The State of Climate Change on Inauguration Day

Just as America’s 45th president assumes office this week comes news that Earth has passed yet another troubling milestone in climate change: scientists reported on Wednesday that the planet reached its highest temperature on record in 2016.

That obliterates a record set only a year earlier, which beat a record set two years before that. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

The Situation Greeting Our New President

President Donald Trump is facing an urgent situation that will require sustained action on a variety of fronts, from the legal to the commercial to the technological. The new president is coming into office as a host of new environmental accords come online both internationally and at the state and federal level.

He also will be in office as new, green technologies ranging from driverless cars and trucks to fuel catalysts are put in place over the next four years. These technologies have the potential to help reduce dangerous, toxic emissions and dramatically improve fuel savings.

In an interview with The New York Times after his surprise in November, Trump, who had been a climate skeptic, said he has an “open mind” about how he would approach the issue. He also conceded there was “some connectivity” between global warming and human activity.

Climate Change as ‘Risk Management’

His cabinet picks have sent mixed signals on climate change, but many have couched their approach to global warming in optimistic terms.

“Well, I view global warming and climate change as a serious risk. And I’m in the risk-management business,” Rex Tillerson, chief executive at Exxon Mobil and Trump’s pick to head the State Department told Charlie Rose in 2013. “That’s basically what our company does is manage all kinds of risk. And we’re very comfortable managing risks that have a wide array of uncertainty around them.

“So as I look at climate change and global warming as a risk-management challenge for policymakers, then I think you undertake it like we manage all risks,” Tillerson continued. “You take steps – sensible steps that can mitigate the risk by controlling the rate of growth of greenhouse-gas emissions through a lot of the things we’ve talked about.”

The Industrial Challenge

Many experts also are increasingly optimistic that the apparatus is largely in place to combat climate change. The challenge will be for business and industry to smoothly integrate these smart technologies in industries ranging from transportation to construction and mining and large-scale power generation. 

Clean-energy technologies have become much cheaper and more efficient, outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz pointed out in a recent interview with The Washington Post. The global market for them will lure U.S. companies in increasing use. Utility and manufacturing industry executives, who have to plan investments on 30-year time horizons, aren’t likely to make long-term bets on high-carbon projects, Moniz said.

The Declining Cost of Alternative Energies

Declines in the costs of alternative energy sources are making them increasingly competitive. Since 2008, costs have fallen 41 percent for land-based wind power and 64 percent for utility-scale solar power. The cost of efficient LED light bulbs has fallen 94 percent since 2008. The cost of battery storage has declined 70 percent over that period, making electric vehicles more affordable. As of last August, there were 490,000 electric vehicles on the road.

And the energy industry is a major U.S. employer, one the new president will want to encourage. According to an Energy Department study released this month, the energy sector as a whole employs about 6.4 million Americans, with 2.2 million of that total employed in design, installation or manufacture of “energy efficiency products and services,” a sector that added 133,000 jobs in 2016.

Even coal, which has taken a beating lately, has a future in this new environment. But it will be shaped by the ability to capture carbon emissions, Moniz and others say. Utilities at home and abroad will want “clean coal,” so the advance of carbon-capture technologies will be crucial for the industry’s economic survival, regardless of federal policy.


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