Climate change has been paid due lip service by Republican and Democrat presidencies since the issue first worked its way into the mainstream political agenda under President Nixon. Fairly little action has been taken since in terms of effective policymaking. The Obama administration was no exception. Some mostly symbolic, and apparently easily reversible, executive presidential orders were issued and a toothless, international treaty was negotiated but overall there is a general perception that the former president’s legacy will be dismantled by the incoming Trump administration.
The Trump presidency: A blessing in disguise for climate activism?
Beyond the tit-for-tat factional politicking that we have come to expect of North American democracy and its complex cryptic political rhetoric, the Trump presidency may ultimately prove to be the most unwillingly transformative administration yet regarding the unfolding global warming drama. For the first time since 1969 an American president has fearlessly decided to skip over mountains of scientific evidence and decades of politically correct platitudes to place the issue at the centre of his presidency’s political agenda; albeit if only in an effort to deny it. Trump may, however, prove to be a blessing in disguise for climate activism; a singular turning point for the largely inconsequential political strategies that activists have conceived to advance their cause so far.
As the classic protest song from the 1960s would have it, “There’s battle lines being drawn and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”. Indeed, Trump has managed to draw, in only a few weeks’ time, new lines in the climate change political battle with bold, abstract expressionist strokes that may have an initially shocking aesthetic effect but may prove, ultimately, to be only intelligible as a representation of Trump’s peculiar personality. Propagandistically, no doubt, Trump has been astute in reducing a complex scientific and intellectual debate to 140-character Twitter sound bites suggesting geopolitical conspiracy theories that have undoubtedly resonated with politically sceptical and economically depressed working and middle class Americans. Tellingly, Trump’s campaign spin that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China with the goal of making American industry non-competitive is vaguely reminiscent of German nationalists’ concerns in the 1970s that the Nixon administration was trying to use the issue to check Germany’s emerging industrial power. In due course, this politically clever tweet could come back to bite Trump since the relaxation of American environmental legislation to regain industrial competitiveness can only result in more climate induced environmental disasters for the American workers whose interests he claims to prioritise. A form of socio-environmental dumping that Trump, ironically, accuses his main commercial rivals of inflicting upon America.
Trump’s battle plan to dismantle Obama’s squalid climate legacy and how it may backfire
Politically speaking the Trump administration’s blunt and undisguised pro-fossil fuel political strategy could have similar unintended consequences. By appointing leading climate sceptic legislators and fossil fuel industry leaders to the top positions in the federal agencies that could really do something about the weather (other than talk about it) Trump is likely to almost certainly become a victim of his own friendly fire. Battles are messy affairs that rarely unfold according to plan. Trump will soon learn this in the same way Obama did; the hard way. Obama’s most effective allies in his fight against climate change were the aforementioned federal government agencies while his toughest enemy was Republican congress. In Trump’s case the role play will most likely be reversed. Congress will undoubtedly lead the charge but the civil servants that populate the federal agencies will in all likelihood emerge as an ‘enemy within’ sabotaging the Trump presidency’s every move. The road to hell is not only paved with good intentions, as was Obama’s case. Bad intentions will also lead the perpetrator down the same path. Trump simply cannot ‘fire’ all federal government civil servants, at least legally. Unfortunately for him, the Federal government is not the political equivalent of the stage of the TV show The Apprentice.
Trump has managed to draw, in only a few weeks’ time, new lines in the climate change political battle.
Let us for a moment consider Trump’s hastily conceived battle plan for undermining the fight against climate change. Thorough and subtle it is not. As Sun Tzu, a favourite reference of Steve Bannon – Trump’s influential political advisor – notes, “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his head before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand”. Surprisingly, for a president who follows the advice of paleoconservative masterminds, his battle plan seems to ignore the powers of the ‘managerial class’ they so despise. Trump may have come to power on the wings of the most politically cynical faction of the 1% but if he is to advance his political agenda he will need the technocrats on his side so as to carry his agenda through the boring, day-to-day grinding realities of effective bureaucratic governance. A state’s technocratic apparatus is a formidable machine, as history has repeatedly proven, that can trump (pun intended) even the 1% when properly managed. Trump the businessman, however, is actively hostile to red tape and bureaucrats, and this could ultimately prove to be his demise.
