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President Donald Trump stops to speak to reporters as he prepared to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on January 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Dear Trump: CO2 Is Polluting Our Atmosphere and Acidifying Our Water. They Aren't the 'Cleanest'

As usual, everything Trump said about renewable energy and the atmosphere was complete lies

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

In remarks to the press at the G20 meeting in Osaka, Trump was asked about climate change. He replied that taking steps to combat climate change would be too heavy a burden for the US economy.

Trump said,

    “We have the cleanest air we’ve ever had, but I’m not willing to sacrifice the tremendous power of what we’ve built up over a long period of time and what I’ve enhanced and revived.”

As for renewable energy such as wind power, he commented

    “It doesn’t always work with a windmill. When the wind goes off, the plant isn’t working. It doesn’t always work with solar because solar’s just not strong enough, and a lot of them want to go to wind, which has caused a lot of problems. I don’t like it, I don’t like it.”

There is probably not much point in arguing with Trump or fact-checking him, since whether as a ploy or because of whatever mental condition plagues him, he is not capable of revisiting his long-held opinions in the light of actual evidence.

But just because this blog helps me keep my blood pressure down, let me address his comments.

First, putting in wind and solar is not necessarily a burden on the US economy. The fuel for wind and solar is free. So the start-up costs of constructing a solar farm or a wind farm rather than depending on existing coal and gas plants to generate electricity is offset by the fact that you have to pay for coal and gas, whereas the wind and sunshine are free.

Forbes reported last winter that because of the rapid fall in the price of wind and solar energy, it is now cheaper to build a new wind or solar farm than to go on operating an existing coal plant.

So wind and solar would actually save US businesses and consumers money compared to continuing to burn coal. Coal costs roughly 5 cents a kilowatt hour. Los Angeles is seeking a sub- 2 cents a kilowatt hour bid on a 25-year electricity provision contract along with a 1.3 cents bid for battery storage. The two together would cost substantially less than just running an old coal plant.

So, putting in wind and solar under those circumstances would actually make energy cheaper for corporations, not impose and extra burden on them.

Not only that but putting billions of metric tons of dangerous heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere every year by burning coal, gas and petroleum will cause trillions of dollars in economic damage. This is called an “externality” by economists, and most economists ignore externalities. But the president of a whole country can’t afford to just set aside those enormous economic losses. Not putting in renewables will be very expensive and will harm the economic growth Trump is boasting about.

Trump is correct that wind does not blow all the time and the sun does not shine all the time. But since the wind tends to blow harder at night most places, if you combine wind and solar and feed each into the grid when it is strong, you can offset the problem of intermittency. Hydropower and natural gas can also take up the slack, since they can be scaled up or down easily (unlike nuclear energy, which is also expensive and polluting). Also, molten salt batteries are an established technology for extending the energy generated by solar panels for many hours after sunset.

Second, Trump by speaking of clean air and water is confusing the two reasons for going to renewables. One reason is that burning coal and natural gas hurts the health of the humans living near the plant. Coal plants actually put out mercury, which is a dangerous nerve poison.

But the other reason to go to renewables is that burning hydrocarbons puts greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which in turn causes global heating and the climate emergency.

Trump has left out reason number two, probably because he is a climate change denialist.

But it is worth noting that carbon dioxide pollution, while seemingly invisible, has dire consequences for the quality of air and water.

Extra CO2 in the atmosphere bonds with molecules in the oceans, and so gets taken in by them. The effect is to make the water much more acidic, which is not clean. The more acid seas will kill off perhaps half of marine life. If you had a gold fish bowl in your home and someone came in and dumped a vial of hydrochloric acid into it, turning the water milky and killing half the goldfish, you wouldn’t call that tableau “clean.”

Coal does also cause a lot of air pollution, killing thousands with lung disease and heart attacks, which renewables do not.

So as usual, everything Trump said about renewable energy and the atmosphere was complete lies.


© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

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