On a Right -Wing and a Prayer

I had occasion a few weeks back to lunch on Capitol Hill with friends from the UK. We’d met a number of years ago, at an environmental advocacy workshop, and have managed to stay in touch.

Not surprisingly, the conversation turned quickly to politics and to comparing notes on what our respective June and November national elections might ultimately mean for our clean energy and environmental communities.

It was a toss-up as to which of the votes had the most unanticipated outcome.  In the end, we all agreed the Brexit vote edged Trump’s November showing.

Had it occurred first, it is possible Trump’s move from a Manhattan penthouse to the White House would have been the more shocking. In the aftermath of Brexit, nothing seemed surprising anymore.

The elections have changed the political and policy maps of both countries. The aftershocks of the outcomes are creating a flux in the societal continuum of both nations. Judging from all that can be gleaned, the vibrations are not likely to settle for many more months.

There are a fair number of similarities in how the UK and US minority parties and their supporters are reacting; and, how the majorities are responding. For example, both executives are having to defend their administrations in the courts of law and public opinion.

Each countries’ electorate seems to be exhibiting a degree of voters’ remorse. Anger and frustration with establishment politicians motivated many to cast their ballots against something rather than for anything.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I get the distinct impression the voters and victors in both countries are like my neighbor’s basset hound, Bigley. The poor pooch not only chased the mail truck the other day—he caught it. Having captured it, he had no earthly idea what to do with it.

Other similarities of circumstance and character are shared by the Trump and May governments and their supporters including:

  • Outlier status in relation to other nations, e.g. UK vs EU and US vs Mexico, EU, et. al.;
  • Hardening of party positions at the macro level and visible conflicts at the micro, e.g. progressives/populists vs. centrists;
  • Opposition parties searching for a clear identity and message;
  • Relatively unknown/untried national leaders, e.g. Trump never having held political office and May not being well-known on the international stage;
  • Nativist/anti-immigrant sentiments;
  • Pro-business/smaller government/market oriented beliefs; and
  • Strong, often impolitic, personalities, e.g. D. J. Trump, N. Farage, E. Warren, B. Johnson and J. Corbyn.


Shades of Climate Conservatism

As the conversation continued, I was heartened to hear Prime Minister May and the Tories didn’t appear intent on wiping clean the environmental slates of their liberal Labour opponents.

The May government, I was told, recently released Building Our Industrial Strategy. It proposes a pathway to prosperity.

Prime Minister May states in the preface:

…our Plan for Britain is not just a plan to leave the EU, but a plan  to shape a new future for the kind of country we will  be when we have left. It is a plan to build a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

Are these not the sentiments of President Trump—to build a stronger, fairer future for all Americans? The report identifies 10 pillars the May government believes will underpin UK prosperity.  Among these are:

  •  Investing in science, research and innovation – we must become a more innovative economy and do more to commercialise our world leading science base to drive growth across the UK.
  • Upgrading infrastructure – we must upgrade our standards of performance on digital, energy, transport, water and flood defence infrastructure, and better align central government infrastructure investment with local growth priorities.
  • Delivering affordable energy and clean growth – we need to keep costs down for businesses, and secure the economic benefits of the transition to a low-carbon economy.
  • Cultivating world-leading sectors – we must build on our areas of competitive advantage, and help new sectors to flourish, in many cases challenging existing institutions and incumbents.

Are these pillars not similar to the posts underpinning President Trump’s promise of US prosperity?

There are, of course, significant differences between the clean energy and environmental outlooks of the May and Trump administrations. To-date the Prime Minister has given no indication of renouncing either the Paris accords or the UK’s pledged emission targets.

The US commitment to the accords and willingness to fulfill the promised GHG reductions of the Obama administration remain unclear. Trump has said, on more than one occasion, he would consider disavowing the promises of his predecessor.

The Paris agreement played a prominent part in the cabinet nominees’ confirmation process in the Senate. Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Energy Perry and Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, were all questioned at some length about their views on climate change. Although the hearings produced evasive answers, Tillerson has since been rumored to favor keeping the US’s signature on the accord.

The Secretary of State’s support of the promised emission reductions has not been openly discussed. Secretary Perry has followed the line of other nominees. He believes human activity does impact the global climate; he is simply unsure to what degree and whether anything should be done about it. While governor of Texas, Perry did support wind development projects.

Both Secretaries appear more moderate and measured in their opposition to continued federal support of clean energy technologies, than other of their cabinet colleagues. Administrator Pruitt’s position appears the most extreme, based on his many challenges, as the Oklahoma Attorney General, to Obama’s environmental regulations and willing leadership of an agency clearly on the Congressional chopping block.

