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February 10, 2017
 
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Trojan horse tries to breach Trump's resistance to climate action

A stream of emissaries—in person and via letters with hundreds of lofty signatories from various sectors—have tried to win President Donald Trump's heart and mind for climate action. If nothing else, they may have staved off a "Day One" executive order removing the United States from the Paris Agreement.

This week, however, a Trojan horse of high Republican pedigree tried to breach Trump's climate change aversion with a "conservative" appeal based on free-market sensibilities. A group of elder GOP lions, led by former Secretary of State James Baker III, with former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson Jr., pitched a "conservative" plan in well-placed op-eds to basically replace President Obama's Clean Power Plan with a carbon tax. "It's really important that we Republicans have a seat at the table when people start talking about climate change," Baker told The New York Times prior to his trek to the White House. "I don't accept the idea that it's all man-made, but I do accept that the risks are sufficiently great that we need to have an insurance policy."

Baker and plan co-authors—Ronald Reagan's chief economist Martin Feldstein; Greg Mankiw, Harvard economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush; and Ted Halstead, founder, president and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Climate Leadership Council—reportedly had a 45-minute audience Wednesday with Vice President Mike Pence and Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, to tout the plan. "This is the closest thing I know to a panacea," Mankiw said. "It solves lots and lots of problems all at once."

Their case may have been helped by a report released Tuesday showing that the U.S. solar industry now accounts for one in every 50 new jobs, employs 260,000 nationwide and needs to hire more workers to pull off this year's expected 29-percent increase in installed solar capacity. "These are well-paying, family-sustaining jobs with low barriers to entry," said Andrea Luecke, executive director of The Solar Foundation.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on the outcome of the Baker meeting, as did the climate emissaries.

Alt-right Breitbart columnist James Delingpole wasn't buying any of it,  targeting Paulson in an attack on Thursday. "This copper-bottomed, ocean-going shyster Paulson is the kind of Dubya-period throwback whose advice the Trump administration should avoid like the plague," he wrote, further describing the former Treasury secretary as "the very embodiment of the liberal elite which both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump were designed to overthrow." He went on to say, "By taxing carbon dioxide (the harmless trace gas which makes the planet greener), the U.S. government would be signaling to the world that it still believes in the man-made global warming narrative. This, in turn, would keep alive the crony-capitalist 'renewables' industry in which Paulson, [Tom] Steyer, [Michael] Bloomberg and their friends are so heavily invested."

But here's what USA Today, a news source likely more widely read than Breitbart, said in a Thursday editorial: "The plan for a refundable national carbon tax—endorsed by James Baker, Henry Paulson, George Shultz and other GOP luminaries—represents a long overdue, market-based contribution from the right on the climate change issue. … The biggest problem is political: getting support from tax-averse Republicans in Congress and a new administration stocked with climate change skeptics. But with evidence mounting by the day of the harmful effects of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, the Baker plan represents a significant Republican-led effort to address climate change—one that's more than a lot of hot air."

This is what the editors of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote today: "President Trump belittled climate science during his campaign yet pledged an open mind after his election. Wisconsin's congressional delegation—including House Speaker Paul Ryan...—should help persuade the president that climate change, in the words of Baker and Schultz, is one of "the defining challenges of our era."

Climate context

Another blast of warmth descended on the Arctic this week, with sea ice already at a record low level. Forecasters expected temperatures to soar up to 50°F above normal, further melting away the ice that has widespread impacts on weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, a crack in the Antarctic ice shelf grew 17 miles in the past two months.

Along the East Coast of the United States, cities could see tidal flooding three times per week by 2045—before a 30-year mortgage signed today could be paid off, as Climate Central pointed out. Washington, DC, and Annapolis, Maryland, could get inundated 120 days year by then, according to a study in PLOS ONE. "Long before areas are permanently inundated, the steady creep of sea level rise will force many communities to grapple with chronic high-tide flooding in the next 15 to 30 years," the authors wrote.

It is in this context of a melting Arctic and rising seas that climate change deniers revitalized a conspiracy trope, based on a disputed story in the Daily Mail claiming that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fudged numbers in order to "dupe" world leaders into joining the Paris Agreement. The dubious story was based on comments from a "high-level whistle-blower" at the agency who did not actually work on the data in question and who also believes in man-made climate change. "I knew people would misuse this," John Bates told Science Insider. "But you can't control other people." There was "no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious," Bates told the Associated Press. Nonetheless, the story was widely covered this week, with deniers ignoring the many and varied sources confirming NOAA's data and conclusions about Earth's continued warming were sound and free of manipulation.