Assume for a moment that Trump is able to push through Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry’s appointments as leaders of the EPA and the Department of Energy, respectively. Pruitt has been a formidable adversary of the EPA, no doubt. Nevertheless, does this make him, strategically speaking, the best candidate for the job? Pruitt must, in order to have the slightest chance of making the EPA technocrats help him achieve his not so hidden agenda, change his tune regarding climate change at least publicly. He has already begun this painful conversion by acknowledging that some form of climate change is taking place thus making him effectively give in, at least in part, to the agency’s official line. Whether the EPA’s staff will actually buy this sudden conversion is another matter particularly when taking into account that in the past he has promised to liquidate the agency upon which their livelihood depends on. Further, when one thinks about Pruitt’s best career interests; what politician would want to be remembered for driving to ruin the organisation he was empowered to lead? This does not make for a good Curriculum Vitae bullet point. Rick Perry’s contradictions are similar. This is a politician that in a televised debate forgot the name of the federal agencies he vowed to eliminate. No one doubts Perry’s political intentions – just his memory. When dealing with civil servants one must be tenacious, single purposed, and meticulous to be sure goals are accomplished. None of these traits seem to figure prominently amongst Perry’s many virtues as a politician. Instead, his self-serving ambition may very well lead him to meet the technocrats halfway if only to advance his political career further.
So we are left with Rex Tillerson; probably the subtlest, and therefore the ablest, of Trump’s climate change denialist triumvirate. The USA’s future secretary of state is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. It is suspected that his hidden agenda includes removing economic sanctions on Russia so as to re-open their oil fields to American fossil fuel companies. So be it. Uncertainties abound regarding the commercial consequences of this operation. Is the re-opening of the Keystone XL pipeline project with Canada that Trump announced, for example, viable in light of a potential massive influx of cheap oil from Russia? In fact, in this scenario of abundant, cheap oil, USA fracking industries could also have a hard time surviving, thus undermining the job creation promises in the American Midwest that Trump articulated throughout his campaign.
A state’s technocratic apparatus is a formidable machine, as history has repeatedly proven, that can trump (pun intended) even the 1% when properly managed.
Regarding climate change international negotiations what is the absolute worst that could happen under Tillerson’s watch? The Paris agreement, which is based on the voluntary ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’, is already an ineffective mess; precisely reinforcing the point made in this article that one of the keys to policy implementation success lies in the daily ‘devil is in the details’ work of technocrats that can undo even the noblest of political intentions. Technocrats, indeed, can subvert almost any initiative; unless it’s in their best interest. As the behind-the-scenes negotiator he is, Tillerson may find it interesting to throw a bone to the climate activist movement in order to distract politically powerful environmentalist opposition in the USA and also as a way, perhaps, of making Middle East oil more expensive so as to favour his Russian and Canadian business protégés. This could very well result in some kind of move towards a Federal ‘carbon tax’, a policy that he has publicly advocated for in the past. This, as the leading environmental economist William Nordhaus has shown, would probably make for far more effective climate mitigation policy than all of those depressingly ineffective ‘cap and trade’ based international agreements. What’s more, it wouldn’t cost the fossil fuel industry a single cent since the main expense would fall upon, as is usual, the taxpayer.
How climate activism can exploit paleoconservatism’s demagogical abstractions
So Donald Trump has already incurred two important initial strategic errors. First, he has unnecessarily angered the ‘managerial class’. Second, he has violated Sun Tzu’s basic strategic design principles: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” A Twitter thunderbolt he is, indeed, but his plans do not seem dark and impenetrable. In fact, they could well end up, like his immigrant ban, mired in endless legal labyrinths that, with some luck, may even outlast his presidency. And so the silver lining for climate activists emerges from the dark horizon. Under Trump, climate denial is finally out of the shadows. Much like vampires they will be destroyed by the light but only if climate activists will find the ideological silver bullet necessary to address the short-term problems of the American working and middle classes that voted Trump into power. American workers cannot wait for the vague, sustainable, over the rainbow paradise that climate activists promise since, as Keynes rightfully pointed out, “in the long term we are all dead”. The Trump presidency should then serve the same purpose as the waking up call service available in his hotels. His political inadequacies should wake up climate activists and provide them with the four-year sounding board needed to articulate a vision of where they want to take us and how. And here’s a start. According to recent Bureau of Labor statistics, renewable energy industries already provide more direct jobs than oil and gas extraction in America. A few windmills placed in the right strategic locations could, then, not only serve the purpose of generating a few kilowatts of clean energy but could also help undermine the arguments of clever climate sceptic paleoconservative demagogues.