This week Pres. Donald Trump dealt a blow to global warming mitigation efforts with his executive order on energy. The president’s directive intends to “promote energy independence and economic growth,” according to the order—mainly by rolling back Obama-era climate policies. The order’s chief target is the Clean Power Plan, which requires the power sector to reduce its carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It also instructs agencies to reconsider methane regulations and lifts a freeze on federal land leases for coal mining, among other actions. The executive order does not withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord but the nation will likely not meet its greenhouse gas emission targets if Trump’s directive succeeds.
Scientific American spoke with Jeffrey Sachs, a leading expert on economic development, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General on the Millennium Development Goals, about how the White House’s executive order will affect the climate, national economy and international community.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Pres. Trump released a major executive order this week on climate and energy. What do you think of it?
Everything the president has done is unwise, dangerous for the planet and bad for the economy. At the same time, I doubt [the executive order] will have much practical significance because it will be challenged in court. And I also don’t think a lot of resources will move toward coal, oil or gas. It will end up having a negligible effect—but if it were to have an effect, it would be absolutely detrimental.
The president’s executive order aims to promote energy independence. How much does the U.S. currently rely on foreign energy, and how would Trump's directive change that?
We can end our dependence on foreign energy, but not the way Trump conveys it. We have plenty of wind and solar power, and access to hydropower from Canada and solar power from Mexico. Energy dependence on the Middle East should disappear as we move away from a petroleum-dependent economy. The idea that one needs to end the Clean Power Plan or methane regulations or open federal lands to coal mining has nothing to do with our energy independence or security. So yes, we should end our oil import dependence, but not by replacing it with domestic fossil fuel production. Instead, we should replace it with zero-carbon energy.
If Pres. Trump’s executive order succeeds, what kind of an impact will it have on the economy?
It would hurt the economy by damaging efforts to address climate change, which is already costly—and it will become more costly over time unless we get it under control. There is no positive in what Trump has done. I doubt it’s going to achieve anything though, because it’s against the law. Regulations cannot just be trampled on by an executive order—the Environmental Protection Agency is obliged under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. This has been confirmed by the courts many times. There are also investors who know more than to put their money behind a vacuous executive order. In this sense, Trump’s order is roughly akin to the [executive order barring immigration from several majority-Muslim countries] in that it’s a campaign promise, but it’s mostly empty words.
We now have a president who has previously denied the existence of climate change, and whose administration is now pulling back on U.S. climate action. How do you predict this will affect the rest of the world?
If there is follow-through, it will hand low-carbon energy leadership to China. So the big effect will be on our industrial, technological base. We will set it back because the rest of the world will move to low-carbon energy—and the countries that provide the cutting-edge technology will derive economic benefit from it. China is already in the race to be the low-cost provider of just about every renewable energy, electric vehicles, smart rail—and the Chinese government has announced that by 2025 it wants China to be an advanced technology leader in the low-carbon economy. Trump is basically telling them, “Go ahead—the U.S. is going to become the champion of the 20th-century economy.”
Do you think the administration and Congress can be persuaded to address climate change?
Yes, eventually this will change. Some of our Republican senators will see that this is really detrimental to U.S. security—not only because of the climate effect but because of the technology competition with China. Some of our leading businesses will start to emphasize that this is a very costly, backward-looking, anti-industrial policy, and that will have an impact as well.
This whole executive order, the political appointments that Trump has made and the attempt to revive the Keystone XL Pipeline [a proposed Canada–U.S. oil pipeline] are all contrary to market forces, science and America’s competitive needs. There will be a growing realization that none of this makes sense, and that will be the reason for a reversal. But when that will happen is hard to predict.
How do you predict the next four—or eight—years will play out, for climate change action in the U.S. and globally?
I predict we will continue to see more investments in low-carbon energy as well as in the electrification of transport in general, and personal vehicles in particular. We’ll see particular regions of the U.S. such as the Northeast and California keep moving forward in these efforts—and even surprising areas like parts of Texas, which are investing heavily in wind and solar power, will continue to do so as well.
The rest of the world, I believe, will similarly continue on the trajectory set by the Paris climate agreement. There may be some countries that point to the U.S. and see this as a blessing for a slowdown. But almost everyone has figured out the truth. Gulf countries know they can’t rely on oil in the future, and Australia has lost 80 percent of the Great Barrier Reef to warming ocean temperatures, which is a huge wake-up call.
We may not have the clarity, the intensity and the consistency we need to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement, but we’re not going to have a reversal of direction. And at some point we’re going to dramatically pick up the pace. I hope, of course, that it’s not too late.
You’ve previously mentioned that you are going to help start a new political party. What exactly are you doing and why do you feel it's necessary?
A widening group of people feel that both parties, in their mainstream, are too much in the pockets of vested interests. It’s leading to bad public policy, a weakening of America’s economic base and an unraveling of our social base. The people I’m speaking with are looking at ways we can help to move both the existing parties back toward fairness and rationality, and spring them free from lobbying power. That may be an independent party or it may be an aggressive challenge to the incumbents of both parties, or some combination of the two. But it won’t be business as usual.