Surprises

In a surprising communications coup for reaching mainstream America, the 21 youth suing the U.S. government on climate change were featured in star-studded People magazine. "The worse climate change gets, the more my generation is going to have to deal with," 19-year-old Kiran Oommen is quoted as saying in the opening paragraph. "And at the same time, we have no say in how it is addressed." The 2015 Oregon lawsuit that had been aimed at President Obama has been amended to now target President Trump. "Trump is scary," 19-year-old plaintiff Tia Hatton said in Thursday's San Francisco Chronicle, referring to his assertion that climate change is a hoax. "He's terrifying."

A surprising climate adaption in India's northeastern state of Sikkim has turned the threat of bursting glacial lakes into a near-term asset. After fast-melting glaciers over-filled a lake at 17,500 feet, risking devastating flooding in villages below, engineer Sonam Wangchuk created a system for siphoning off excess water and routing it to where it could be frozen into towers for villagers to tap for crop irrigation. "We are also exploring ice climbing, ice skating, ice hockey and ice sculpture... in order to develop a new form of winter tourism..." he said. Unfortunately, longer term, there may be no glaciers to sustain these clever innovations.

In one of the more significant surprises this week, China's Communist Party Central Committee and State Council issued joint guidelines for establishing by 2020 an environmental "red line" to ensure the country's most vital ecological assets—such as soil, water and biodiversity—are protected. The directive called the "red line" a "bottom line" and "life line" for the nation.

Litigious future

President Trump's litigious nature was on center stage this week as his administration fought to save his hastily conceived travel ban for people from seven Muslim countries. "SEE YOU IN COURT," a defiant Trump tweeted after a federal appeals court late Thursday unanimously refused to reinstate the controversial executive order. It seemed like a telling first day in office for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been approved by a 52-47 Senate vote the day before.

The Department of Justice may find itself in court over another Trump executive order requiring federal agencies to identify two regulations "for elimination" for every new regulation created. Public Citizen, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Communications Workers of America filed a lawsuit Wednesday, claiming the directive "will block or force the repeal of regulations needed to protect health, safety and the environment across a broad range of topics—from automobile safety, to occupational health, to air pollution, to endangered species," exceeding the president's authority and flouting that given Congress. While some experts said the suit has little chance of success, Tom McGarity of the University of Texas at Austin law school, characterized is as putting the Trump team on notice. "The environmental groups are going at this with all guns blazing," he said. "It is a kind of a shot across the bow to the administration [saying] that you can write these executive orders, but you're going to run into resistance when they cause agencies to conflict with what Congress has told them to do."

While Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), awaited his full Senate vote, The New York Times reported that Trump is expected to celebrate Pruitt's confirmation with an executive order repealing the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt himself reportedly has a plan "to leave most coal-fired power plants operating but require them to install energy-efficiency technology to slightly lower their emissions."

Meanwhile, nearly 450 former EPA employees signed a letter Monday asking senators to vote against Pruitt's confirmation because his "record and public statements strongly suggest that he does not share the vision or agree with the underlying principles of our environmental laws," and he "has gone to disturbing lengths to advance the views and interests of business."

On Tuesday, the Center for Media and Democracy filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma against Pruitt for refusing to respond to nine requests made under the state's Open Records Act for emails between his office and energy companies. The public and the Senate should be aware of Pruitt's "strong relationships with Oklahoma's oil and gas companies," said Nick Surgey, the center's director of research.

On Wednesday, Inside EPA reported that the Trump team is considering dissolving the agency's enforcement division—the Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance (OECA)—and distributing its duties among program offices. "Dissolving OECA would have a disastrous effect on EPA's ability to do its job,” said Nicholas Conger, the agency's former communications director. "Americans depend on a strong federal enforcement presence, and that depends on having a program that is directly focused on holding polluters accountable and ensuring they fix their problems." Asked about the alleged dissolution, the agency's press office told The Huffington Post, "EPA does not have a confirmed administrator, and we cannot speculate on future plans for the agency."

Possible breakthrough

People who know China know that official news is most informative when read between the lines. The same may be true of the Trump administration's machinations. If so, advocates of the Paris Agreement may have been given reason for hope today.

