Taken as a satellite utterance in the universe of Donald Trump's speech in Abingdon, Virginia, on Wednesday, the statement "we have a very, very small planet compared to the universe" is not only true, but one that actually embodies an environmental worldview.
But, as you may expect, Trump did not intend the sentence to be interpreted that way, and he was in coal country to promote fossil fuels, not discuss the increasing crisis facing our lonely planet's ecosystem. Nonetheless, the local paper found the "low energy" speech to be a "missed opportunity" (more on that later).
How does the size of the universe fit into Trump's narrative then? It's hard to get the logic exactly straight, but somehow the fact that China uses a lot of coal—which in turn emits a lot of greenhouse gases—means that in America we should be doing the same thing. Because, well, China.
"Look at what's happening with China," Trump told the welcoming Appalachia crowd. "The amount of energy they're producing and what they're using it for…and believe me, they're not cleaning it. The stuff is going up and they're not cleaning. And here we produce great stuff and we're not allowed to use it."
It's true that China has a coal problem—but it's a coal problem they're looking to fix. Not only because they're party to the Paris climate agreement, which requires countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (Trump doesn't want to be involved with the agreement), but because the local pollution is devastating to citizen's health and livelihoods. In December, China announced that it was closing some 1,000 coal mines to address air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Many experts believe that China has already passed its years of peak coal use. The also believe that if other countries followed China's example of moving away from coal, this downturn could offer a real turning point in the effort to prevent runaway climate change.
Trump does not believe this. He believes that Hillary Clinton, who supports the Paris deal and Obama's efforts to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions, has been a "horror show" for miners, and that she would be even worse than Obama if elected.
"The mines will be gone if she gets elected," he said on Wednesday.
Trump said he'd asked miners if they'd be open to going into another industry, but they they told him "Mr. trump, we love mining."
"They want to be miners," Trump said. "But their jobs have been taken away and we're going to bring them back."
Trump blamed job loses in the industry on the policies of the Obama administration, saying that mine owners told him they've "been really decimated and in many cases destroyed by regulations and what they're doing to the mines."
While it's true that since 2012, more than 50 coal companies have filed for bankruptcy, the reasons are far more complex than Trump cares to admit.
As The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman recently pointed out, employment in the coal mining sector has been declining since long before Obama took office in 2009. Meanwhile, jobs in other energy sectors such as natural gas and renewables like wind and solar have grown significantly since 2009. Part of this trend is due to the fact that technological advancements in the coal industry are making it so that fewer workers are needed.
Coal production in the United States is at a 35-year low according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, which in 2015 attributed the decline to “low natural gas prices, lower international coal demand, and environmental regulations.”
It's not fair to single out the coal industry for elevating Trump's energy rhetoric; the entire Republican party deserves the blame for nominating the person who, if he won the presidency, would be the only world leader to deny climate science.
The Republican party is so stuck in the past when it comes to energy policy that the Republican National Committee actually updated their platform this summer to call coal an “an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.”
In pivoting away from the economic benefits of coal, Trump also tried to link national security and coal mining in his speech on Wednesday, saying that "during times of national problems, we're talking about the defense of our country, having those mines available to us is an awfully important thing. Nobody thinks in terms of that."
He didn't mention the thing that lots of people actually think about, including the military: that climate change is a major national security threat. As the climate changes, it leads to increases in refugees, which can escalate already fragile national relationships. Sea level rise threatens numerous U.S. military bases. Reliance on foreign oil is a national security weakness. The list goes on.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon ordered commanders to prioritize climate change in all their actions.
Not that national security experts need climate change as a reason to worry about a Trump presidency. Fifty top national security officials from Trump’s own party penned a letter in The New York Times this week describing Trump as a national security threat and listing the reasons they aren't going to vote for him.
In the end, Trump's speech on Wednesday was nothing new. He stumbled along, making statements he thought would please the crowd and skipping over many important details of the energy industry. He just happened to say something true about the size of the planet.
"If this rambling, incoherent speech is evidence of anything, it's that Trump doesn't understand the first thing about energy policy," Clay Schroers, national campaigns director for the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. "As strange as it sounded, Trump was actually right when he said we live on 'a small planet compared to the universe'—but that's exactly why we can't afford to keep spewing dirty coal pollution into the air."
As for the reasons the editors of the Roanoke Times were unpersuaded by Trump's speech, there were many:
We understand that Trump is, shall we say, something of an unconventional candidate. But here’s why even Trump supporters should be disappointed by his Abingdon talk, and not just because he seemed so subdued that many critics delighted in calling it “low energy.”
This was a missed opportunity.
Trump could have elaborated on his Detroit speech and explained how his economic program would result in increased use of coal. He did not. Instead, he merely repeated the same bromides he’s said all along: 'We’re going to put the miners back to work.'
And it goes on:
It’s easy to blame the Obama administration and environmentalists for waging a “war on coal.” Those charges are, well, true. But you can’t blame Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency for China buying less coal.
China’s coal cutbacks are partly economic, but they’re also in this context: Even China is transitioning away from coal and toward other energy sources. No American president can change that.
An American president could change our own environmental regulations to encourage coal — but it’s questionable whether even that would work. All across the country, companies are de-commissioning coal-fired plants and investing in other forms of energy, principally natural gas. There’s a prominent example of that in Giles County, where last year Celanese Corp. spent $150 million to convert the plant from coal to natural gas.
President Trump could rewrite every environmental regulation on the books, and he still couldn’t get Celanese to burn coal again. That company made a decision that will last for generations. That’s the problem the coal industry faces; the real “war on coal” is being lost in corporate board rooms as executive run the numbers.
Trump could have acknowledged this, and explained how his administration would discourage other companies from making the move away from coal—and how his economic program would revive the economy so much that companies will be eager to burn coal. He did not.