Skip to main content

Of all the protesters, free traders and peace-lovers depressed at the prospect of four years of tendentious tweets, protectionism and a faster-advancing Doomsday Clock, perhaps no Trump-phobics are as inconsolable as the global climate activists who thought they'd killed the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all.

Keystone's back. And it's not the only zombie fossil-fuel development upping the anxiety of climate catastrophists. Donald Trump vows to keep an "open mind" about the existence of man-made global warming. But as White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has explained, the new U.S. President's "default position" is that the current climate-science consensus is "a bunch of bunk."

The Paris Accord that Barack Obama hailed as "the best possible shot to save the one planet we've got" isn't worth the sustainably sourced paper its written on now that Mr. Trump has taken over. Ditto for Mr. Obama's Clean Power Plan, which Mr. Trump's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency spent his time as Oklahoma's attorney-general vowing to kill. The new President aims to end the "war on coal" and make Appalachia great again.

Opinion: Canada must not give up the fight on climate change

Related: Trump EPA pick Scott Pruitt says climate change isn't a hoax

He also promises to slash regulations on U.S. oil and gas producers. Mr. Trump's pick as secretary of state is the former CEO of the world's biggest publicly traded oil company and U.S. foreign policy will likely be friendly to global fossil-fuel exploration and development. Is not one of the main reasons Rex Tillerson has warned China to halt its military expansion in the South China Sea that ExxonMobil has staked its claim to vast oil reserves in the disputed waters?

It's enough to make even the most earnest climate activist feel demoralized. Or is it?

Far be it for me to search for silver linings, but a Trump presidency stands to be no worse, and maybe much better, for the climate than the administration Mr. Obama led or the one Hillary Clinton aspired to command. Even Tesla's Elon Musk, whose electric cars and batteries are Made in the USA, sees the upside in a Trump presidency – and possibly even a carbon tax.

With or without such a tax, there are reasons to be hopeful. U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions fell during Mr. Obama's presidency for reasons that had nothing to do with him. The first was the Great Recession, which sapped factory production and energy use. The second was hydraulic fracturing, which unleashed the shale-gas revolution that helped natural gas supplant coal as the main fuel used to produce electricity.

Democrats have been particularly hostile toward fracking and, though she defended both shale gas and Keystone in her private e-mails, Ms. Clinton supported neither in public. Ideological opposition to fossil fuels among her supporters and those she inherited from Bernie Sanders would have made it extremely difficult for Ms. Clinton to promote fracking. Her EPA would likely have sought to curb it.

As for Keystone, even the State Department Ms. Clinton once ran concluded the pipeline would have zero net impact on the climate or fossil-fuel consumption. Mr. Trump's revival of the TransCanada project to ship oil-sands crude south may be the best decision he's made. And it has nothing to do with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plan to adopt a national carbon tax on this side of the border.

As the Breakthrough Institute's Ted Nordhaus has shown, most explicit climate policies – from multilateral agreements to carbon-trading schemes – have been demonstrable failures. Macroeconomic trends (such as recessions) and technological developments (such as fracking) overwhelmingly determine the course emissions take. Even if they're realized, the emissions cuts promised in the Paris Accord will have little impact on global temperatures, resulting "in about 0.2°C less warming by the end of the century," according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The best hope for the planet lies not in massive investments in wind and solar power, which can never reliably supply more than a fraction of the energy a power-hungry planet needs. (Even so, Mr. Trump is likely to extend the generous tax incentives for renewables that lobbyists love.) What's needed is an embrace of cleaner-than-coal natural gas as a transition fuel, an acceptance that the benefits of nuclear energy outweigh its risks, and a moonshot focus on technologies that can truly end our dependence on fossil fuels or capture the carbon their combustion emits. One solution could be found in small modular reactors (SMRs) that can be mass produced, can't melt down and would require a fraction of the upfront investment of a massive nuclear plant.

Mr. Trump will not be an impediment to any of those things. He may even help them along.