A forthcoming presidential order to the Agency, directing it to review and to revise the pending Clean Power Plan, will certainly make the President’s position clear. Suspension or significant reduction of the Plan bodes badly for the prospect of honoring the pledged emission targets.

Not surprisingly at this point in our visit, my guests were giving me that: oh you poor dear—don’t worry—things can’t be that bad—there’s always a better tomorrow–look. It was at this point we began discussing the Prime Minister’s recent visit to the White House.

We Are– After All– Allies

President Trump appeared genuinely enthusiastic about meeting with the PM and comfortable with the prospect of a close alliance with the UK. Whether because of his business interests, a feeling of anti-establishment affinity and friendship with Farage and other Brexit supporters or, respect for the historic relationship of the two countries, Trump has remained relatively calm even in the shade of opposition to his formal visit to the UK. The absence of tweets suggests the possibility for an on-going constructive dialogue.

I am not so naïve as to take the words of politicians literally. Neither am I so jaded as to think them all insincere. As is customary, the PM and the President held a joint news conference at the end of their day. Both expressed what appears genuine commitment to forging a working alliance:

Trump: Madam Prime Minister, we look forward to working closely with you as we strengthen our mutual ties in commerce, business and foreign affairs.

May: And as you say, the invitation is an indication of the strength and importance of the special relationship that exists between our two countries, a relationship based on the bonds of history, of family, kinship and common interests.

May: I think the president and I are ambitious to build on this relationship…to grow our respective economies, provide the high skilled, high paid jobs of the future…we are discussing how we can establish a trade negotiation agreement, take forward immediate high-level talks… identify the practical steps we can take now in order to enable companies in both countries to trade and do business…

The UK and the US share similar problems and possibilities in the clean energy and environmental fields. For example, both nations are engaged in research  and demonstration of carbon capture and storage/sequestration technologies (CCS).

I’ve written before about the issues facing the US woody biomass sector  Much of what I had expressed concerning the domestic market equally applies to those in the UK and other EU members. Cooperation could reduce the costs and the time to deploy economically viable commercial-scale systems. Viable projects will in turn prove of significant value in efforts to reduce harmful emissions.

The UK is increasingly converting coal plants to wood pellets. Pellets coming mostly from the US and Canada. There is significant and heated concern that this energy source is not as carbon neutral as claimed. Opposition to wood pellets is growing both in the US and the UK.

Joint research documenting carbon cycles and improvements to forest management practices, supported by the US, UK and, possibly Canada, would lead to greater certainty of claimed neutrality, decreasing opposition and allowing for increased utilization and improved forest management practices.

When I look at the Trump administration and the May government I see opportunities in addition to CCS, including in the areas of:

  • Basic and applied research;
  • Agricultural practices and sciences;
  • Innovative building designs, incorporating efficiency and resiliency features;
  • Expanded green bond markets attracting needed private capital to finance various energy and efficiency projects, including distributed systems and landfill gases;
  • Energy and energy efficient infrastructure;
  • Cooperative development of bio-based fuels and chemicals; and
  • The free flow of talent.

Towards the end of lunch, we began to focus on what would be necessary to test the partnership theory. Jennifer, in particular, questioned whether the President or anyone in his administration would actually consider a low-carbon dialogue—let alone collaboration.

The Messenger is as Important as the Message

Honesty and friendship required me to say I didn’t really know. I did, however, think it was possible and, therefore, worth the effort.  The key to such a collaboration–I thought–would be the messenger.

There is real hostility and mistrust between the Trump administration and many of the clean energy and environmental organizations—both NGOs and private companies. It is the result of the increased adamancy of political environment. Although it may mellow over time, it is–at the moment– quite raw.

I thought, however, there would be a distinct possibility of a constructive discussion, if Jenn and Niles could convince a ranking government leader on their side of the pond to open the dialogue. A member of the May government would certainly be better received than the lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Though unfortunate, it is what it is.

A bi-lateral partnership with the UK could certainly result in economic benefits for both.  More than that, collaboration could offer important secondary (political) benefits.

As an example, a low-carbon partnership offers both the Trump administration and the PM an opportunity to earn political points, without regulation or the appearance of having lost a fight with opponents. Advocacy 101 says: like water, take the path of least resistance when beginning any new political relationship.

We left lunch, our appetites sated and our souls pleased for the comradery and their promise to pay  for lunch the next time. Meanwhile, I’ll search for a more expensive restaurant and await a call from a member of May’s government.

Check back periodically for updates.