It’s a Climate Election Now

The Washington Post’s scoop last week that, at a dinner with oil-and-gas executives at Mar-a-Lago—according to people who attended—Donald Trump offered to reverse dozens of President Biden’s climate rules and regulations in return for a billion dollars in campaign money should have shocked exactly no one. Trump’s hallmark has always been his willingness to do deals—in fact, as he explained to the executives, a billion dollars would be cheap, given the tax and regulatory breaks that he would provide them. And his fealty to the fossil-fuel industry has never been in doubt: he is, after all, the man who pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords.

But Trump’s request must have bemused some of the execs—why pay up when he’s already said that he’ll be a dictator just for Day One, when the country will “drill, drill, drill”? Everything he laid out for them (an end to Biden’s pause on L.N.G-export permits and to his policies on electric vehicles) he has already loudly promised. Indeed, Politico reported last week that the industry is already drawing up “ready-to-sign” executive orders for its wish list. As one gleeful lobbyist explained, “It’s going to be like shooting fish in the barrel—there’s just so much to go after.” Trump’s eagerness to do this deal is so great that his team didn’t even bother to deny the attempted shakedown, merely repeating the boilerplate response: “Joe Biden is controlled by environmental extremists who are trying to implement the most radical energy agenda in history and force Americans to purchase electric vehicles they can’t afford.”

However, Trump does have some leverage in asking the industry executives for the cash: he could lose. His fund-raising has been lagging, he’s spending his days at a criminal trial where his alleged affair with a porn star is discussed at length, and, when he hits the hustings, he’s making long digressions about, for example, how fond he is of Hannibal Lecter. So at this point, even with a slight lead in the polls, the election is not a lock. And if he loses it seems possible that the fossil-fuel industry might crumple during a second Biden term—because this election arrives at the most critical possible moment in the climate fight.

It’s not just that the planet’s climate is unravelling, though that fact adds to the pressure to act which would be felt by any rational occupant of the White House. April was the eleventh straight hottest month on record, and the consequences of the climate crisis will likely be dominant crises during the next four years. The real issue for the industry is that, at this moment, the means for rapid and relatively painless change are finally at hand, and they present a mortal threat to the dominance of fossil fuels. Look at what has happened in California this spring: for the past thirty-one days, solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power have provided more than a hundred per cent of the state’s electric demand for at least some of the day. The state also hit another milestone when, for two hours, its vast banks of utility-scale batteries became the single largest source of power to the grid. The number of solar panels has grown sharply in California in the past few years, and the storage capacity has grown even faster; the state has taken the climate crisis seriously and begun to move. If you can do this in what is the world’s fifth-largest economy you can pretty much do it anywhere—especially because the price of all these technologies continues to drop so fast, worldwide, that the Biden Administration is busily imposing tariffs in order to keep ever-cheaper Chinese technology a little at bay.

Given four years to finish the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, a second-term Biden Administration might finally be able to break the hold of fossil fuel’s political influence. Imagine what happens if, instead of scrapping E.V. mandates, the United States gains a full network of car chargers by 2028; imagine what happens if new federal housing money flows only to buildings that dispense with gas hookups. It’s not that we’d be off fossil fuels in four years—that’s impossible. But they’d be clearly on a dwindling curve, and economic and political power does not belong to declining industries.

Biden has played both sides of this divide during his first four years; he’s been fundamentally—even historically—green, but he has given each side some of what it wants. The enviros got the I.R.A., with its billions in tax credits for renewable energy, but it contains big gifts (more billions for carbon-capture schemes) for the fossil-fuel industry; Big Oil got its Willow drilling complex in Alaska. When Biden couldn’t split the difference, he punted: the most important issue to the industry now is those L.N.G.-export permits, which the White House put on hold. The Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, says that a decision on whether to renew the permits could come in January. This means that, if environmentalists help him triumph over the hydrocarbon cartel in November—say, by providing millions of votes in place of billions of dollars—the frackers might be out of luck.

Another term of Trump, however—and with all that it means for undercutting global efforts at climate regulation, as well—offers an entirely plausible and entirely opposite outcome: climate chaos combined with continued fossil-fuel dependence. And, in that scenario, the industry may be able to persuade him to adopt extreme measures, such as geoengineering the atmosphere with planeloads of sulfur, so that oil can be pumped far into the future.

So the industry might well decide that defeating Biden in November is worth a lot of money. ExxonMobil made thirty-six billion dollars last year, and Chevron twenty-one billion; the oil industry has spent at least a billion on lobbying in the past decade. They’ll definitely give Trump something, and the return on investment on that donation—if successful—would be better than the luckiest well they ever hit.

And they might need to spend it. By being so blatant, Trump may be serving to bring climate voters to the race—even those discouraged by some of Biden’s stands on oil projects, or saddened by his inability to end the war in Gaza. At some level, a great many voters surely know that what happens to the earth’s temperature will outlast the immediate political issues that we face—we have six months left to grapple with the fact that a second Trump term will do incalculable damage on a geological time scale. ♦

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