'To spite your face'

Like many Southerners, my mother was a connoisseur of colloquialisms. Examples from her colorful repertoire frequently pop into my mind, eloquent and uniquely apt. Last Thursday, with the not unexpected announcement that the President has decided the U.S. will “exit” the Paris Climate Agreement, it was equally unsurprising to hear her voice in my head offering one of her favorites: “That’s just cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

It’s not about unrealistic, unachievable greenhouse gas-reduction goals. The U.S. has already met a key CO2 reduction target in the Obama administration’s Clean Energy Plan—a 27% reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels—way ahead of the 2024 deadline. We’ve already exceeded the Clean Energy Plan’s goals for reducing coal use by 2024. These same goals informed the 2025 interim deadline the U.S. committed to in Paris. Market forces have driven those achievements at least as much as regulatory control: U.S. utilities will retire an additional 71 coal-burning electricity plants in the near future because energy from solar and wind is cheaper. Instead of sabotaging these successes, we should be upping the ante with new, more ambitious goals. “Fish or cut bait” would be my mother’s stern comment. If you won’t help, at least get out of the way.

It’s not about job creation, because the renewable energy industry already employs 476,000 Americans in electricity generation compared to 187,000 in oil, gas and coal combined. Solar and wind jobs are growing at 12 times the rate for the rest of the U.S. economy, and energy efficiency companies are a huge small-business growth sector. So a government that works to suppress renewable energy development and boost coal would be “shooting itself in the foot,” as my mother would say. More accurately, shooting workers and small businesses in the foot.

Reacting to Thursday’s announcement from the White House, 30 states and 61 cities have announced that they will accelerate their efforts to address the causes and impacts of climate change, pursue ambitious state and local goals for greenhouse gas (GHG reduction), invest in renewable energy, solarize schools and municipal facilities, promote electric vehicles and reduce waste. In New York, those efforts are organized around the Climate Smart Communities Program, which Sullivan and Orange counties are championing. Major American corporations are supporting this momentum because cleaner, cheaper energy saves operating costs and fuels innovation. Big financial institutions have backed shareholder initiatives that require companies to consider and document climate impacts in their decision-making. The Washington Post reports that such initiatives were recently adopted at Occidental Petroleum, the utility PPL and ExxonMobil, with the support of financial advisory firms Vanguard, BlackRock and State Street.

It’s pretty rare to find ourselves, individually or as a nation, in a situation where moral responsibility and material interests coincide so completely. To swim against such a powerful tide of job creation, cheaper energy, economic growth, energy independence and environmental benefit seems more than contrarian. It smacks of spite, and spite, as the saying goes, can backfire badly.


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