Greenpeace activists demonstrate in front of a coal freighter in Hamburg, Germany, 01 June 2017 which carried around 60,000 tonnes of coal from Texas to Germany. Bodo Marks/PA Images. All rights reserved.Who says President Trump doesn’t have a coherent foreign policy? Pundits and critics across the political spectrum have chided him for failing to articulate and implement a clear international agenda. Look closely at his overseas endeavours, though, and one all-too-consistent pattern emerges: Donald Trump will do whatever it takes to prolong the reign of fossil fuels by sabotaging efforts to curb carbon emissions and promoting the global consumption of U.S. oil, coal, and natural gas. Whenever he meets with foreign leaders, it seems, his first impulse is to ply them with American fossil fuels.
Donald Trump will do whatever it takes to prolong the reign of fossil fuels by sabotaging efforts to curb carbon emissions and promoting the global consumption of U.S. oil, coal, and natural gas.
His decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which obliged this country to reduce its coal consumption and take other steps to curb its carbon emissions, was widely covered by the American mainstream news media. On the other hand, the president’s efforts to promote greater fossil fuel consumption abroad – just as significant in terms of potential harm to the planet – have received remarkably little attention.
Bear in mind that while Trump’s drive to sabotage international efforts to curb carbon emissions will undoubtedly slow progress in that area, it will hardly stop it. At the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, 19 of the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord and pledged to “mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through, among other [initiatives], increased innovation on sustainable and clean energies.” This means that whatever Trump does, continuing innovation in the energy field will indeed help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and so slow the advance of climate change. Unfortunately, Trump’s relentless drive to promote fossil-fuel consumption abroad could ensure that carbon emissions continue to rise anyway, neutralising whatever progress might be made elsewhere and dooming humanity to a climate-ravaged future.
How the two sides of the ledger – green energy progress versus Trump’s drive to boost carbon exports – will balance out in the years ahead cannot be foreseen. Every boost in carbon emissions, however, pushes us closer to the moment when global temperatures will exceed the two degrees celsius rise from pre-industrial levels that scientists say is the maximum the planet can absorb without suffering catastrophic consequences. Those would include rising sea levels that could drown New York, Miami, Shanghai, London, and many other coastal cities, as well as a sharp drop in global food production that could devastate entire populations.
Spreading the cult of carbon
President Trump’s pursuit of increased global carbon consumption is proving to be a two-front campaign. He’s working in every way imaginable to increase the production of fossil fuels domestically, even as he engages in a diplomatic blitzkreig to open doors to American fossil-fuel exports abroad.
At home, he’s already reversed numerous Obama-era restrictions on fossil fuel extraction, including curbs on mountaintop removal –an environmentally hazardous form of coal mining – and on oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska. He’s also ordered the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt – a notorious enemy of environmental regulations opposed by the energy industry – to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s program to sharply reduce the use of coal in domestic electricity generation.
These and similar initiatives have gotten a fair amount of media attention already, but it’s no less important to focus on another key aspect of Trump’s pro-carbon global initiative which has gone largely unnoticed. While, under the Paris climate accord, the other industrial powers are still obliged to help developing countries install carbon-free energy technologies, Trump has freed himself to sell American fossil fuels everywhere to his heart’s content. At that G-20 meeting, for example, he forced his peers to insert a clause in their final communiqué stating, “the United States of America states it will endeavor to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.” (The “more cleanly and efficiently” was undoubtedly his modest concession to the other 19 leaders.)
To spread the mantra of fossil fuels, Trump has become the nation’s carbon-pusher in chief. He’s already personally engaged in energy diplomacy, while demanding that various cabinet officials make oil, gas, and coal exports a priority. On June 29th, for instance, he publicly ordered the Treasury Department to do away with “barriers to the financing of highly efficient overseas coal energy plants.” In the same speech, he spoke of his desire to supply American coal to Ukraine, currently cut off from Russian natural gas thanks to its ongoing conflict with that country. “Ukraine already tells us they need millions and millions of metric tons [of coal] right now,” Trump said, pointing out that there are many other countries in a similar state, “and we want to sell it to them, and to everyone else all over the globe who needs it.”
He added, “We are a top producer of petroleum and the number-one producer of natural gas. We have so much more than we ever thought possible, and we’re going to be an exporter... We will export American energy all over the world, all around the globe.”
Making deals to sell coal to India is like selling OxyContin to an opioid addict.
