Trump’s puzzling clean energy stance

Great deal-maker seems content on sidelines

Celebrate or despise his politics, it is hard not to acknowledge the brilliance of President Trump as a competitive opportunist.  His business and political success is a long history of seizing opportunities by understanding what the public is hungry for, whether it is a realty show in the boardroom, get-rich-quick educational formats, or a return to nationalism.  He has been expert at navigating regulatory and legal landscapes to out-compete his competitors.  He is dogged and creative and plays to win.  As he reiterated in his speech to Congress last week, he has framed much of his domestic economic vision around the fear of losing to China and Mexico and the opportunity to bring manufacturing back to the United States.

It is a puzzle then, that, faced with one of the largest economic opportunities in a generation, President Trump is content to sit on the sidelines and let other countries seize the clean energy future.  Regardless of where US climate policy heads in the next four years, it is clear that the global revolution in clean energy technology is irreversible.  Global markets for efficient light bulbs, appliances, batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles are huge and growing. R&D efforts all over the world are trying to find the next new products that will light our homes, transport us, and cook our food without emitting carbon.

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If the US cedes this space, those products will be stamped “Hecho en Mexico” or “中国制造” (China) – the very nations Trump has identified as our chief trade competition – or   “Lavet i Danmark”, “Hergestellt in Deutschland” (Germany), or “भारत में बनी” (India).  During no other technological and economic transformation have American policymakers inhibited the United States from seizing opportunities to compete. Agricultural machinery, fossil fuel production, automobiles, aviation and space, life sciences – in all of these revolutions, US technology, education, business, and government policy drove innovation and opened markets.  The result was the United States winning, big league.

Other leaders have shown that, despite deep ideological tension, economic opportunities can be too large to leave on the table. When he was governor of Texas, Rick Perry had no equal as an oil-and-gas proponent, and he was a climate change denier, yet he supported markets and infrastructure that allowed wind a more level playing field.  He was governor during some of the fastest growth in wind power in the nation.

Thanks to a wealth of researchers and entrepreneurs, start-ups, and Fortune 500 companies that smell opportunity, the United States is strongly positioned with some of the most advanced technology, manufacturing processes, and marketing tools.  With rapid growth in the last 10 years, the US has more than 2.5 million clean energy jobs, and more each day, across all skill levels, from plumbers to chemists to engineers to installers to architects to electricians.

Meet the Author

David W Cash

Dean, McCormack Graduate School for Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston
But the global market is extremely competitive. China has 3 million workers in the sector and is producing some of the lowest-cost solar arrays. German companies are laying claim to much of the wind turbine manufacturing business. Up-and-coming India is launching numerous start- ups in the electric vehicle and advanced battery space.  Clean energy companies in these and other countries will grow and prosper, as they should. But the United States cannot afford to hesitate a moment; we must redouble our efforts in this field or risk losing the existing momentum toward more jobs and economic growth. This is the kind of competitive environment that, by all accounts, should stir Trump’s blood.

David W. Cash is the dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston.