President Trump and climate change

Ascientists become more gloomy about keeping global warming below the allegedly ‘safe’ limit of 2 °C, the issue is disappearing from the US presidential debates. There was a brief mention in the second Trump/Clinton debate, with climate change treated as an ‘afterthought’.

Trump has previously (in 2012) suggested climate change “was created by and for the Chinese”. His original ‘first 100’ days plan for climate and energy got pulled from his website, archived at ‘wayback machine’. It makes for depressing reading, with promises to “cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs” accompanied by a bonfire of domestic regulations. How much of that will happen remains to be seen.

Early days

Awareness of the threat of climate change goes back decades, well before its arrival on public policy agendas in 1988. While John F. Kennedy was aware of environmental problems generally (he’d read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), it was his successor Lyndon Johnson who made the first presidential statement about climate changewritten for him by pioneering climate scientist Roger Revelle. Following a warning on the topic from Democratic senator Daniel Moynihan in September 1969, Nixon created the US Environmental Protection Authority in an age when conservatism meant conserving things, but climate change was still very niche. Ronald Reagan’s hostility to all matters environmental is infamous, with attempts to abolish both the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, but with the credibility of atmospheric scientists high thanks to their discovery of the ozone hole, moves towards a climate agreement could not be completely resisted.

1988 and beyond

A combination of growing scientific alarm about the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and a long hot summer in 1988 made climate change an election issue. On the campaign trail, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush announced in his presidential campaign:

“Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the “greenhouse effect” are forgetting about the “White House effect”… I will convene a global conference on the environment at the White House… We will talk about global warming… And we will act”

He didn’t act, of course, successfully insisting targets and timetables for emissions reductions be removed from the proposed climate treaty to be agreed at the Rio Earth Summit, before he would agree to attend.

It was 2000 before presidential candidates debated the issue. George W. Bush (2000-09) said:

“I think it’s an issue that we need to take very seriously. But I don’t think we know the solution to global warming yet. And I don’t think we’ve got all the facts before we make decisions”.

The peak year for climate concern was 2008, with climate rating a mention in all three presidential debates”. Obama framed climate change as an energy independence issue, arguing that: “we’ve got to walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to energy independence”. Despite a petition with 160,000 signatures, the debate moderators for the 2012 debate did not put the issue on the agenda, with the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, accused of recanting early climate change positions.

Why the silence?

There are two reasons. One is simply down to the politicisation around the issue. As shown above, as recently as 2008 Republicans admitted climate change was happening. In 2012 only one contender, Jon Huntsman, was willing to do so, he soon dropped out, with his views dramatically unpopular among Republican voters. What happened? In two words: Tea Party. The emergence of the hyper-conservative Tea Party Republican faction was the culmination of a longer-term trend of “anti-reflexivity”.

The second reason is more gloomy, because it is more intractable. Those who have denied climate change for so very long will find it very costly – both politically and psychologically – to reverse their position and admit that they have been wrong. Climate change denial has become a cultural position.

What next?

In the day since Trump won, there has been a flurry of commentary. Joe Romm asks’ Will Trump go down in history as the man who pulled the plug on a liveable climate?

“The shocking election of Donald Trump on Tuesday night is a turning point in the history of climate action, and therefore the history of homo sapiens. That’s because whatever warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and Dust-Bowlification we commit to is irreversible on a timescale of a thousand years.”

For David Roberts “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees”, with “widespread suffering and misery from climate change now effectively inevitable.”

Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide accumulates, and the impacts pile up.