what the chameleon in the White House will do on climate change.

Will Trump denounce the Paris Agreement? He didn’t mention it in his 100-day programme, and is saying he has “an open mind” on AGW. So there is a little hope. How much?

Trump poses a unique problem for politicians, diplomats, pundits and bloggers trying to figure out his intentions. In the case of normal politicians like Obama, Clinton, Ryan, Castro, or May, indeed normal people like your friends, work colleagues and relatives, we can often make a good guess about the way they will behave in a given situation. They have a settled character, values, and views on many things, from which we construct the estimate. This does not seem possible for Trump, who has no fixed views on anything other than his own awesomeness and the desirability of being rich and successful.

Normal people try to maintain a self-image of virtue and consistency. Changing our minds on something important is painful. Since it involves recognizing that we were in error before, the process requires a lot of Polyfilla to fill the cracks. We were lied to, there was completely new evidence, and so on. If we have to tell a lie, even more Polyfilla is needed to repair the self-image: admitting to one’s spouse that one has cheated on them will hurt three people needlessly, it’s only an insurance company, and so on. So we tend to stick to our views and tell the truth. These internal pressures coincide with rational calculation. As Macchiavelli observed, it is important to the prince to have a reputation for integrity, and the most reliable way of gaining this reputation is in fact to be honest and tell the truth.

None of this applies to Donald Trump. He has no psychic investment in his own consistency or in truth-telling. His extraordinary political success has confirmed his belief that voters (or for that matter women) don’t care about either. He can change his policies or subordinates on a dime. (Note the total contrast with Adolf Hitler and the other fascist leaders to which he is sometimes compared. Hitler’s basic political views – racism, anti-Semitism, aggressive expansionism – did not change through his entire political career, from 1923 to 1945.) How can anybody predict the actions of a total chameleon?

The first rule is to ignore what he says and look at what he does. He has named professional denialist Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team, and added denialist and Paris opponent Steven Groves to his State Department transition team. These are strong indications that the Clean Power Plan regulations are toast, and the Paris Agreement will be denounced.

This might be reversed, if his Secretary of State pushes back hard arguing the loss of soft power, and his Treasury pick complains about the damage to green investors, and his Commerce pick Ross about the risk of adding carbon tariffs to the coming trade wars. But offending foreigners and bankers is part of the fun for him, for Bannon, and for the white nationalist base Bannon channels. We should not be very hopeful.

I do not share the common gloom about the practical effects of the denunciation. The message from the Marrakesh climate meeting (COP-22)  was that everybody else is sticking to the deal, and American withdrawal will not destroy it. China is only to happy to accept the mantle of climate leader. There is real damage, though. Assuming Trump also cuts climate funding, the poorest and most vulnerable countries will find it even harder to fund the transition. The ratchet process for increasing ambition over time towards the 1.5 degree target will not start in earnest until Trump goes.

Domestically, the American NDC is pretty minimal. Closures of coal plants are running ahead of the CPP timetable without it being in force. Coal is being killed by competition from gas and renewables, and grassroots lobbying based on local air pollution, far more than by regulation. The tax breaks for wind and solar were renewed by a Republican Congress in 2015. These industries are now stronger by yet another year’s rapid growth. The electric car tax breaks are popular, trivial in budget terms, and supported by electric utilities as well as Tesla and GM.

The energy transition is on the march. Technical progress will continue to drive down the costs of wind, solar, and electric cars. The interventionist policies Trump would need to reverse these global forces – like punitive taxes on renewables or large subsidies for coal – are outside the window of practicability. The coal miners will never see their jobs come back, anywhere.

The saddest news is the rumoured war on climate research and data, which is just vandalism for revenge by the yahoos. If Trump’s hatchetmen really do kill NASA’s essential earth observation satellites, the ESA – SFIK the only other organisation in the world capable of this – should offer to take over the network and staff. Perhaps the Chinese would join in; the ESA knows how to run missions with variable-geometry funding. Similarly, if the invaluable NREL is axed, California should take it over.

It is an extraordinary as well as a horrible situation. Can a man of this shadowless personality really survive four years in the Oval Office? I doubt it very much. If he tries to do the job, he will crack. More likely, he will delegate it, more than George Bush did with Cheney. It will evolve into the Pence presidency.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

11 thoughts on “A chameleon in Paris”

  1. "It will evolve into the Pence presidency."

    Now, I'm really scared. Pence is a doctrinaire right-wing automaton…just what we need…

  2. A story emanated from the Kasich camp during the primaries that Trump's son had approached a Kasich aide, and proposed that Kasich run as Trump's VP. Some bargaining took place, and finally the offer was that "Kasich can take over all domestic and foreign policy-making".

    Puzzled, the Kasich aide said "What will the President be doing?"

    Trump Jnr. : "He will be making America Great Again"

  3. As I study the climate debates and information, it is not clear to me that a low-growth, top-down governmental approach is going to end up any better than a high(er) growth free market approach We already see that in the US at least the biggest reduction in CO2 has come from frack gas, which environmentalists have opposed. Free market approaches have also helped move investment toward the best sustainable approaches, while government money has been spent rather indiscriminantly in this area when it has not merely been spent politically.

    1. Neither wind nor solar would be anywhere near grid parity today without the subsidies for early deployment given by a handful of countries (Japan, Germany, Denmark) and US states (California). These were large. The total legacy cost of German FITs, over their 25-year life, has IIRC been estimated by opponents at €180 bn. It's not all subsidy, as the FIT incorporates whatever you think the market rate might be, but the subsidy for early solar installations was a multiple of the regular domestic rate.

      Where the Germans got it right is that they left it to businesses to improve the technology and bring it to market. There was no attempt to pick winners as with Solyndra. An FIT leaves intact the customer's incentive to pick the most cost-effective supplier.

      The idea that the market exists as an alternative to the state, rather than being created by it, is a delusion. The first long-distance markets in Europe were in the towns of Champagne in France, where the Counts enforced equal trading laws for subjects and foreigners. We can think of such markets as occupying a street between the church at one end, to supply an ethic, and the gallows at the other to enforce it.

    2. Okay, so how about we do away with the subsidies for all forms of energy? No more tax credits for oil exploration. No more below market leases of public land for coal and natural gas extraction. No more enormous payments to maintain military forces in the Middle East to keep oil shipping open. Let's price all of the externalities of fossil fuels into their consumption.

      When you actually start running the numbers, solar and wind are not especially subsidized relative to their competitors.

  4. "His extraordinary political success has confirmed his belief that voters (or for that matter women) don’t care about either."

    I thought it was men who were more likely to vote for Trump? Did I miss something?

  5. Has anyone asked Trump, "What would it take for you to change your mind about climate change?" I think that the answer is, "If Rush Limbaugh says it's so." Obviously, Glen Beck is not enough.

    1. It probably takes very little to change his mind, since this isn't really on the short list of subjects he cares about–the problem is that he then talks to somebody else and changes his mind back immediately.

  6. So I just finished Llosa's War at the End of the World and I was wondering about where I had seen the (nearly?) exact same chameleon, deployed in a similarly weird context. And it was here! LOL. Bravo James.

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