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Editorial: Propping up coal avoids hard facts while denying science and subverting Buffalo's clean-energy future

President Trump’s order to undo his predecessor’s policies on clean energy is unnecessary, unwise and, regarding Buffalo’s economic hopes, unwanted. He has made a bad mistake.

Forget, for the moment, the fears about the effect of fossil fuels on climate change which, if scientists are to be believed, is real and holds the potential for widespread calamity. Forget, too, that clean air and water prevent illness and support longer, healthier lives. Forget the smog that once enveloped American cities, and rivers that were so polluted they caught fire. Just focus on what the president had to say.

According to Trump, the reason to try to reignite the coal industry – a vain effort, if ever there were one – is that American energy independence is more crucial to the nation than fighting climate change. It’s a dubious argument, since the nation is already approaching energy independence as a result of hydraulic fracturing, but even still, the road to true independence is not through coal but renewable energy. For Buffalo’s purposes, that specifically includes the kind that will be made available by the SolarCity plant under construction in South Buffalo.

Buffalo today is in the business of the future, and coal – no matter how cleanly some systems may burn it – remains a fundamentally dirty fossil fuel whose days are numbered. Times change and coal’s is coming to an end. Nothing Trump or anyone else does can change that fact. The future lies elsewhere: in wind, perhaps; in some technologies yet to be discovered, likely; and, to be sure, in the sun.

That’s the energy that SolarCity will produce. Coming on line soon as the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar-panel manufacturing plant, the project puts Buffalo at the cutting edge of America’s energy future. Federal policies cannot stop it. Whatever government may do, economic forces will ultimately push it forward.

What Washington can do, though, is to put obstacles in the way of clean energy, thereby kicking energy independence further down the road – thus rewarding the regimes that incubate terrorists – and, yes, hastening the predicted catastrophic effects of climate change. That includes melting polar icecaps that will raise sea levels and create grave risks for coastal areas, including New York City.

No one really believes that coal is coming back or – except for those unfortunate people whose livelihoods depend on it – even that it should. What Washington and coal industry states should be doing is helping those regions to transition to a new economy, much as New York State has done for Buffalo and, before that, for the Albany area.

This Rust Belt city was declining for decades as manufacturing fled, and no one made any focused effort to reverse its fortunes. But, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo showed, the task was doable. His efforts are what produced, among other benefits, the SolarCity project along the Buffalo River.

But who is looking out for West Virginia, Kentucky and other coal-mining states? The president isn’t. In making a stab at honoring a cheap campaign promise, he is only postponing the reckoning that will allow these struggling regions to turn from a dying economy to one that has a future.

And he is turning his back on science. Virtually every scientist who has studied the climate has concluded that it is warming and that human activity is the main culprit. Perhaps they are all wrong; it seems unlikely, but maybe. The question then is: Where do you place your bet – with businesses and partisans who have an economic or political interest in the status quo, or with dispassionate scientists whose interest is in where the evidence leads them? The answer should be obvious.

Trump and the rest of the government should be listening to the scientists and taking seriously the threat of climate change. In doing that, they would turn from coal, offer help to those harmed and embrace the kind of future represented along a bend in the Buffalo River. That’s the future, and it’s unstoppable.

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