President Trump could win big on infrastructure – if he rethinks his stance on climate change

President Trump eliminating some regulations on the mining industry. So, yay. Image: Getty.

Disaster was narrowly averted on 12 February, after America’s tallest dam threatened to release a deluge of water over thousands of homes. Dramatic scenes of water cascading from the Oroville dam emerged after a hole the size of a football field appeared in the spillway floor, allowing water to rip through its foundations and compromise the whole structure. Authorities ordered 180,000 people to evacuate while the water level was lowered to relieve pressure on the damaged spillway. But 48 hours later, the immediate danger had passed and residents were allowed to return home.

This near catastrophe is just the latest symptom of the chronic ill-health of America’s civil infrastructure, which has suffered from decades of under-investment and neglect. But the Oroville dam crisis could provide an unexpected opportunity for the new Trump administration to take on both problems – and win.

Winning is important to the US president, Donald Trump. This is not in dispute. He has built his name, his fame and his entire presidential campaign on being seen to be a winner. In office, he has been quick to reject situations where there is no easy win in sight: from his opposition to the environmental lobby, to his dislike of multilateral trade deals and his “shut up shop” attitude on migration.

But when it comes to infrastructure, the win is clear to see: stuff is broken, stuff can be fixed by good, honest blue-collar workers driving proper US-made machines. These things can be paid for using money – and money is what Trump knows about. New roads, new jobs, a New Deal even – these all look like wins for a relentlessly ambitious president.


What’s the damage?

But renewing the nation’s failing infrastructure is not a simple process, as successive White House administrations have found. Up to $1trn is required to repair or replace ageing dams, bridges, highways and all the other components that support modern civilisation. Where to source the money has been a subject of political wrangling for decades.

Arguments between state and federal administrations, fuelled by political in-fighting and lobbyists – including environmentalists who are opposed to big infrastructure on principle – have all contributed to the stasis. But with a new strategy, Trump might just be able to score a big win where other presidents have lost out.

For water infrastructure, such as Oroville dam, perhaps the most obvious part of the problem is the weather. After five years of extreme drought, this winter has brought record rainfalls. Just prior to the crisis, the Oroville reservoir and others like it were at more than 150 per cent of their normal capacity.

Full to overflowing. Image: Monica M Davey/EPA.

Under these conditions, every storm becomes a challenge for water resource engineers. But what has this got to do with Trump’s infrastructure promise? Year-on-year variations in seasonal weather are highly unpredictable. But in the longer term, atmospheric rivers (a key factor in Californian climate) and similar extreme weather events are robustly predicted to increase in frequency as the global climate warms. The strong balance of scientific evidence and opinion suggests that greenhouse gas emitters worldwide are at least partially responsible: particularly in the US and China, which together generate a third of world emissions

The denier’s dilemma

This presents Trump the climate change denier with a dilemma. To get the win on infrastructure, he needs money. To get the money in a reasonable time frame, he will need corporate investors who are prepared to cut through the political deadlock. But investors require incentives to channel funds into long-term public works, for which Trump will claim the bulk of the credit. And market economics suggests that if there was any money in it for them, this would already be happening.

The Oroville dam, though, demonstrates that some of the largest imminent threats to infrastructure will increase through climate change. If Trump could take an executive decision to shift his position on that – surely not hard for someone who deals so readily in “alternative facts” – then a pathway to the win could open up.

Keen for a win. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Wikimedia commons.

Apportioning blame for carbon emissions could bolster his case for tariffs and other sanctions on Chinese imports. A similar economic stick for domestic polluters would be less palatable, but the money raised could be used to provide corporations with financial incentives to invest in maintaining infrastructure, expanding renewables and adopting green, energy-efficient technology. All these projects promise long-term gains for US businesses and jobs, if only the initial inertia could be overcome. Carbon reduction tariffs, linked specifically to infrastructure renewal incentives, could provide that vital momentum.

Such ideas have been around for decades: environmental thinkers including Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins espouse the notion of “natural capitalism” – a market-driven economics which centres on the value of natural resources. The Oroville dam provides compelling evidence of the hard economic costs of inaction on infrastructure.

Accepting man-made climate change could provide Trump with a chance to deliver on one of his major campaign promises, change the face of capitalism and perhaps even save the world along the way. Doesn’t that look like a win? The Conversation

Jonathan Bridge is a senior lecturer in physical geography at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.


Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.