China's official Xinhua news agency confirmed Thursday that President Xi Jinping "and the Chinese people" had received a Lunar New Year greeting from President Trump, "saying that he looked forward to working with China to develop a constructive relationship." Xinhua reported that "China is ready to work with the U.S. side to expand cooperation and manage any differences, guided by the principles of upholding non-conflict and non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so that bilateral ties develop in a healthy and stable way," according to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang. "China and the United States both [have] a responsibility to safeguard world peace and stability and promote global development and prosperity," the report said. Safeguarding world "stability" could be a veiled reference to climate mitigation, Chinese installations in disputed parts of the South China Sea and/or the One China policy regarding Taiwan, all of which Trump has threatened to trash.

In an even more dramatic overture, Trump called Xi Thursday night—Friday morning in Beijing—to discuss "numerous topics, and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our One China policy," the White House said of the "extremely cordial" exchange, during which the leaders agreed to meet in person.

"Xi, Trump agree to boost win-win cooperation, develop constructive China-U.S. ties," Xinhua declared in a headline today. "Xi said he greatly appreciated Trump's willingness to expand China-U.S. cooperation and develop a constructive bilateral relationship that will benefit the two countries and the international community," the story said, making another possible reference to climate mitigation. Xi also said China would "work with the United States to enhance communication and cooperation so that bilateral ties can advance in a sound and stable manner and yield more fruits to benefit the two peoples and people of all countries in the world," the state-run Global Times reported. One of the most successful of those "bilateral ties," Xi has said in the past, is the two superpowers' cooperation on fighting climate change.

Long way to go

An editorial in today's Indian Express lays out a critical bottom line for the India's obligations under the Paris Agreement: "There are still three years before India has to comply with its Paris climate targets. The failure of thermal power plants to comply with... emission norms does not show the country's preparedness in good light. Most thermal power plants in the country work at efficiencies below 33 percent. While there has been much glib talk on emission targets for these plants, the technological inputs required for the purpose have received very little attention. It is time the country braces for the challenge."

As of December 31, India had just over 50 gigawatts of grid-connected renewable power capacity, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy announced. That total includes 28.7 gigawatts of wind, about 9 gigawatts of solar, plus a mix of small hydro, bioenergy and waste-to-energy facilities—still a long way from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's goal of 175 megawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2022.

The government plans to create, within six to 12 months, a web-based means of monitoring state-owned power retailers' compliance with requirements to buy renewable energy, according to an official of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission. Of the country's 35 states and territories, only six met their mandated quotas for purchasing renewable energy during the fiscal year that ended in March 2016, government data show. While eight others met more than 60 percent of their obligations, the majority fell far short.

Bids for India's first major solar auction of 2017 were 16-percent lower per kilowatt hour than the low bid in 2016, with prices likely to fall further, which "bodes ill" for coal miners pinning hope on India, Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at Australia's Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, wrote on Thursday. He deemed these decreasing solar prices "commercially viable" as well as "replicable and sustainable" because "a whole host of factors are driving down the delivered cost of solar electricity in India." And for that reason, he wrote, "We see Indian uptake of solar growing... ."

Meanwhile, the power subsidiary of Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group seems to be hedging its bets, aiming to cash in on coal and renewables. The company named a new CEO for its renewable energy unit in Australia this week, while declaring its aim to become the country's largest generator of renewable energy. At the same time, Adani Australia CEO Jeyakumar Janakaraj continued to insist the company remains committed to building its mega coal mine in Queensland, from which it intends to ship vast amounts of the fossil fuel back to India.

Looking forward

With Rex Tillerson now at the helm of U.S. diplomacy, a glimmer of hope emerged from the White House this week with regard to U.S. relations with China. That may or may not have been his doing. But he is known to support a carbon tax, so perhaps there also is hope for some iteration of the plan proposed to the Trump administration by James Baker and his august entourage.

Tom Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, predicted that Trump will soon fulfill more of his climate-related campaign promises. "The key will be getting an energy and environment team in place...," said Pyle, who was part of Trump's Energy Department transition team. That means getting Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry approved by the Senate, which could happen next week. But with Trump now making nice with China and after his spectacular defeat in federal court on Thursday, might he be seeking moderation where energy and the environment are concerned?

And then there's Congress, where Republicans are looking to skinny down the EPA to skeletal form and "modernize" environmental laws like the Clean Air Act.

Week four of the Trump administration is likely to bring interesting times—and plenty of them.

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