Capitalism vs. Coal: How Barack Obama Made it Possible for the Market to Fight Climate Change

President Obama after he persuaded China to come on board for the Paris Climate Agreement.

Last week, Donald Trump sought to undo pretty much all of President Obama's actions to fight climate change, ceremoniously signing executive orders to make it easier for polluters, particularly coal plants, to pollute without mercy. After a humiliating loss in his 17-day saga to try to repeal Obamacare, Trump and his band of sadist conservatives had at least one Obama accomplishment that could be rolled back.

Not so fast.

Almost immediately following Trump's petulant announcement, American and global industry giants rebuffed the White House and stressed their own plans - as private companies - to meet or exceed renewable and clean energy commitments they had made under President Obama.

Walmart, no friend to liberal treehuggers, said in a statement that their commitment to get half of its power from renewable sources was embedded in their business model, and that the march away from carbon-polluting energy is good for business. Anheuser-Busch, world's largest beer company committed to get 100% of its energy from renewable means, and major tech firms flat out applauded Obama's Clean Power Plan for making "renewable energy supplies more robust and address the serious threat of climate change while also supporting American competitiveness, innovation, and job growth."

These companies are not responding to political pressure, they are responding to their bottom line. Part of the reason for this new reality of their bottom line is certainly the investments the United States made in clean energy under President Obama (the largest in the nation's history), but half the story - perhaps the better half - happened outside our borders.

Perhaps the most significant victories for President Obama on the world stage came when he persuaded the Chinese and the Indians to become partners in, rather than adversaries to, investing in clean energy. President Obama was so successful that China not only came on board on bilateral cooperation but committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. With Obama's relentless diplomacy, China saw the economic benefits of investing in a clean energy future.

And China is not stepping back. The same China that took years of persuasion by Obama to commit to climate change doubled down in response to Trump's abdication of American leadership on this issue by... creating more economic incentives to produce and use renewable power. China is also poised to set up the world's largest cap-and-trade program.

The two ends of this fight - global industry and global regulatory climate - are meeting to advance clean energy and limit greenhouse gas emissions, and there is not much Trump can do about that. Even the top dog in the US coal industry - as horrific a foe to Barack Obama as any - concedes as much.

President Obama spent eight years investing in clean energy, forming industry partnerships and creating global cooperation to combat climate change. But more brilliant and farther-sighted than any leader in generations, Barack Obama knew that creating temporary measures and agency-level policy that could be rolled back with the stroke of a pen would not be enough to create lasting change.

So President Obama used his policies and his leadership capacity to engage and create buy-in from global political leaders and titans of industry, making it not just feasible but profitable to increase market demand for energy produced cleanly and from renewable sources. 

The plain fact is, Barack Obama created a transformative global reality in which the advancement of renewable energy and the recession of the dirtiest form of energy production are not a liberal policy directive but a business imperative. Consumers want to fight climate change, and businesses are responding. For all of Trump's bravado about coal country, it would be a mistake to forget that last year, the counties Hillary Clinton won represent two-thirds of the US economy, Trump counties just a third. Trump may have convinced people afraid of losing their white privilege that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, but the economic centers of America and of the globe will not turn back.

This is not to argue that Donald Trump and his band of regressive Republicans will not be able to do significant damage to the environment or to the fight against climate change. They are, and they will. It's why industry response, international response and response from cities and states within the United States is more important than ever.

And that's what Barack Obama made possible. He made it possible, for the first time since the industrial revolution to turn down the offer to produce more pollutants. President Obama made it not just possible but economically sensible.

It's just one reason Barack Obama's presidency will be counted among the most transformative in history.

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