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A closer look at Trump’s sentence-like word strings on coal, China, and the size of the Earth

Former President Donald Trump stands, in a navy suit and red tie, hands spread wide, speaking into a microphone at a podium with his name on it and American flags behind him.
“Our planet is tiny, like my hands!”
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’re probably aware that Donald Trump has been saying things. In fact, it seems like scarcely a day passes that Trump doesn’t up and say some new thing, which we all then hear about all day long, until the following day, when he says other things. I no longer even remember a time before the internet was 98 percent Things Trump Said.

Nonetheless, it is my solemn duty to inform you that Trump has said more things. In this case, he has commented on subjects close to my heart (or at least my spleen), namely coal and coal workers.

It is difficult to analyze these things he has said, as they are less things than disconnected fragments of things, lurching about and careening off one another in a kind of linguistic demolition derby. But we shall do our best.

Trump is tired of China polluting the universe

Earlier this week, Trump gave a speech on economic policy in Abingdon, Virginia, in which he said the following: "We have a small, a very, very small planet compared to the universe, right?"

He is correct. Earth has a volume of about 260 billion cubic miles, while the universe is, like, way bigger.

What drew Trump’s thoughts to the size of our planet? Let’s put the comment in context:

Clean coal, nobody knows, look at what’s happening with China, the amount of energy they’re producing, and what they’re using coal for, tremendous amounts. It’s incredible.

They’re not cleaning it. Believe me they’re not cleaning it. We have a small, a very, very small planet compared to the universe, right? And that stuff is going up and they’re not cleaning it and here we produce great stuff and we’re not allowed to use it. And it’s getting worse and worse.

All right, that’s … unhelpful. Luckily, Trump went on Greta Van Susteren’s show shortly thereafter to clarify:

I want everything. I mean, frankly, you know, coal — clean coal is really a new thing that really does work and you look at China, what they’re doing with coal. They are using coal and I doubt they are cleaning it. In fact, they are not cleaning it. But they have technology now that’s wonderful. We’re just not being able to use it. We are having a tremendous hard time with the environmental protection agencies and all federal — federal government is putting — look, a lot of different kinds of industries out of business. But, in particular, when you get to energy and the coal and even natural gas is having tremendous problems, we could be energy independent. Energy independent within a very short period of time. But they won’t let that happen.

Okay, "clarify" may have been an exaggeration. This is like conservative talk radio, if someone were flipping the dial to a new station every few seconds.

But it sounds like Trump is saying that China is using all the dirty coal it wants, polluting our small Earth, while the US government isn’t even allowing Americans to use the clean coal we have all queued up and ready to go.

That is … incorrect.

  • To climate analysts and researchers, "clean coal" means coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) — i.e., coal power plants that emit less (or no) carbon dioxide. China is leading the world on CCS research and deployment.
  • The coal industry and the Republican Party platform use "clean coal" as a propaganda term to refer to all coal burned in modern power plants, which emit lower levels of local air and water pollutants than past plants (though they emit just as much carbon dioxide as ever). China is working to reduce local pollutants too, shutting down its oldest plants, vowing to reduce coal-sector pollution by 60 percent by 2020, building out wind and solar at a breakneck pace, and generally spending billions to, you know, "clean it."
  • In fact, coal use in China has recently peaked, and its carbon dioxide emissions fell for the first time in 2015.
  • As for "we produce great stuff and we’re not allowed to use it," it’s unclear what "great stuff" he’s talking about. But if he’s talking about "clean coal" technology, i.e., coal with CCS, the fact is that it has received enormous government subsidies and, in the one high-profile demonstration project attempted (the Kemper plant in Mississippi), gone wildly over-budget.
the kemper ccs project
The Kemper Project, Mississippi’s wildly over-budget, behind-schedule "clean coal" fiasco.
  • The federal environmental regulations that Trump laments, and plans to reverse, are the only reason US coal is any cleaner than Chinese, and the only reason companies have to develop "clean coal." If he doesn’t want "that stuff … going up," polluting our very, very small planet, why is he trying to reverse those regulations?
  • The US is already "energy independent" when it comes to coal and gas — we export both. Also "energy independence" is bullshit.

And with that, I just put 50 times a much thought into Trump’s comment as he did.

