I pity the poor coal miners who allowed themselves to be used as props by Donald Trump. On Tuesday, a group of them stood with the president as he signed his executive order gutting Obama-era climate change regulations. After signing the document with his flamboyant flourish, Trump turned to them and said, "You know what this is? You know what this says? You're going back to work."
Well, maybe not.
Trump has repeatedly promised to bring jobs back to Coal Country, blaming federal regulations for the industry's decades-long decline. That promise is akin to a politician 100 years ago pledging to restore the economic fortunes of blacksmiths and buggy whip makers. That politician would have been a fool or a liar. Trump may be both.
Coal is as dirty as coal mining is dangerous. There are compelling reasons why the government has imposed rules to address the serious problems coal has created in public health, worker safety and environmental protection. Those rules probably did crimp the style of careless and callous coal company bosses and cut into their profits. But the real reason coal is in a slump is economic. Other fuels — natural gas, in particular — are cleaner and cheaper. The market for coal has shrunk and is destined to grow even smaller.
There are now about 70,000 jobs left in the coal industry. That compares with 650,000 jobs in the burgeoning renewable energy field. Trump's actions may temporarily save the jobs of a few coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, but many workers in other states could be endangered by what he is trying to do. Bob Keefe, executive director of Environmental Entrepreneurs, a national advocacy group for renewable energy businesses, told the Los Angeles Times that the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, the plan Trump is revoking, would have been "a huge economic catalyst."
"President Trump is basically telling California's more than 40,000 clean-energy businesses and the 500,000 workers they employ that they don't matter to him," he said.
Of course, as was the case with healthcare, the future of energy is a complex subject that is beyond the comprehension of the non-studious Trump. He is a man who prefers to follow his instincts and those instincts seem to invariably lead him to side with the business executives and billionaires who value profits, private jets and primo golf courses as much as he does.
Chief among those plutocratic cronies is Robert Mercer, a fabulously wealthy hedge fund tycoon who funds Breitbart News and was a strong supporter of Trump's presidential campaign. Mercer does not believe climate change is a problem, but government is. He has been quoted as saying he wants to see the federal government "shrunk to the size of a pinhead." For him, getting rid of Obama's climate change rules is a no-brainer.
Having surrounded himself with people like Mercer, it is no surprise that Trump is so eager to abandon the leadership role the United States has taken in reducing carbon emissions. That is obviously a horrible idea if humanity is, indeed, facing future calamity caused by rising global temperatures, as most of the world's scientists say is the case. Even short of that, though, it is a pretty dumb idea to side with coal companies and oil men while ceding the renewable energy field to China and India and Germany. That is not the way to maintain American economic preeminence.
If we are lucky, Trump's executive order will be tied up in courts for years to come; not all environmental laws can be quickly erased with the stroke of a president's pen. California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has announced he will join with his counterparts in several other states to aggressively oppose Trump's attack on the Clean Power Plan. Meanwhile, in a joint statement, California Gov. Jerry Brown and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged to keep their states working toward ambitious benchmarks to reduce greenhouse gases.
"Dismantling the Clean Power Plan and other critical climate programs is profoundly misguided and shockingly ignores basic science," the governors said in their statement. "With this move, the administration will endanger public health, our environment and our economic prosperity."
And, they might have added, this will not prevent jobs in the coal mines from fading away.