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Climate change and the post-election blues

Meredith Fowlie, Associate Professor and Class of 1935 Distinguished Chair in Energy | November 28, 2016

I am living in a very blue state. The graph below charts Google searches for “stages of grief.” The spike in grief-stricken web/soul searching corresponds with — you guessed it — the 2016 election. The map shows where, in the days following the election, these searches were happening. Not surprisingly, post-election blues show up disproportionately in blue states.

graphGraph: Generated by Google trends (search term = “stages of grief”, region = United States). The numbers represent search interest (by week) relative to the highest point over the past 5 years. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term.


Map:  Also generated by Google trends, measures search term popularity as a fraction of total searches in that state.  Deeper blue indicates higher popularity of Trump grief in the week following the election.

Many of us who are feeling blue about what a Trump presidency could usher in (or throw away) have been seeking comfort in other like-minded blue folks who share our perspective. I don’t see anything wrong with retreating to ideological safe spaces for a time. But we can’t stay here for good. On several fronts, including energy and climate change policy, it’s critical to get past politics and find some common principles (this may sound like Berkeley Kumbaya talk, but I stole this line from Glen Beck).

Trump has taken what was already a polarized policy debate about energy and environmental policy to an extreme. Obama’s energy policies are “death by a thousand cuts.” Environmental regulations have “destroyed millions of jobs.” Proposed regulations and environmental restrictions “will cost the economy over $5 trillion.”  Scrapping these regulations is “all upside.” Climate change is a “hoax.”

This rhetoric appeals to raw emotions and fear. It exaggerates the economic impacts of environmental policies while ignoring or dismissing the substantive benefits. It misrepresents research results and contradicts the consensus views of the scientific community. But there are kernels of truth that resonate with people who fear more stringent environmental regulation will take their economic situation from bad to worse.

It’s true that the impacts of Obama’s emissions policies on manufacturing jobs, energy prices, and the economy have been misrepresented and/or grossly overstated by Trump. But it’s also true that energy prices will increase and some jobs will be lost (while others will be gained) in the transition to a low-carbon economy.  If there is common ground to be found, it will need to seriously address the costs of climate change policies, in addition to the formidable costs of doing nothing.

From rhetoric to reality

How blue should we be about this campaign rhetoric?  Reading the Trumpean tea leaves is hard — this is a man who prides himself in being unpredictable. As far as Trump’s energy and climate change policy are concerned, some outcomes are predictable. Others not so much.

One likely outcome is that Trump will fail to deliver on his promise to bring back the domestic coal industry. The industry’s biggest problem right now is not federal emissions regulations, but competition from other fuel sources. Natural gas, which has come to dominate electricity generation in the U.S., will likely continue to out-compete coal under an administration that has promised to accelerate permitting of new pipelines and drilling operations. Levelized costs of utility-scale wind are coming in under new coal, even before accounting for federal subsidies (although new coal costs reflect environmental compliance costs which may not apply going forward). Solar PV is still relatively expensive, but prices continue to fall. All of this competition from less carbon-intensive fuels is good news for climate change, but bad news for coal country hoping to see jobs come back.

Promises to scrap Obama’s environmental regulations have been particularly focused on the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Another predictable outcome is that Trump will hit some roadblocks if he tries to rescind this rule outright. But it seems very likely that Trump will undermine the CPP one way or another. This will please some Trump supporters and antagonize the environmental opposition. But it should not have a dramatic impact on emissions trajectories in the near term.


Source: EIA AEO 2016 Early Release

The figure shows EIA projections with and without the CPP. Projected electricity sector emissions hold fairly steady without the CPP. In this sense, we wouldn’t be losing much ground, particularly over the next four years. But to mitigate the damaging impacts of climate change, we need to be gaining ground. And scrapping the CPP pushes us off this path.

In the near term, I think the most discouraging impact that Trump will have on climate change mitigation is not the immediate emissions impacts, but the change in trajectory and intent. The withdrawal of the world’s second largest emitter from global climate change mitigation efforts at this critical point could cripple the momentum that’s been building since the Paris Agreement. To pick up some of this slack in climate leadership at the federal level, many are pinning their hopes on the (grieving blue) states.

Channeling those post-election blues

From my vantage point in one of the bluest of blue states (California), the transition from the denial phase of grief into the anger phase is pretty much complete.  Cue wrestling with the question of how to channel this anger for good.  The Governor is wisely advising us to “stay true to our basic principles” and to “confront” devastating climate change. But what basic principles should guide this confrontation?

With the federal pendulum swinging so far to one extreme, there’s an emotional and immediate temptation among some environmentalists to overcompensate and pursue reductions in the GHG emissions we can control at all costs. Wrong principle, I think. California accounts for about 1% of global GHG emissions. If we are going to get any traction in this climate change confrontation, we need other states and jurisdictions to follow our lead. So a first order guiding principle should be to pursue climate change policies and support the development of clean technologies that can find broader appeal/acceptance.

Post-election, there appear to be groups on the right and left who are genuinely interested in searching for common ground across a range of issues. If the blue/green states can demonstrate policies that (1) deliver real GHG emissions reduction (versus reallocation), (2) minimize emissions abatement costs to the extent possible, and (3) mitigate impacts on those who bear costs disproportionately, the case for climate change policy gets easier to make across a broader base.  Admittedly, this slow consensus building falls far short of the progress on climate change policy many of us had envisioned for the next four years. But it’s better than the alternatives. Including retreating to -and never making it out of – our blue states.

Cross-posted from the Energy at Haas Blog (UC Berkeley).