No, President Trump: our warming planet is not a scam concocted by Obama-era scientists; it is the reality of a planet of over seven billion people burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. There will be a tomorrow, but according to Volume Two of the Congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment, it will be a more disaster prone and economically poorer future if we don’t address climate change. The report notes that we are already seeing the impact of climate change, and by the end of the century climate will be a major force damaging our infrastructure, manufacturing supply chains, and communities. Nothing in this report is particularly new, but that didn’t stop the Administration’s public relations gurus from trying to hide the report in the haze of Black Friday shopping. It didn’t work. There was extensive coverage of the report and its findings. Its findings are impossible to ignore.
As Coral Davenport and Kendra Pierre-Louis reported in the New York Times last week:
“A White House statement said the report, which was started under the Obama administration, was “largely based on the most extreme scenario” of global warming and that the next assessment would provide an opportunity for greater balance.”
While it is possible to tweak the models a bit and come up with slightly different projections, the report’s discussion of current impacts are simply climate facts. These range from lobsters maturing out of season due to warmer ocean waters in Maine, to high tide flooding throughout the southeast American coast; from forest fires in California to the impact of more intense storms everywhere. I trust the Trump Organization has made sure that Mar-a-Lago has adequate flood insurance. I’m always amazed when I hear someone saying they don’t believe in climate change. Do they believe in gravity? Heart disease? Cancer? These are scientific facts. By understanding the science of the problem we make it possible to develop the science needed for solutions. They are not spiritual matters appropriate for belief, but factual matters we need to understand.
The effort to deny the science, or hide over a thousand pages of information and analysis prepared by 13 federal agencies, is not working. People know that our climate is changing. For a long time we were discussing models projecting a climate challenged future. When we first focused on climate change at the end of the twentieth century we had not seen much evidence of change. As we close the 18th year of the 21st century, the future is now. The impacts projected a quarter century ago have begun. Unfortunately, this is happening at the same time we have a hard charging, win-at-all-costs, scientific illiterate sitting in the White House. This will make it difficult for America’s national government to take the lead on mitigating climate change. We will need to rely on America’s states, cities, communities and corporations to take the lead here. And we will need to hope that other nations around the world do what we can’t seem to do in Washington, D.C.
The report reiterates the obvious policy prescriptions for addressing climate change: pricing carbon through a tax, reducing greenhouse gasses through command and control regulation, or dramatically increasing research funding for clean energy technology. With the power alignment in Washington we will see in 2019, I believe the most politically feasible national program would be to fund renewable energy technology research. Since I work for a research university, I won’t argue that I’m being objective, but I don’t see a climate tax or regulation overcoming a Trump veto. The newly Democratic House of Representatives, on the other hand, has a great deal of influence in the budgetary process, and science funding tends to be distributed to universities in both red states and blue states. Advances in smart grid technology, energy storage, and solar cells could accelerate the decarbonization of the American economy. If the technology of renewable energy gets better and cheaper fast enough, the transition to renewable energy may take place more rapidly than the climate models now project. New technology could disrupt the energy market and overcome the momentum and institutional clout of coal and other fossil fuels.
California and New York can push decarbonization at the state level through the power they already possess to regulate energy utilities. If other states follow their lead, accelerated adoption of renewable energy might help avoid some of the worst impacts that the climate report projects. California is also taking the lead on moving away from the internal combustion engine. If the price of electric cars comes down more rapidly than we expect and the public’s acceptance of electric vehicles grows, a crucial input into America’s greenhouse gas crisis may also be modified. Once the technology is adopted here, it is possible that other nations would join in.
Despite my hope that other forces in America will counterbalance the disaster of this administration’s approach to environmental quality, the failure of American leadership will have a profound, negative impact. Just as Trumpian tweets enable and embolden authoritarian regimes all over the world, his administration’s ridiculous idea that deregulating environmental protection fosters economic growth legitimizes those who make money off of poisoning the public. The climate assessment notes that dealing with the costs of climate impacts may have a serious negative impact on the American economy in coming years. If you don’t believe the models projecting the future, all we need to do is look at the past. A few million dollars of prevention could have avoided the billions of dollars BP spent on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Better flood protection at the Fukushima nuclear power plant could have prevented a melt down and widespread radioactive contamination. The cost of that clean up will be well over $200 billion. Many years of U.S. government analysis of the costs and benefits of air pollution regulation demonstrate that for every dollar we spend on air pollution control we receive fifteen dollars of benefits. Even folklore tells us that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The public understands the climate change issue. Stanford University public opinion expert Jon Krosnick has studied attitudes toward climate change for a number of years. He has assembled a website that includes links to many studies of public views on climate change, and the site provides this high-level summary of findings:
“During the last 50 years of serious survey research, the American public has been about equally divided on many important and controversial issues of public policy. But global warming is unusual – Twenty years of surveys show that strikingly large majorities of Americans have agreed about whether global warming has been happening, whether it is a threat, whether it merits government attention, what policy approaches are appealing, and what policy approaches should be avoided.”
The site includes long-term longitudinal data on attitudes toward government policies. While a majority favors a corporate carbon tax, overall tax expenditures or subsidies receive higher levels of support than punitive tax increases.
While the public gets it, the issue’s salience has not been great enough to influence many elections. But that could change. A visionary, future-oriented leader could build on the public’s support for climate policy. More to the point, Krosnick’s work demonstrates that despite years of climate denial and massive amounts of fossil-fuel industry propaganda, the public is more in tune with climate reality than the White House is. Fantasy is great for art and entertainment, but it is a dangerous basis for public policy. The public’s attitude toward climate change is starting to resemble their opinion on other environmental issues. Back when climate change was a problem that was caused everywhere and whose impact was in the future, it was difficult for the public to understand it. Forest fires, droughts, hurricanes and the number of unprecedented extreme weather events have made the climate issue tangible to everyone. People know that the planet is changing and understand that the impacts are unpredictable but generally bad. The facts of climate change are real and can’t be wished away. Those facts are generating a policy response in many American states and cities and in the capitals of many nations. American leadership would help, but may prove to be irrelevant.