State of the Union: Trump Glorifies Coal, Shuts Eyes to Climate Risks

Trump talked of the year's climate disasters—without saying 'climate change'—and while repeating his usual promotion of the fossil fuels that drive global warming.

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Donald Trump gives the 2018 State of the Union Address. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images
President Trump talked about energy, but only fossil fuels; extreme weather, but not climate change; and jobs and trade, without mentioning the thousands of U.S. solar jobs his tariff plan puts at risk. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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It was a distinct irony to hear President Donald Trump open his State of the Union address by reciting the litany of climate calamities that the nation survived in 2017.

“We endured floods and fires and storms,” he said, as he recognized the bravery of public servants who had saved dozens of people trapped in a hurricane and a wildfire.

But he said not a word about the manmade global warming that makes those risks more dangerous year after year. And his only discussion of energy policies made no nod to the clean energy transformation that scientists prescribe to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the risks.

We have ended the war on American energy,” Trump declared, “and we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal. We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world.”

But his formulation was riddled with falsehoods: that one of the richest and most powerful of American industries needed snatching from the jaws of defeat and that fossil fuels were the only kind of energy that truly mattered. He erroneously suggested that his policies rather than market forces were behind the long-running oil and gas boom, and that coal—the dirtiest of fuels, vanquished by the forces of natural gas, renewables and efficiency—could be restored to its erstwhile throne.

Secretary of State and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson greets President Trump at the State of the Union address. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Secretary of State and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, with Defense Secretary James Mattis, greets President Trump at the State of the Union address. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rolling back regulations and opening up fossil fuel reserves have been hallmarks of Trump’s economic agenda, threaded like woof and warp into a tapestry of environmental policy encircled by a fringe of climate denial.

So the substantive question of climate change was supplanted by small talk about the weather. Relief for Puerto Rico, whose U.S. citizens have no seat in Congress, got short shrift. (Federal hurricane food and water relief for the U.S. territory is being cut off this week, a FEMA official told NPR.)

The Republican majority, and maybe a few Democrats who are allied with fossil fuel interests, applauded those lines Tuesday night, as did Trump himself—clapping loudly into his own microphone in an oratorical tic that was unusual for the occasion.

He even gave Exxon a shout-out for increasing investment in domestic oil and gas production. The cameras, obligingly, panned momentarily to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon chief executive who left the company to feebly oversee the administration’s retreat from the nation’s Paris climate agreement commitments.

A Divisive Agenda

Andrew Steer, head of the World Resources Institute, denounced Trump, who he said “repeatedly fails to recognize the mounting threat of climate change.”

“His views stand in sharp contrast to leading CEOs, scientists, local officials and people across the country—millions of whom are still recovering from disasters. A recent survey among leading executives found that natural disasters, extreme weather, climate change and water crises are among the top global risks,” Steer said.

For much of his speech—including when he talked of his hope of launching an infrastructure rebuilding program—Trump spoke as though his policies were uniting the country.

“We have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government,” he said blithely, as if the environmental protests, litigation and partisanship of the past year never happened.

But the reality is that his agenda, on climate and the environment as much as on immigration, health care and taxes, has been deeply divisive.

And this speech, even though it steered clear of the morose bitterness that colored his “American carnage” inaugural address and the feistiness and falsehoods that typify @RealDonaldTrump on Twitter, brought mainly the Republican majority to their feet and left the Democratic minority mostly in their seats.

Infrastructure: Shortcuts, Environmental Risk

Even his infrastructure program, featuring limited federal investment as “leverage” to sway states, cities and the private sector to do most of the spending, has left Democrats cold—quite a feat, since they usually favor shovel-ready economic stimulus.

One reason is that Trump’s infrastructure plan appears to be built on a foundation of shortcuts that environmentalists say would undermine regulatory protections for species, ecosystems, climate and public health.

“Rather than propose the investment needed to modernize our infrastructure, the president is touting harmful environmental rollbacks,” said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In testimony before a House subcommittee on Tuesday, Scott Slesinger, the legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, made the same point.

“The poor state of our infrastructure is not because of environmental reviews or permitting,” he said. “Our problem is cash. The solution is the political will to appropriate the needed dollars. Environmental reviews and permitting are scapegoats.”

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