2030 Finance | November 15, 2017

Trump’s man in Bonn shows the White House’s climate cards

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The official U.S. delegation had been in stealth mode throughout the global climate conference known as COP23, shutting reporters — and most everyone else — out of its office and keeping its calendar remarkably empty. The Trump administration’s delegates are staying in a remote location far from both the city center and the conference venue, fueling suspicion that they have intentionally been kept separate from the tight-knit UN climate community.

In a turbulent appearance yesterday, U.S. delegates were heckled by skeptics that rejected their pro-fossil fuels pitch. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, something of an alternative center of gravity, said acidly, “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.”

America pledges itself (almost) all-in on climate action

So it was surprising how open President Trump’s man in Bonn was when a group of reporters ambushed him while he was getting coffee at the venue’s cafeteria. White House energy policy adviser George David Banks chose not to duck reporters’ difficult questions. Banks (not to be confused with ImpactAlpha editor David Bank) talked for 18 minutes about what the delegation is up to at COP and the broad views of the Trump administration on energy markets and climate change. Here’s a lightly edited transcript:

Q: Has your mind been changed after everything you’ve heard at this conference?

George David Banks: This is my fifth COP. I understand the importance and the prioritization of climate mitigation for a lot of people. For us, it’s a priority but the administration has more pressing problems when it comes to economic growth and energy security. We see those as being more directly linked to the problems and the challenges that the world faces, when it comes to political instability, of all sorts of things.

Q: I was speaking with the mayor of St. Gabriel in Louisiana who told me that he’s really concerned about the impacts of climate change on his economic well being and that of his community. What do you say to Americans who are concerned about the effect of climate change on their communities?

GDB: I think most people don’t understand what climate mitigation means. A lot of people say climate is something that we should address. But then when you ask, “OK, what do you do about it? How do you solve the problem?” very few people know how to answer that. People love to drive. Most people here [at COP23] flew in by airplane. We all have lifestyles that we are not willing to drastically cut into.

In our opinion, there is no politically viable pathway for the climate mitigation that you would hear about in this venue. If you look at the 2° C target (the limit for global warming agreed to in the Paris accord) for example, if you look at the deep cuts, we don’t see a politically viable pathways to achieve those without a major technological breakthrough. It is just not going to happen.

Q: But this administration is cutting money for this type of innovation…

GDB: We have a major budget deficit that we are trying to correct and get back on course.

Q: We are creating an even larger deficit through tax cut of about a trillion dollars

GDB: But the purpose of tax cuts, it’s to increase revenues and growth over the long term, right?

Q: Seven out of ten Americans say that they believe in climate change. Why won’t the government do something to address their concerns?

GDB: Well the U.S. is cutting their emissions. Over the past several years, the U.S. has been a leader in reducing the emissions, but that has come largely as a result of market forces, fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and efficiency gains…

Q: Are you confident that the U.S. will sign any agreement that will come out of this COP? There are some decisions to be made…

GDB: Hopefully we can agree on those. We’ve come here to promote U.S. interests, and I think those interests align closely with a lot of parties here. We want to make sure that we do what we can to level the playing field, with transparency and accountability and reporting, so hopefully the decision is going to be in a good place.

Q: How can the U.S. be trusted as a negotiating partner when we have pulled out of two climate deals now?

GDB: There’s certainly is a failure of climate policy making in the U.S., I think that Kyoto and Paris have one thing in common. When you are looking at how the decision was made with the targets – even though Paris was non-binding — the targets were top down, closed-doors. Few people set the targets, without any input from stakeholders, without any input from Congress, and it caused problems. Kyoto caused problems. [When it comes to] Paris, I think you could argue the same thing.

Q: Do you agree with the president that climate change is a Chinese hoax?

GDB: Do I believe it’s a Chinese hoax? I think you are missing the point of the tweet… I mean, the point of the tweet was, again, you know the President views climate change through the lens of what does this do to U.S. manufacturing, what does this do to U.S. competitors.

Q: Would you agree that climate change has been a bonanza for China because it is now excelling in renewables that the U.S. is now buying?

GDB: You know, the president is not holding back renewables. One of the key objectives of the president of this administration is to make sure that we truly do pursue an all-of-the-above approach, to make sure that all energy sources and forms have as much of a level playing field as possible. We believe in competitive markets for energy.

Q: Can you tell me why there weren’t representatives of solar and wind on the panel yesterday, just nuclear gas and coal? Were you selling coal or gas or nuclear power?

GDB: We didn’t need to include renewables on a panel because renewables are everywhere in the COP. We want to make sure that we have a rational discussion on technology, innovation, for fossil, and make sure that nuclear has a good plug as well, because of the role that plays in climate mitigation.