From Climate Change to Coal Mining, Donald Trump's Reality Is Pure Science Fiction
President-elect Donald Trump has been twisting the facts in ways beyond what even George Orwell could have envisioned. When PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning truth squad sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, analyzed more than 300 assertions by Trump since he announced his presidential bid, it found that roughly 70 percent were mostly or completely false while another 15 percent were half-truths. Only 15 percent of his comments were deemed mostly or completely true. Little wonder CNN political commentator and Trump apologist Scottie Nell Hughes recently declared on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show that if enough people believe a lie, it’s true — at least for them. “There’s no such thing ... anymore as facts,” she said.
As someone who works for a science advocacy organization, I take issue with Hughes’ contention we’re living in a post-fact world, especially when it comes to science and its implications. Trump has espoused a number of scientifically unfounded positions with serious consequences for public health and the environment, including the thoroughly debunked claim that childhood vaccines cause autism. But let’s start by examining some of his most flagrant lies about climate change, fossil fuels and renewable energy, as well as his policy prescriptions based on those lies.
Trump’s Mind Opens and Shuts on Climate Change
By now, everyone who’s been paying attention knows that Trump once tweeted climate change is a “hoax” created by the Chinese. When asked about it on Fox & Friends in January, however, Trump insisted he was joking, and he told the New York Times in his first on-the-record media interview after the election that he has “an open mind" about it and thinks “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change.
Trump’s “open mind” comment was widely reported. What wasn’t widely reported is he also told the Times there is widespread disagreement among scientists about whether climate change is actually occurring.
“It’s one issue that’s interesting because there are few things where there’s more division than climate change,” Trump said. “...You know, you can make lots of cases for different views... It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.”
Just yesterday, during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Trump repeated his assertion that “nobody really knows” if climate change is real. “I’m still open-minded,” he told host Chris Wallace. “Nobody really knows. Look, I’m somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows.”
But Trump doesn’t get it. Climate scientists have known about global warming for decades, and the overwhelming majority of them agree that human activity — primarily the burning of fossil fuels — is driving up world temperatures.
Trump’s ‘Clean Coal’ Fantasy
During the second “town hall” presidential debate in early October, an audience member asked Trump and Hillary Clinton how they would meet the country’s energy needs while “remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers.” It was the closest the two came to fielding a question during the debates related to climate change.
Trump’s answer was a pure fabrication. After taking a swipe at the Obama administration for putting energy “under siege,” he declared: “We need much more than wind and solar... There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for a thousand years in this country.”
In fact, “clean coal” technology, which is supposed to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, doesn’t currently exist. It has never been demonstrated to work economically on a commercial scale, and no operating U.S. coal power plants use it. And a number of high-profile “clean coal” pilot projects, dogged by cost overruns and scheduling delays, have failed.
The claim that the United States has a thousand-year supply of coal is also a Trumparian exaggeration. According to a 2007 National Research Council report, there is likely enough coal at current production levels to last somewhere between 100 and 250 years.
During his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to revive the coal industry. “Let me tell you,” he proclaimed last March, “the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again, believe me.”
Market realities, however, stand in the way of that ever happening. The demand for coal is bound to continue to wane due to the proliferation of cheap natural gas, increased competition from renewables, and energy efficiency programs. As recently as 2008, coal generated about 50 percent of U.S. electricity. Now its share is just 30 percent. Employment in the coal industry, meanwhile, has dropped steadily since it peaked at more than 250,000 in 1980, largely due to automation. It now hovers around 50,000. You could fit them all into Yankee Stadium.
Contradicting the claim he has an “open mind” about climate change, Trump has promised to withdraw the Clean Power Plan, the new federal power plant carbon emissions rule. Doing so might stop some coal job losses, but electric utilities have already begun switching to natural gas and renewables. Last year they shuttered 94 coal-fired power plants and this year at least 40 more will likely be closed by the end of this month.
At the same time Trump has promised to bring back coal jobs, he also has pledged to promote natural gas. More than a few energy experts have pointed out that those are incompatible objectives.
Resuscitating the coal industry also conflicts with Trump’s professed goal of protecting the environment. “Clean air is vitally important,” he told the Times staff a few weeks ago. “Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important.”
If Trump really believes that, why would he want to revive coal? Besides the fact that coal-fired power plants account for roughly a quarter of total U.S. carbon emissions, they also are a leading industrial source of such “traditional” toxic pollutants as mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which have been linked to a host of diseases, as well as premature death. All told, coal’s estimated “life-cycle” cost in the United States — including its impact on miners, public health, the environment and the climate — is $345 billion annually, according to a 2011 Harvard Medical School study.
Trump Blows Hot Air About Wind
Trump lost his battle against a wind farm off the coast of his Scottish golf course, but he’s continuing his crusade here at home. During his marathon interview with the Times, Trump said “the wind is a very deceiving thing” and then proceeded to make a number of deceptive statements of his own.
