The first actions of the new Trump administration raise grave concerns, both with regard to their energy policies and their policies in general, writes Allan R. Hoffman, author of the blog Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist and formerly with the U.S. Department of Energy. We need to be vigilant to safeguard our democratic system.
Nine days after Inauguration is much too soon to draw any firm conclusions about our new President and his Administration. Nevertheless, as a breathing, non-brain-dead sentient being, I do have some thoughts.
Like many others in the U.S. and in other countries I am wrestling with my reactions to President Trump’s initial actions and how to respond. I was also touched by Karel Beckman’s thoughtful statement in his latest energypost.eu newsletter: “I know this newsletter is supposed to be about energy. I apologise for this digression. There are more important things in the world than energy. Since I have this platform I wanted to speak out before another darkness descends on us.”
This is exactly the dilemma I am facing with my own blog, Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist. I generally try to keep it focused on energy and environmental issues where I may have some credibility, but occasionally stray when I believe it would be dishonest not to do so. This is one of those occasions.
I voted for Hillary Clinton to become our next President because I thought she was a better choice than Donald Trump in temperament, experience, and policy. I also thought it was time for the U.S. to have a female president. I did this despite two serious misgivings about Clinton, her handling of the health insurance issue in the early days of her husband’s first term as President, and her failure to respond adequately to the seriousness of her decision to use a private email server while serving as Secretary of State.
I quickly reminded myself that the Nixon we saw from the late 1940s to 1968 was the Nixon we got, and I concluded that Trump as President would most likely be the bullying, uncouth, self-focused narcissist we had seen over the past 20-30 years
As a former government official I understand how frustrating dealing with the security systems in government can be, but poor judgements were made by Clinton and her staff, all of whom should have known better. Nevertheless, I was strongly offended by many of Trump’s statements during the Republican primary race and the general election, and saw no way to vote for a man I considered an uninformed and arrogant demagogue.
Well, enough of my fellow citizens felt differently and Donald Trump is our new President. As a strong believer in Churchill’s 1947 statement on democracy (“Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”), I reluctantly accepted the results of our democratic process.
As I first did in 1968 when Richard Nixon was elected President and I had a fleeting hope that he would govern differently than his record would suggest, I asked myself if that was possible with Trump. However I quickly reminded myself that the Nixon we saw from the late 1940s to 1968 was the Nixon we got, and I concluded that Trump as President would most likely be the bullying, uncouth, self-focused narcissist we had seen over the past 20-30 years. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal and Trump’s apparent lack of core beliefs and mercurial nature suggest a President with unusual flexibility to go in many different directions. We shall see.
Throughout the transition period there were many uncertainties about what to expect from a Trump White House. A few mixed signals emerged from his proposed Cabinet and White House appointments, but in reality we were and are left with many questions. Early indications are not encouraging, as many of his pronouncements and Executive orders, and confirmation testimony by several of his Cabinet nominees, have raised serious concerns about his Administration’s commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the values that our country stands for. Some of this uncertainty and even ‘chaos’ may be attributed to learning on the job by people without prior or extensive experience in government, but serious questions have already been raised about what the next four years will bring. The large number of protests at this early point of the Trump era and the large number of people supporting these protests is a clear indication of serious public concern.
It is disturbing that the White House website now has an entry entitled ‘An American First Energy Plan’ which ignores the issues of global climate change and makes no reference to solar or wind energy or any of the other renewable energy technologies
However, we do already know a few things: the next few years, with a Republican House, Senate and White House, will be a real test of the Republican Party, where party loyalty in a number of cases will come into conflict with national values and interests. Checks and balances among the three branches of the U.S. government, a pillar of our form of democracy, will be tested as never before in my lifetime. Not only was the recent election a test of the American people but the next few years will be a test of our democratic institutions as well.
As a person who devoted the bulk of his professional career (I retired in 2012) to the development and deployment of clean energy technologies (energy efficiency, renewable energy), I am quite concerned about what a Trump Administration will do to U.S. efforts to move as rapidly as possible from an energy system highly dependent on fossil fuels to one increasingly dependent on clean energy. While a President is not a dictator and cannot just do anything he wants to do in our system of checks and balances, he can change emphases, impact budgets, and slow things down.
This is of special concern when he is surrounding himself with climate change deniers or skeptics and, in principle, can count on the support of a Republican House and Senate. His initial appointments raise serious questions about the path he will pursue, especially in light of his oft-repeated statement that global climate change is a ‘hoax’ perpetrated by the Chinese. This is an ignorant and false statement. A President and his appointees who go by such views can do damage in a variety of ways to our national clean energy programs.
It is disturbing that the White House website now has an entry entitled ‘An American First Energy Plan’ which ignores the issues of global climate change and makes no reference to solar or wind energy or any of the other renewable energy technologies. This is a serious misreading of a serious global issue and the inevitable direction global energy systems are taking. Thankfully, other countries, individual states within our Union, and some Republican members of Congress are not likely to follow or support such a damaging path.
I and many others have read or lived through too much of the history of Europe in the 1930s. People said suppression of democracy couldn’t happen in Germany and Italy, and it did
What was of particular concern during the presidential Transition period was the Trump Transition Team’s request to the Department of Energy (DOE), thankfully withdrawn, to provide the names of DOE employees and contractors who worked on climate change issues. For those of us old enough to remember the 1950s this request brought back memories of the McCarthy era when a U.S. Senator abused his position as a Committee Chairman to carry out witch hunts for possible communist sympathizers. It took a while, but responsible government and private sector officials finally opposed such un-American tactics and censured the Senator. The Transition Team’s request for names raises the same concerns about intimidation, and was properly rebuffed by the Department. Nevertheless, the fact that such a request initially made it through the filters of the Transition Team suggested a tendency to suppress opposing views, a precursor to autocratic rule.
This concern is also raised by President Trump’s attitude toward the press. A free press is critical to a functioning democracy, which is always vulnerable to the rise of demagogues. Another critical test for our country will be whether the press is up to its task of probing government intensively and fairly and bringing the results of that probing to the American public. Recent history suggests that the press has not always done its job as well as it should and that the new Administration will resist such probing. In fact, this resistance is already playing out in statements by the President and senior representatives of his Administration, specifically his Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, his Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and his Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway. These early actions represent a war on the press, a dangerous development in a democratic system.
I recognize that some people might see a degree of paranoia in my comments above, but there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about what might happen in the next four, and possibly eight, years. I and many others have read or lived through too much of the history of Europe in the 1930s. People said suppression of democracy couldn’t happen in Germany and Italy, and it did. Speaking up is required. Not speaking up is failing in our obligation and capacity as citizens in a democratic country.
An earlier version of this article was published on The Eco Report and in the Fairfax Times.
Allan Hoffman is author of the blog Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist. He is a former Senior Analyst in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and physicist by training. See his author’s archive on Energy Post for a slection of his blog posts, which deal with issues at the intersection of energy technology, policy and markets.