Let's give Trump a chance on climate

Power Player

Let's give Trump a chance on climate

It hit me as hard as anyone.

I wasn't one of those "Clinton Surrogates" during the "recent unpleasantness," but I did appear on CNBC a couple times during the campaign to extoll the business virtues of a Clinton presidency. So it wasn't particularly surprising to me when, on Monday of election week, I got a call from the network asking me to appear on their show, "Squawk on the Street," the Wednesday morning after the election to talk about the prospects for business under the new administration. I accepted the invitation without qualification.

At 4:30 that fateful morning, five hours before I was due to appear, I sent Squawk's producer the following email:

I would imagine that last night's surprise turn of events changes your thoughts on this morning's programming. I have literally nothing intelligent to say about the state of business under a Trump presidency as I have never before seriously contemplated that outcome to this day. As such, while I am reluctant to leave you in the lurch, I need to cancel my appearance on your show. I apologize but, to be frank, dead-air time would be of more benefit to your viewers than listening to me this morning.

In the days since, the bleeding hasn't really stopped for me personally — the pain of consoling my idealistic daughter, my gay son and, for that matter, all their brothers — but as Joel Makower advised us all to do in his "day after" essay, I have picked myself up from the floor, dusted myself off and gotten my head back in the game.

I even have had the occasion to do a preliminary damage assessment of the likely impact of the Trump presidency on our industry and "the cause" to which we are all dedicated. The results were not as bad as I thought.

All of which leads me to say to you: C'mon now! There may come a time to panic at our predicament and despair in our quest to save the planet, but this is not yet that time.

Here are the eight observations that make up my assessment so that you can draw your own conclusions. As you will see, the first two are negative but maybe less impactful than they first appear; the remaining six are neutral to hopeful ("positive" would be too strong a word).

1. There will be no price imposed on carbon by a Trump administration. This may be more meaningful, in a negative way, to you than it is to me because, having been there as part of USCAP for the annihilation of cap-and-trade by Congress, I was deeply pessimistic about even a resolute Clinton administration's ability to push a meaningful carbon tax through a climate-denying House of Representatives. So, for me, this one doesn't really change anything.

2. The fossil-fuel industry will not pursue decarbonization. I’ve always said there are two paths to a clean-energy future: all renewables backed up by a lot of storage; or a lot of renewables plus decarbonized fossil fuel-fired generation.

Before Tuesday, if I were a betting man, I would have bet on the latter becoming the dominant clean-energy paradigm. Today, I would have no choice but to put my chips on the former.

The election of Donald Trump closes the door on the prospect that the major American oil and gas companies will be aggressive leaders in the development and deployment of post-combustion carbon capture and use. While this was never a certainty, I always thought the oil majors would, if they felt the carbon constrained walls closing in on them, liberally deploy their massive resources in this essential area of technology. But they would need to see it as an absolute necessity, in order to perpetuate the continuation of their core exploration, production and transportation fuel business. It is a shame that this won't happen because, in the long run, the oil majors' failure to decarbonize will doom them; in the short to medium term, it risks dooming all of us. This one really hurts.

3. Renewable adoption rates in the U.S. are not fundamentally driven by top-down executive action in Washington. Turning to more positive points, let me start by pointing out that renewables’ market penetration never principally has been driven by the federal government. Certainly, the Obama administration provided a welcome assist, but the real drivers have been the states, cities and solar consumers themselves. Remember, whenever you get inconsolably depressed about Tuesday's outcome that, even if Washington descends into climate darkness, California stands tall as our beacon of light and we will continue to be able to look to the West for our solar "head of state."

 4. Thank God this happened in 2016, not 2012. Along the same lines of being thankful for what we have achieved, let's be thankful for the fact that the clean-energy revolution has crossed over into the inevitable over the past four years. A climate-hostile president might have stopped the fledgling renewables industry dead in its tracks in 2012; not so anymore. Today, as we all know, wind is the lowest cost of wholesale power generation in the United States by far; solar in many states has become the lowest-cost form of retail electricity. Sorry, it is too late to stop us. They may slow our ascent but all they are doing is delaying the inevitable.

5. There will be a Blue State "greenlash" against a regressive federal energy/climate policy. Building on these past few points, do you remember the early "denial" years of the Bush administration? Blue States across the country took out their frustration with federal government inaction on climate by aggressively enacting RPS standards and carbon trading regimes. If the Trump administration goes Neanderthal on climate, it only adds more fuel to fire up action at the state level.

6. Donald Trump is president of United States, not the world. COP 21: The world signed on. Today, only one of 195 world leaders is on record denying climate change. Unfortunately, he is now ours. The market opportunities for distributed solar not only to advance the cause of clean energy but to alleviate energy inequality outside of the United States remain unchanged.

7. Trump may abandon the Paris Climate Agreement, but leading multinationals will not. American oil and gas companies may regress, in a fit of self-destructive short-sightedness, but Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Unilever, etc. etc., will not. These companies, and many others, are not signatories to the Paris Agreement, but they might as well be because they are critically important forces for good, much more today thanks to the outcome of Tuesday. Paul, Steve, Larry/Sergei, Mark, I hope you are listening.

8. We should not give up on Donald Trump just yet. I don't know about you but I am not yet ready to join Michael Moore and others who are already taking to the barricades against our president-elect. I don't know Donald Trump. I don't whether the persona he inhabited so successfully in order to get elected — a persona that I found to be so stunningly objectionable — is his true self, but I am willing to give him a chance to demonstrate that it is not.

I like to think that at his core, Trump is a builder. He likes to get things done, see things built, things with his name on them — huge and beautiful things. Let's try to combine that, his native building impulse, with the political imperative he now has to deliver job growth — not to the Blue urban centers that shunned him, but to the rural and deep suburban areas that elected him. The distributed-solar sector offers a greater prospect of widely distributed job-growth prospects than any other industry.

So before we fight, let's take him at his gracious word and help him see how he can be president to all Americans. Let's show him how he can extend to young Americans, who currently are upset and hostile to him and his agenda, the olive branch of cooperation in fighting the greatest threat to their collective future, the melting of this planet.