Climate Change Response Pits Trump Against US Government
01 December 18
I don’t believe it.– Donald Trump, November 26th, referring to the 1596-page Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the White House at 2 p.m. on Black Friday, November 23rd, the day after Thanksgiving.
don’t believe it” is not, by definition, a rational argument supported by evidence. It’s a statement of faith, not susceptible of proof or rebuttal, and as such is useless to effective governance. “I don’t believe it” is the empty opposite of the Fourth National Climate Assessment that is part of a continuing, multi-disciplinary, real-world examination of climate change that began in 1990 (more on this under-publicized report later). Produced by the 13 government agencies that comprise the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Assessment is the latest report in a thirty-year climate watch that has seen steady, unchanging trends toward catastrophic global impact. Climate change is a dynamic process, driven by human activity that humans have done little to mitigate for a generation. Climate change is happening, it is irreversible, but there is still time to mitigate its worst effects, to save lives, to preserve habitat, to adjust economies, to sustain a somewhat civilized world.
“I don’t believe it” is Donald Trump’s response to all of this. Researchers in the Trump administration are forbidden – forbidden! – from even mentioning climate change, never mind developing strategies to cope with its varied impacts. Sorry about that, Puerto Rico. Sorry about that, Houston and North Carolina. Sorry about that, California. Sorry about that, everyone.
“I don’t believe it” has a corollary in White House practice: “I don’t want you to believe it.” The White House considered suppressing the report, but that would require overt law-breaking, since the National Climate Assessment is mandated by Congress. The White House reportedly considered editing or censoring the report, but feared that would make things worse (as it had when a Bush administration oil executive falsified an earlier climate report). So the White House went with a traditional subterfuge, releasing the Assessment when it would be least likely to get significant news coverage – at 2 p.m. on a Friday, not only a traditional black hole for bad news but super-shopper Black Friday after Thanksgiving as well. For a report that signaled the inevitably of an uninhabitable planet within decades, unless the U.S. and others make major changes of public policy, the story has received rather muted attention.
As one Trump advisor summed up the dishonest White House approach, adding a touch of conspiratorial paranoia:
We don’t care. In our view, this is made-up hysteria anyway…. Trying to stop the deep state from doing this in the first place, or trying to alter the document, and then creating a whole new narrative — it’s better to just have it come out and get it over with. But do it on a day when nobody cares, and hope it gets swept away by the next day’s news.
To reinforce distraction from news that affects every American for generations, the White House also chose to lie about it. The White House issued a statement on November 23rd that falsely claimed that “the report is largely based on the most extreme scenario.” The report included a range of scenarios. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated this lie on November 27th, falsely claiming the official U.S. government position on climate was “not based on facts.” Sanders also lied when she claimed that the National Climate Assessment process was not transparent. Sanders also made false environmental claims that are irrelevant to and a distraction from climate questions.
In a sense, it’s not news when Donald Trump and his followers double down on climate denial. These are veteran birthers, after all. But the scale of climate change is vast and daunting. The stakes in dealing with climate change are intimidatingly high: millions of lives, billions of acres, trillions of dollars. It’s enough to give the most careful, rational leader pause.
“I don’t believe it” is not an answer. It’s not a policy. It’s cowardice or worse.
At this point, the world is past the point of preventing climate change from doing serious damage. That damage is already happening. Bigger and more powerful storms, coastal and inland flooding, larger and more intense forest fires, water scarcity, lethal heat waves and more, all exacerbated by climate change, take more lives and property every year. The problem is global; political dithering is pandemic, reinforced by political corruption. We’ve known – or should have known – for at least thirty years that we have a problem we need to face. Exxon and other oil companies have known for fifty years or more that their profitability came at the cost of putting the planet at risk. Coal companies have always known that coal was unhealthy for people, if not the globe.
“I don’t believe it” is an abdication of leadership. “I don’t know” is what you say, whether you believe it or not, when your goal is to put a prohibitive tariff on solar panels, to slow the rush away from fossil fuels.
