the national interest

A Portrait of a Man Who Knows Nothing About Climate Change

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In his interview with the New York Times, Donald Trump expressed more flexibility on climate change, which he has previously called a hoax created by China. That is the good news. The bad news is that Trump’s lack of commitment to the cause of climate-science denial is rooted in a comprehensive failure to grasp the issue. The few snippets of concrete factual information he has to ground his beliefs are mostly false. His New York Times interview forced the president-elect to grapple with the issue in more depth than he did at any time during the campaign (the three debates had no questions on this issue, and climate-change policy in general received vanishingly little attention from the media). The portrait that comes out of the interview is one of almost complete ignorance.

Trump began by promising “an open mind.” Then he began to defend his denialist position:

You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind.

The hottest single day on record is not relevant to a problem centered on increased average temperatures. The reality is that the Earth has seen a long-term rise in surface temperature:

Photo: NASA

That data comes via NASA. (In related news, Trump’s lead adviser on NASA, Bob Walker, today advocates zeroing-out all climate-related research at the agency, which he calls “politically correct environmental monitoring.”)

Trump then cited the authority of his late uncle:

My uncle was for 35 years a professor at M.I.T. He was a great engineer, scientist. He was a great guy. And he was … a long time ago, he had feelings — this was a long time ago — he had feelings on this subject. It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.

John G. Trump was a physicist and engineer, not a climate scientist. And he died in 1985, a time when the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming was far less solid than it is today.

Trump then moved on to hacked emails among climate scientists:

I know we have, they say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists. Where was that, in Geneva or wherever five years ago? Terrible. Where they got caught, you know, so you see that and you say, what’s this all about. 

He is referring here to a popular right-wing conspiracy that claimed that scientists were conspiring to falsify climate data to support their theory. This claim has been debunked.

Trump then begins rambling about other environmental issues:

I absolutely have an open mind. I will tell you this: Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important. Safety is vitally important.
And you know, you mentioned a lot of the courses. I have some great, great, very successful golf courses. I’ve received so many environmental awards for the way I’ve done, you know. I’ve done a tremendous amount of work where I’ve received tremendous numbers. Sometimes I’ll say I’m actually an environmentalist and people will smile in some cases and other people that know me understand that’s true.

What any of these disconnected sentiments have to do with his beliefs about greenhouse-gas emissions is difficult to tell. He seems to want to assert his authority as a good guy for the environment without connecting this element of his self-image to his policy agenda for the U.S. government.

Sensing the drift, the Times tries to refocus Trump on the question of whether he accepts the scientific connection between greenhouse-gas emissions and rising global temperatures. Trump replies:

I think right now … well, I think there is some connectivity. There is some, something. It depends on how much. It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies. You have to understand, our companies are noncompetitive right now.

There are two revealing things about this snippet. First, Trump concedes that there is “some” connection between the atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping gasses and higher temperatures, but will not say how much, or whether this has any bearing on policy. Instead he moves directly to the cost to American companies, saying the answer to the scientific relationship depends on the cost to American companies. Of course, one could make a coherent argument that climate change is real, but any particular policy response fails the cost-benefit test. Indeed, many conservatives embarrassed by having to defend anti-scientific conspiracy theories have urged Republicans to shift their line of defense in just this way. But Trump is giving the game away by explicitly linking the two arguments.

Later in the interview, Trump is asked about using his meeting with Nigel Farage, in which Trump lobbied against an offshore wind farm that he believed would mar the vistas at a Trump-owned golf course. Trump defending this blatant display of self-interest as a consistent application of his overarching hatred for wind energy:

I mean, the wind is a very deceiving thing. First of all, we don’t make the windmills in the United States. They’re made in Germany and Japan.

This is wrong. American wind-turbine manufacturers and their supply-chain have a large domestic presence:

Trump then begins to ramble again:

They’re made out of massive amounts of steel, which goes into the atmosphere, whether it’s in our country or not, it goes into the atmosphere. The windmills kill birds and the windmills need massive subsidies. In other words, we’re subsidizing wind mills all over this country. I mean, for the most part they don’t work. I don’t think they work at all without subsidy, and that bothers me, and they kill all the birds. You go to a windmill, you know in California they have the, what is it? The golden eagle? And they’re like, if you shoot a golden eagle, they go to jail for five years and yet they kill them by, they actually have to get permits that they’re only allowed to kill 30 or something in one year. The windmills are devastating to the bird population, O.K. With that being said, there’s a place for them. But they do need subsidy. So, if I talk negatively. I’ve been saying the same thing for years about you know, the wind industry. I wouldn’t want to subsidize it. Some environmentalists agree with me very much because of all of the things I just said, including the birds, and some don’t.

Yes, the birds. Some birds do die via wind turbine, and it is very sad for them. On the other hand, unchecked climate change will create mass species extinction. Even if Trump somehow cares more about animals than effects on human life, opposing an important component of the response to climate change on animal-loving grounds is bizarre.

A Portrait of a Man Who Knows Nothing About Climate Change