In his urge to preserve the reign of fossil fuels, President Trump has already taken on a unique personal role, meeting with foreign officials and promoting cooperation with key American energy firms. Take the June 26th White House visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While the media reported on how the two of them took up the subject of future arms sales to India, it made no mention of energy deals. Yet Secretary of Energy Rick Perry revealed that this topic was crucial to their encounter. At a Trump-hosted dinner for Modi at the White House, Perry reported, “we talked about the three areas of which there will be great back-and-forth cooperation – deal-making, if you will. One of those is in LNG [liquefied natural gas]. The other side of that is in clean coal. Thirdly is on the nuclear side. So there is great opportunity for India and the United States to become even stronger allies, stronger partners -- energy being the glue that will hold that partnership together for a long, long time.”
To put this in context, making deals to sell coal to India is like selling OxyContin to an opioid addict. After all, in 2015, that country overtook the United States to become the world’s second-biggest consumer of coal (after China). To keep up the pace of its rapid economic growth, India had plans to increase its reliance on coal yet more, which would mean a steady increase in carbon emissions. India now trails only China and the United States as an emitter of carbon dioxide and its share is expected to grow. However, it is also likely to suffer disproportionately from climate change, which its emissions will only accelerate. Given that future extreme heat events are expected to periodically destroy crops on which a large part of its population depends, Modi’s government has recently begun seeking ways to reduce the country’s long-term reliance on fossil fuels, in part by becoming a solar superpower. In other words, in pitching coal to India – a true case of bringing coals to Newcastle (or at least Mumbai) – Trump is functionally working to sabotage India’s struggle to free itself from the scourge of carbon addiction.
He similarly pushed fossil-fuel exports in his first encounter with newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Not surprisingly, press coverage of the event highlighted their discussions about the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Some reports also noted that trade issues came up, but none mentioned energy matters. Yet, shortly before his state dinner with Moon, Trump announced that a U.S. company, Sempra Energy, had just that day signed an agreement to sell more American natural gas to South Korea. “And, as you know,” he added, “the leaders of South Korea are coming to the White House today, and we’ve got a lot of discussion to do, but we will also be talking about them buying energy from the United States of America, and I’m sure they’ll like to do it.” In other words, the president has made it eminently clear how foreign leaders in need of American support can please him.
Where this might lead is anyone’s guess, but presumably to a commitment to the continued dominance of petroleum in the world’s future energy markets.
His first overseas trips have also featured versions of such pitchmanship. During his visit to Saudi Arabia in May, he evidently sought to promote cooperation between U.S. and Saudi energy firms. Again, press coverage of his meeting with Saudi King Salman highlighted other topics, notably the war on terror, the regional divide between Sunnis and Shiites, and new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s hard line on Iran. But the two of them did, in fact, issue a statement affirming “the importance of investment in energy by companies in both countries, and the importance of coordinating policies that ensure the stability of markets and an abundance of supplies.” Where this might lead is anyone’s guess, but presumably to a commitment to the continued dominance of petroleum in the world’s future energy markets.
On the subject of his two meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit (at the second of these without even an American translator), we obviously know far less. It is, however, reasonable to assume that his interest in improving ties with Russia is at least partially energy-focused. During the first of those conversations, Trump was accompanied only by a translator and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who, as CEO of ExxonMobil, had inked energy deals with Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil giant, and lobbied against the imposition of sanctions on Russia’s energy sector. (Those deals are now being investigated by the Treasury Department as possible violations of government-mandated sanctions then in effect.) Five days later, while flying to Paris on Air Force One, Trump told reporters that he would like to meet again with Putin, once that became politically feasible, adding, “and, by the way, I only want to make great deals with Russia.”
To further boost the export of U.S. fossil fuels abroad, Trump has also leaned on various government agencies to facilitate such efforts. In a talk he gave on June 29th to energy company officials at the Department of Energy, for example, the president hailed its approval of two long-term projects to promote U.S. energy abroad: the export of additional natural gas from a terminal in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and plans to construct a new oil pipeline to Mexico – about which, he assured listeners, “It will go right under the wall, right?... You know, a little like this [gesticulating]. Right under the wall.”
And keep in mind that we are undoubtedly catching no more than a glimpse of Trump’s efforts to promote the sale of American oil, coal, and natural gas abroad. From what little has been reported on the subject in his meetings with Prime Minister Modi, President Moon, and King Salman, it’s reasonable to assume that the topic has come up in most of his conversations with foreign leaders and represents a far more significant aspect of his international policymaking than generally realisted.
American energy dominance
For him, oil equals vigour equals national ascendancy.