We didn’t have to get to this place, where our choices are all stark. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush initiated the U.S. Global Change Research Program. In 1990, Congress passed the Global Change Research Act, designed to develop and coordinate “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” From that rational beginning of intellectual integrity, we have drifted through one feckless presidency and Congress after another, squandering thirty years of opportunity to save ourselves from ourselves.
“I don’t believe it” seems to have become the national motto, sometimes expressed as “In God We Trust,” long since replacing e pluribus unum or any other aspirational goal. The reigning cultural stupidity of the United States, its suicidal cultural stupidity, was neatly encapsulated by Utah Republican senator Mike Lee on November 25th, when he expressed the widely shared mindlessness that passes for conventional wisdom on addressing climate change:
All the proposals I’ve seen so far that would address any of these issues would devastate the U.S. economy and have little or no benefit that is demonstrable from our standpoint. And so I have yet to see a proposal that would bring this about. I think if we’re going to move away from fossil fuels, it’s got to be done through innovation. And innovation can be choked out through excessive government regulation.
He doesn’t mention regulation like a tariff on solar panels. He has no proposal of his own. He’s not even sure fossil fuels are bad (“if we’re going to move away from fossil fuels”). For the foreseeable future the Mike Lees of the world, who hold positions of power everywhere, are content to let the planet creep toward further catastrophe rather than disturb the profit centers of their patrons. He may as well as have said, “I don’t believe it.”
While it is true that climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution, it is also true that the U.S. is the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases driving the problem. And the U.S. is led by people committed to creating ever more greenhouse gases until some uncertain future date when something unspecified will change their course. In February, the U.S. Energy Department reported that there was likely to be no decrease in U.S. carbon emissions for more than 30 years. That would mean the rest of the world would have to achieve zero carbon emissions, immediately, just to maintain the already damaging status quo.
Thirty years ago, Bill McKibben published “The End of Nature,” an early warning about what was then called “the greenhouse effect.” McKibben’s recent piece in the New Yorker of November 26th is a long, angry, despairing piece about our collective path to self-destruction:
The extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from four hundred thousand [400,000] bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima.
As a result, in the past thirty years we’ve seen all twenty of the hottest years ever recorded. The melting of ice caps and glaciers and the rising levels of our oceans and seas, initially predicted for the end of the century, have occurred decades early. “I’ve never been at … a climate conference where people say ‘that happened slower than I thought it would,’ ” Christina Hulbe, a New Zealand climatologist, told a reporter for Grist last year….
All this has played out more or less as scientists warned, albeit faster. What has defied expectations is the slowness of the response. The climatologist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of human-caused climate change thirty years ago.
The cultural vacuity of American leadership is as stunning as is it self-willed. Confronted with an official U.S. government report, American leadership chooses to ignore three decades of conscientious, consistent, accumulating research that a real problem is getting steadily worse, choosing instead to ignore, deny, lie, and maintain the policy that feeds the crisis. This is beyond rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. This is maintaining full speed ahead while betting that there are no icebergs.
No matter what happens next, the failed American leadership of the past thirty years has assured that we, and the rest of the world, will go on suffering unnecessary losses for a long time into the future. Perhaps the new Democrats in Congress will force the failed party leadership to adopt a “Green New Deal” and perhaps, in time, that can make some difference, though it’s too late to make much difference in time. But that’s one of the two grim choices we face: do something to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible and risk the possibly severe economic consequences.
The other choice is to follow current policy and risk almost certain, severe economic consequence – as well as severe ecological consequences – as well as severe consequences to human well being, health, and life. This is the path of Trump’s climate leadership, and it is fraudulent, irresponsible, and criminal.
Criminal? We have seen the carnage caused by climate change already. We know there will be more and worse to come unless we take efforts to mitigate the consequences. Trump shows no evidence that he knows the risk or cares about it, so how is that not criminal negligence on a global scale? Lock him up.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
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