Trump warns that our national security depends on coal mines

From the same Virginia speech:

The US — I just took a look at this, somebody just handed it — the US has lost nearly 200,000 mining jobs since 2014. …

During times of national problems — we were talking about the defense of our country — having those mines and having that potential energy source available to us is an awfully important thing. It’s an awfully important thing. And nobody thinks in terms of that, they don’t think in terms of —


They don’t think in terms of that.

(Some how, [APPLAUSE] is the most jarring part of all that.)

Where to begin? The 200,000 lost jobs come from across all mining and extraction sectors — minerals, oil, gas, coal, everything. They are not all coal mining jobs, despite what Trump clearly implies. The coal industry as a whole doesn’t even employ 200,000 people (it’s around 174,000). It has lost 50,000 jobs over the last five years; according to conventional math, 50,000 is a quarter of 200,000 and two years is less than half of five.

But whatever. More interesting is the peculiar, circa-1800s notion that coal mines are important to national defense. (Fun fact: Warships used to run on coal! That ended early in the 20th century.)

pearl harbor coaling station
A "coaling station" in Pearl Harbor in 1919, ready to make warships great again.

Coal is currently being replaced in the US power sector by natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Which of those will become unavailable in "times of national problems"? Solar and wind are more distributed, less reliant on supply line chokepoints. Wouldn’t they be more resilient in a time of conflict?

Another fun fact: The military is working overtime to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, both at permanent bases and in the field, because it sees that dependence as both an operational and a strategic vulnerability. The idea of keeping uneconomic coal mines open, just in case, is unlikely to appeal to modern military strategists.

Trump is right about one thing: "nobody thinks in terms of that," where "that" is coal’s vital role in 21st-century national defense.

Trump talks to (and about) coal miners like they were cartoon characters

Trump has been pandering to coal miners in his typical ham-handed way, promising to bring mines and jobs back. (He can’t and won’t.) But the New York millionaire’s cultural and political understanding of coal miners is second hand, all gathered in hasty briefings like this:

Someone apparently told Trump the mining demographic doesn’t vote, so he made this pitch in Virginia:

Miners are amazing people. So, so I, I really — and I say it, it’s up to you. You got to get out and vote. You just don’t vote. You know? I don’t know why. And I think it’s because you’ve been beaten so badly as an industry. Just beaten up so badly. … And I can understand. You gotta do it. You gotta give it one shot. You know? Takes you 25 minutes or two minutes or 10 minutes. You have nothing to lose. You have absolutely nothing to lose. Believe me. You will be happy. You will be happy. You will be absolutely happy.

"You’ve been beaten up so badly you have absolutely nothing to lose" is a rather grim pitch for support. But then, it’s hard to beat "You will be happy. You will be happy. You will be absolutely happy." Who doesn’t want to be happy?

Susteren asked Trump if he worries about the safety of coal miners. From his response:

Well, the miners want to work. And they want to do it. That’s what they love. … I spoke with the miners. That’s what they love to do.

One wonders if Trump has ever seen the inside of a coal mine. It is grueling work — legendarily so. I’m sure coal miners like working more than they like being unemployed, but I seriously doubt the majority of miners take any kind of genuine artisanal pleasure in blowing up mountains. The black lung and lost pensions are also a bit of a drag.

ohio coal miner
Just in it for the love of mining.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Then this: "And the safety is now really, you know, they have really brought it to a new level. So it’s really wonderful from that standpoint."

Coal mining deaths have declined steadily over the last century, largely due to two things that Trump laments: automation, which increased safety but radically reduced the size of the workforce, and federal safety regulations, which Trump wants to get rid of. It’s still one of the more dangerous jobs in the US, though it recently fell off the top 10 list.

Oh, and this again

From a Trump interview with the Miami Herald just yesterday:

"I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change," Trump said, despite vast scientific evidence to the contrary. "There could be some impact, but I don’t believe it’s a devastating impact."

In the past, Trump has called climate change a "hoax."

"I would say that it goes up, it goes down," he said.

Aaand that’s probably enough for one day. Tune in next time for another episode of: Trump Says Things.

trump rally
"He’s saying so many things!"
Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

PS: Lots of these Trump quotes come via the Twitter feed of CBS’s Sopan Deb, whose day-to-day chronicling of Trump is tireless to the point of derangement.

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