Climate change: Trump and Republicans pivot from denial to “optimism”

By Dawn Stover, February 5, 2020

Trump and Macron plant a tree Presidents Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron planted an oak sapling—a gift from France—on the White House grounds in 2018. It was dead within a year. Credit: Voice of America

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Trump delivered a message of “relentless optimism.” The theme of the speech was “The Great American Comeback.”

If you hoped Trump would say something about making the climate great again, or even mention climate change at all, you were disappointed. But the president’s speech did offer some clues about how he and his party plan to dance around this issue during the 2020 campaign: They will talk about an “energy revolution” and tout natural gas as clean energy (it’s “natural,” after all). They will propose planting trees and capturing carbon and “innovating.” They will act like they are starting to take climate change seriously.

But are they?

A preview in Davos. This isn’t the first time Trump has embraced optimism. He test-drove this message at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 21, saying: “Fear and doubt is not a good thought process because this is a time for tremendous hope and joy and optimism and action. But to embrace the possibilities of tomorrow, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of apocalypse.”

It’s almost like he knew the Bulletin would be moving the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer than ever to midnight only two days later—in part because of the world’s insufficient response to an increasingly threatened climate.

“Optimism” was Trump’s rebuttal to 17-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who has inspired many of her generation to become climate activists. In Davos, she pleaded with attendees to “listen to the scientists.” Trump, who has in the past called climate change a “hoax,” in Davos called it “a very serious subject” and announced that the United States would join the One Trillion Trees initiative—an excellent idea, although it’s no substitute for reducing emissions. Using trees alone to absorb all the carbon the United States emitted last year would require planting an area about four times the size of California.

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Ivanka Trump, who accompanied her father to Davos and had said early in her tenure as his senior advisor that climate change would be one of her signature issues—but then remained mum about it for three years—finally had something to say on the subject: Although she allowed that Thunberg has “elevated awareness and that’s a positive thing,” Ivanka proclaimed herself to be “a believer in the power of optimism” and in “American innovation and global innovation,” adding that “a purely pessimistic outlook is not going to help us solve the problem.” Like father, like daughter.

Actions speak louder than speeches. What is President Trump actually doing to stabilize the climate? So far, the only plan he has put forward is to plant a lot of trees, and it’s unclear how much money he will commit to that program. Trump has spent most of his presidency calling for increased logging. He opened up Alaska’s Tongass National Forest for that purpose, and has pushed a false narrative that increased logging will help reduce the risk of wildfires. He has not lifted a finger to prevent the conversion of existing forests—in the United States, the Amazon, or anywhere else—to agriculture and other types of development.

And then there’s “innovation,” the word on every Republican’s lips these days. But what does it really mean? It’s every bit as vague as earlier buzzwords like “resilience” and “clean coal.” In the past, Trump has claimed he cares deeply about clean air and clean water, but they were totally absent from his State of the Union speech. Instead, the president bragged: “Thanks to our bold regulatory reduction campaign, the United States has become the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world, by far.” Like that is going to get us out of the climate mess we’re in.

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Although the United States was already the world’s top producer of oil and gas four years before Trump became president, his regulatory rollback campaign has undoubtedly benefited the fossil fuel industry and come at the expense of environmental protections. Since he became president, Trump has rolled back 58 environmental rules, and 37 more rollbacks are in progress—affecting everything from vehicle fuel economy to power-plant emissions.

Playing politics. Talk of environmental optimism is new for Trump, but it probably sounds familiar to Australians who have been living through a hellish wildfire season. Their prime minister, Scott Morrison, who has paid scant attention to how climate change is making fires more intense and lengthening the fire season, rode into office on a wave of optimism and continues to urge his nation to “always look optimistically into our future.” Morrison is so optimistic that he took a holiday in Hawaii while fires were devastating his country. Now it seems Trump has taken a page from Morrison’s playbook.

Of course, Republicans have good reasons to worry about climate change and their messaging about it. As the Washington Post recently reported, “In poll after poll, large numbers of young and suburban Republican voters are registering their desire for climate action and say the issue is a priority. And their concern about climate change is spreading to older GOP supporters, too.”

Democrats are preparing to put forward climate change legislation in the House this spring, and Republicans can no longer afford to be seen as do-nothings on this issue. Will planting trees and pledging allegiance to “innovation” be enough to satisfy climate-anxious voters? Trump is optimistic.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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