Paul Pillar

Destroying the Planet, and U.S. Leadership Along With It

With the wide path of destruction that Donald Trump has been cutting—in which the damage is affecting matters ranging from principles of nondiscrimination to ethical integrity of government officials to reliable health care for Americans—it is easy to lose sight of what ultimately would be the most consequential destruction of all: the damage to a habitable planet.  The consequences may not be as immediately apparent, during the first 100 days or even during four years, as some of the other carnage, but the importance to humanity is even greater.  As with many other Trump policies, it is not yet clear exactly what the administration will do regarding a specific initiative such as the Paris accord on climate change, but the overall thrust of opposing any serious effort to retard global warming is all too obvious.

The recent demonstrations known as the march for science, although ostensibly not aimed at any one leader, were a salutary expression of concern, given that denial of climate change and the associated opposition against efforts to slow global warming represent one of the most glaring rejections of science, right along with the seventeenth century inquisition of Galileo.  The rejection is of a piece with Trump’s contempt for truth on most any topic.

It is hard to know what goes through the minds of the climate change deniers and skeptics that Trump has installed in his administration.  Most likely they are smart enough to know better but are playing out an appallingly selfish, politically narrow-minded, and short-sighted approach toward what sort of world will be left to their children and grandchildren.  This is suggested by some of their contrived verbal formulations.  For example, Scott Pruitt, to whom Trump has given the job of presiding over the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency, says, ”I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do…”  Who’s talking about “precision”?  That’s a false standard.  The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity is a major, and probably the major, contributor to what is highly consequential global warming, even if the exact effects cannot be measured or predicted with “precision”.

The posture assumed on this issue by the likes of Trump and Pruitt is highly irresponsible.  The Washington Post editorial page puts it aptly: “Children studying [Trump’s] presidency will ask, ‘How could anyone have done this?’ ”

Contempt and disdain are proper attitudes to adopt toward the climate change deniers, including the ones in the current administration.  They should be shamed either for displaying such inexcusable ignorance or, what is even worse, for displaying selfishness and short-sightedness despite knowing better. 

But that is not enough.  And the problem goes far beyond Donald Trump.  It extends to much of the Republican Party.  As the Post editorialists observe, the GOP is “a once-great American political party embracing rank reality-denial.”  James Inhofe was throwing snowballs in the Senate well before Trump was elected.

A savvy response to the deniers is to point out some of the more immediately visible economic and political consequences of the destructive approach toward climate change that the current administration has embraced.  One should point out how not being in the forefront of developing renewable energy sources represents regression, not progress, for the U.S. economy, no matter how much false hope is given to Appalachian coal miners about getting jobs back.  Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a prominent political leader who commendably is adding his influential voice to this subject.

One also should point out how the Trump administration’s degenerate posture on energy and climate change isolates the United States internationally.  The posture makes the United States an object of disdain for taking a Dark Ages approach toward an issue in which, more than any other, everyone in the world has a stake.  Anyone in the United States who professes to care about U.S. leadership in the world ought to be concerned about this, regardless of attitudes about atmospheric science.

The loss of U.S. leadership is especially evident in comparison with the other of the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases: China.  Although several years ago China had a backward view of the issue of climate change, seeing it as a Western excuse for trying to retard China’s economy—a notion that Donald Trump would later adopt in the reverse direction by describing climate change as a Chinese “hoax”—Beijing is now making a concerted effort to do something about the problem.  China may have already passed, as of four years ago, its peak use of coal.  There are no signs that the Trump administration’s back-sliding on the issue has lessened China’s commitment to take a progressive and responsible path on the matter.

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