The new US energy policy of the Trump era is, in some ways, the oldest energy policy on Earth. Every great power has sought to mobilize the energy resources at its command, whether those be slaves, wind-power, coal, or oil, to further its hegemonic ambitions. What makes the Trumpian variant—the unfettered exploitation of America’s fossil-fuel reserves—unique lies only in the moment it’s being applied and the likely devastation that will result, thanks not only to the 1950s-style polluting of America’s air, waters, and urban environment, but to the devastating hand it will lend to a globally warming world.
Last month, if you listened to the chatter among elite power brokers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, you would have heard a lot of bragging about the immense progress being made in renewable energy. “My government has planned a major campaign,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the group. “By 2022, we want to generate 175 gigawatts of renewable energy; in the last three years, we have already achieved 60 gigawatts, or around one-third of this target.” Other world leaders also boasted of their achievements in speeding the installation of wind and solar energy. Even the energy minister of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Khalid Al-Falih, announced plans for a $30 billion to $50 billion investment in solar power. Only one major figure defied this trend: US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. The United States, he insisted, is “blessed” with “a substantial ability to deliver the people of the globe a better quality of life through fossil fuels.”
A better quality of life through fossil fuels? On this, he and his Trump administration colleagues now stand essentially alone on planet Earth. Virtually every other country has by now chosen—via the Paris climate accord and efforts like those under way in India—to speed the transition from a carbon-based energy economy to a renewable one.
A possible explanation for this: Donald Trump’s indebtedness to the very fossil-fuel interests that helped propel him into office. Think, for example, of his interior secretary’s recent decision to open much of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to offshore drilling (long sought by the oil and gas industry) or his administration’s moves to lift restrictions on coal mining on federal lands (long favored by the coal industry). Both were clearly acts of payback. Still, far more than subservience to oil and coal barons lurks in Trump’s energy policy (and Perry’s words). From the White House perspective, the United States is engaged in a momentous struggle for global power with rival nations and, it is claimed, the country’s abundance of fossil fuels affords it a vital edge. The more of those fuels America produces and exports, the greater its stature in a competitive world system, which is precisely why maximizing such output has already become a major pillar of President Trump’s national-security policy.