Don’t imagine, however, that Trump’s fossil-fueled salesmanship is primarily driven by a desire to enrich American energy firms (though he would undoubtedly consider that a plus). It’s clearly motivated by a deeper, more visceral set of urges. Still trapped in his memories of his 1950s childhood when gas-guzzling American cars were a prominent symbol of national wealth and power, he has a deep belief in the capacity of fossil fuels to propel and sustain the country’s global dominance. He often recalls that formative period in his musings, describing it as a golden age when America won all its wars and was dominant on the world stage. For him, oil equals vigour equals national ascendancy, and no other countries – least of all an international community united behind the Paris climate accord – should be able to deprive the U.S. of its carbon fix.
All this was implicit in that Energy Department speech, which offered a genuine window into his thinking on the subject. Here’s the crucial passage, delivered in his usual extemporaneous style:
“Our country is blessed with extraordinary energy abundance... We have nearly 100 years’ worth of natural gas and more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal... We have so much more than we ever thought possible. We are really in the driving seat. And you know what? We don’t want to let other countries take away our sovereignty and tell us what to do and how to do it. With these incredible resources, my administration will seek not only American energy independence that we’ve been looking for so long, but American energy dominance.”
Trump’s personal fascination with symbols of excess – think of those giant golden letters over his properties – is evident in that monologue. It’s clear that he’s been especially taken with breakthroughs in the enhancement of American energy abundance, especially the success of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That process has liberated vast quantities of oil and natural gas from previously unusable shale formations. Prior to the introduction of fracking, oil and gas production in the United States had been in decline, but thanks to what’s been termed the “shale revolution,” production has soared. In July 2017, at 9.4 million barrels per day, U.S. crude oil output was up 68% over six years earlier, when production was running at just 5.6 million barrels per day. Natural gas has registered a similar leap. All this, in turn, generated – at least for a time – a feeling of euphoria in the oil and gas industry, with some pundits even dubbing this country “Saudi America” and portraying it as a new energy El Dorado.
American energy analysts began viewing the explosion of domestic hydrocarbon output as a crucial source of geopolitical clout.
As this sense of euphoria took hold, American energy analysts began viewing the explosion of domestic hydrocarbon output as a crucial source of geopolitical clout. The immense flood of cheap natural gas has “boosted U.S. economic competitiveness,” said Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council typically enough, “and by extension, U.S. comprehensive national power, and U.S. capacity for global leadership.” Think of it as Viagra for Washington policymakers.
Recently, however, some of this euphoria has dissipated as bargain-basement oil and gas prices, the inevitable consequence of overproduction, have been eating into corporate profits and forcing some over-exposed energy companies to declare bankruptcy. Trump’s belief in the ability of petroleum to enhance America’s global clout has, however, clearly been unshaken. “We’ve got underneath us more oil than anybody,” he declared in a conversation with journalists aboard Air Force One on July 12th. “And I want to use it.”
Whatever the sources of his fascination with fossil fuels, six months into his presidency one thing is clear: he’s determined to spread the cult of American carbon internationally and this urge has already become a defining theme of his foreign policy, even if the mainstream media, despite its deluge of Trump-centered coverage, has hardly noticed.
A new American legacy
Previous American presidents have sought fame through the promotion of freedom, democracy, and human rights abroad. In fact, virtually every formal presidential expression of foreign policy in the post-Cold War era has ritualistically identified those values as America’s greatest exports (whatever values Washington was actually exporting). Not so for Donald Trump, however. What he seeks to export are habit-forming, climate-altering hydrocarbons.
It remains to be seen how successful his drive to spread the cult of carbon will be. As time goes on and the effects of climate change intensify in a warming world, more countries will undoubtedly begin to focus on easing or even ending their reliance on fossil fuels and promoting carbon-free alternatives. Market forces will play a crucial role in this process, since the price of renewable energy –especially solar – has been dropping quickly and is already, in certain circumstances, a cheaper way to go than using coal to generate electricity.
Even if Trump’s fossil-fueled scheming doesn’t succeed in the long run, he will undoubtedly ensure that more greenhouse gases enter the planet’s atmosphere, meaning that temperatures will continue to climb and punishing droughts and heat waves will become ever more the new global norm.
It's time to give his snake-oil-style energy salesmanship and the future environmental destruction that will accompany it the attention they deserve. If humanity is to have any chance to survive the planetary warming to come in reasonable shape, all the American carbon Trump hopes to sell to foreigners has to stay in the ground.
This piece was originally published on TomDispatch.