“First of all,” Trump said, “we don’t make the windmills in the United States. They’re made in Germany and Japan.”
Wrong. Currently more than 21,000 American workers are making turbines and parts at more than 500 factories across the country, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Another 67,000 work in the industry installing and maintaining wind farms. Although two European firms, Vestas Wind Systems and Siemens, employ thousands of workers in a half-dozen states, the nation’s top turbine manufacturer is an American company — good old General Electric. The U.S. solar industry, meanwhile, boasts more than 200,000 workers, according to the Solar Foundation. All told, the wind and solar industries now provide more than 288,000 jobs, nearly six times more than the coal industry.
Trump’s next complaint? “The windmills,” he claimed, “are devastating to the bird population, okay.”
No, not okay.
Birds have much bigger problems than wind turbines. Besides habitat degradation and destruction, the top human-built environmental threat to our feathered friends are buildings. As many as 970 million birds crash into them annually, according to a June 2013 study in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. Other studies, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimate that every year as many as 175 million birds die by flying into power lines, which electrocute tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands more; 72 million are poisoned by misapplied pesticides; some 6.8 million perish by hitting cell and radio towers; and as many as 1 million birds die in oil and gas industry fluid waste pits.
Conversely, a September 2014 study in the journal Plos One estimates that wind turbines kill from 214,000 to 368,000 birds annually. In other words, real estate is the main culprit, and the oil and gas industry kills three to five times more birds than wind turbines.
Trump’s contrived case against wind power has prompted him to call for ending its federal subsidies. “I’ve been saying the same thing for years about you know, the wind industry,” he told the Times. “I wouldn’t want to subsidize it.”
Yes, the wind industry gets a federal subsidy. Called the production tax credit (PTC), it has been instrumental in leveling the playing field between wind and fossil fuels and invaluable for financing new projects, helping make wind one of the fastest growing electricity sources in the country. Since the mid-1990s, Congress has typically granted the wind industry the PTC on a short-term basis and then wavered over renewing it. Last year, the government gave the industry $2.2 billion in tax breaks, but the PTC will begin to decline next year and phase out in 2020.
By contrast, the oil and gas industry has been feeding at the federal trough for nearly a century. On average, the industry has received $4.86 billion in permanent tax breaks and subsidies in today’s dollars every year since 1918, according to a 2011 study by DBL Investors, a venture capital firm. Wind and other renewable energy technologies, meanwhile, averaged only $370 million a year in subsidies between 1994 and 2009. The 2009 stimulus package did provide $21 billion for renewables, but that support barely began to balance the scales that have tilted toward nuclear power for more than 50 years, oil and gas for 98 years, and coal for more than two centuries.
How Much Damage Can Trump Do?
Not only will it be next to impossible for Trump to magically bring back coal jobs, there are also trends in both the private and public sector that he and his entourage will have a difficult time stopping.
Just after the election, more than 350 U.S companies and investment firms, including DuPont, Intel, Mars, Nike and Starbucks, sent a letter urging Trump, President Obama and Congress to honor the Paris climate agreement, which has been endorsed by 194 countries. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” the companies said in a joint letter. “But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness.”
More recently, executives from the oil, electric utility, transportation, technology and retail industries tol the Wall Street Journal that their companies are still committed to cutting carbon emissions, regardless of the election results. They cited a number of reasons, including the availability of cheaper natural gas and wind power, as well as pressure from investors, activists and state regulators. “Part of our plan to invest in renewables is to diversify our generation portfolio,” an American Electric Power Co. spokesperson explained. “All of those investments don’t change with a change in administration. It’s a long-term strategy.”
State governments are also stepping up efforts to address climate change. The Massachusetts Legislature, for example, passed an energy bill in July ensuring that nearly 40 percent of the state’s electricity will come from renewables by 2030. Not to be outdone, a day later the New York Public Service Commission approved Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to obtain 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2030. And in August, the California Legislature passed a bill requiring the state to reduce its carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
As Trump would say, this is a big league deal. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population — 65 million people — live in those three states, and their combined gross domestic product of $4.25 trillion last year would rank them fourth among the world’s nations, just after Japan. No doubt their ambitious climate goals will spur major investments in renewable energy and other clean technologies, create new job opportunities, and dramatically cut carbon emissions.
At the federal level, meanwhile, the process the Environmental Protection Agency follows to establish new regulations or kill existing ones will make it difficult to dismantle the Obama administration’s climate legacy. And if any Trumparians try to make an end run around standard procedures, science, environmental and public health groups most certainly will take them to court.
The scientific community has already announced it is watching closely. At the end of November, more than 2,300 scientists — including 22 Nobel Prize winners — signed an open letter calling on the incoming Trump administration and Congress to respect “scientific integrity and independence.” The letter, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, ended with an explicit warning. “We will continue to champion efforts that strengthen the role of science in policymaking,” it concluded, “and stand ready to hold accountable any who might seek to undermine it.”