This Land: Paris Pullout Won’t Bring Back Coal

The list of people, institutions and companies upset by Donald Trump’s decision to make the United States walk away from the Paris climate accord is long: 70 percent of the American public according to recent polls, coal companies that wanted a seat at the table, major American companies like Apple, innovators like Elon Musk, finance experts like the CEO of Goldman Sachs, and most world leaders.

There’s good reason to be upset. Withdrawing from the Paris accord puts the United States in the company of only two other nations that refused to sign on: Nicaragua (which thought the accord didn’t go far enough) and Syria (which is in the midst of a devastating civil war).

The United States is walking away from a leadership role in dealing with one of the most serious crises in the world. And it will put American companies at a competitive disadvantage in the development of advanced energy technologies. French President Emmanuel Macron has already invited U.S. scientists and entrepreneurs to come to France to help develop “concrete solutions for our climate, our environment.”

Most coalfield politicians, on the other hand, had nothing but praise for this short-sighted and foolish decision.

“President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement is the right decision for the American economy and workers in West Virginia and across the country,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. “West Virginians have suffered tremendous economic calamity as a result of the Obama administration’s anti-coal agenda, and President Obama should not have unilaterally committed the United States to an international climate agreement without consent of the Senate.”

“The Paris Climate Agreement is a flawed deal that puts America’s energy needs and economic growth on the back burner, while transferring money and power to unelected international bureaucrats,” said U.S. Rep. David McKinley, echoing comments from West Virginia’s two other representatives. “I urge President Trump to seize this opportunity and champion technology to provide affordable, efficient and reliable energy.”

Even Democrat Joe Manchin got in on the unwarranted praise. “While I believe that the United States and the world should continue to pursue a cleaner energy future, I do not believe that the Paris agreement ensures a balance between our environment and our economy,” the senator said. “To find that balance, we should seek agreements that prioritize the protection of the American consumer, as well as energy-producing states like West Virginia, while also incentivizing the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.”

In Virginia, U.S. Reps. Morgan Griffith and Bob Goodlatte also praised the decision, claiming the accord was a bad deal that put “significant burdens” on the United States.

None of these remarks is remotely close to the truth, and they are all based on the mistaken notion that pulling out of the Paris accords will somehow be good for coal.

During the speech announcing his decision, Trump mentioned coal eight times — as many times as he mentioned climate. He once more pledged his love of coal miners, lied about what China and India were planning to do with coal production and lied by saying the agreement transfers coal jobs out of America.

Trump also demonstrated his fundamental misunderstanding of the accords (along with English and basic logic), when he said: “Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”

How can a nonbinding agreement impose “draconian financial and economic burdens” on anybody? The Paris accords allowed nations to set their own goals and to determine on their own how to meet them.

As Vox’s David Roberts explained, the point of the accord is to set aspirational goals “to use the power of public commitment and accountability.” The only ramification for setting obscenely low goals or failing to meet commitments would be wounded pride on the international stage. Trump has already made the idea that America’s international pride could be further wounded laughable.

But is the withdrawal good for the coal industry or coal miners as Appalachia’s elected officials insist? Nope. Isolating the United States from the rest of the global community on this issue is not going to put a single coal miner back to work. It will do nothing to change the market conditions that have led to the massive shift away from coal as a power generator. It will do nothing to make Appalachian coal cheaper or easier to mine.

And even with an administration hostile to renewable energy, strides will continue — driven by entrepreneurs like Musk, state initiatives and consumer demand. Energy efficiency initiatives will also continue to drive down demand for electricity — and these combined forces may even mean the United States will hit the goals set in the accord despite Trump’s best efforts.

Aside from abdicating American leadership, all Trump managed to do with this stunt is make the United States look worse, soothe an ego bruised by his chilly reception on the world stage, and, once more, give miners and their false hope that a new boom is right around the corner. Elected officials who praised the decision add to that false hope.

To their everlasting shame.

Radmacher is former editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette and The Roanoke Times. This Land is a weekly column produced by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.   

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