Physicist Q&A: Trump “Makes Sense” On Energy, Not On Climate

Richard Muller is a Berkeley physics professor, senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, and founder of the group Berkeley Earth, a non-profit established to systematically address the concerns of climate change skeptics. (Muller considers himself a converted skeptic.) He is the author of numerous books including The Instant Physicist and most recently Now: The Physics of Time. In anticipation of the upcoming Power issue of California, due out in early December, we emailed him a handful of questions about energy policy and climate change.

California Magazine: In 2008 you published a book called Physics for Future Presidents based on the course you teach at Berkeley. Four years later, you followed it with Energy for Future Presidents. Why the specific focus on energy?

Richard Muller: Energy for Future Presidents was meant as a sequel, specializing in the most rapidly changing sector of technology: energy.

We fight wars over energy. Would we pay much attention to the Middle East if it were not the source of so much oil? Look at what is happening to Venezuela today, based on the U.S. development of inexpensive shale oil. Energy and energy policy are primary in world events.

To stop the development of nuclear weapons, Obama and now Trump have been trying to convince China to cut energy supplies to North Korea. It is the one effective way short of war.

CM: When you were writing those books did you ever envision a president like Donald Trump?

RM: Of course. I don’t believe that any president since Jimmy Carter has been well-informed on energy. (And Carter didn’t do particularly well either.)

Trump’s energy policy makes sense. He is pro-nuclear and pro-natural gas, and those are the two most important technologies today for slowing and stopping global warming. There is an irony here, since President Trump says he doesn’t believe in global warming. And yet by being pro-nuke and pro-gas, he will likely accomplish more to slow and stop warming than would President Obama’s programs for electric cars and solar power.

CM: What about Trump’s pro-coal agenda?

RM:  Pro-coal does not make sense for either energy security or global warming. On the other hand, Obama’s “war on coal” also achieved very little. I think this is largely a political issue; which politician is going to win the votes from coal country.

The recent announcement of subsidies for baseline energy appears to be directed to benefit coal and nuclear. But if you look at the economics and engineering, it will benefit coal very little, because coal will have difficulties storing the three months of fuel that is required. (Coal plants use a trainload of coal every day.)  So some of the “pro-coal” stance of Trump is for show only, and doesn’t have much of an impact on either energy security or global warming.

What is needed is getting rid of coal in China and India. They already are motivated to do this due to air pollution. On that issue, by supporting nuclear and natural gas, Trump is setting an example that the developing world can afford to follow.

CM:  On climate change, you’ve called yourself a converted skeptic. You’ve also said that you could change President Trump’s mind if given the chance. What makes you so confident?

RM: I’ve changed the minds of many skeptics. The key is to let them know that their skepticism on most points of “climate change” (hurricanes, etc.) is valid; it is the global warming true believers who are wrong on these issues. It also helps to point out that the energy policy being promoted by Trump will do more to slow and stop global warming than would the policy of Obama. But more could be done. The key for the developing world is that if it is not profitable, it is not sustainable. That should appeal to him.

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