The Nihilism of Trump’s Climate Policy

The administration cites the likelihood of catastrophic global temperature rise to justify gutting fuel-efficiency standards. Yes, you read that correctly.

A firefighter works to control the Delta Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, California, in September 2018.

Credit: Noah Berger/AP

The Washington Post dove deep into a draft statement issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week and found buried within it a startling admission.

Planet Earth, the agency’s analysts observed, is currently on track to warm by approximately 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But that’s not the startling thing I’m referring to. This is: The statement’s authors were passing along this bit of news in order to lend support to the administration’s decision to weaken fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020.

That’s right: The United States government is basically making the argument that reducing carbon pollution from cars can’t save us—so why bother?

This is, to put it mildly, a twist on the usual rules of engagement between those who advocate for climate action and those who don’t. We’re used to fighting skepticism. But outright nihilism? That’s a new one.

We’ve been rebutting climate change deniers—and their faulty data and conspiracy theories—for years, and as disturbing as it is to see their ilk installed in the executive branch, we at least have a template for fighting back: Lead confidently with the science, never let a bogus claim go unchallenged, and have faith that truth will ultimately win the day.

But how are you supposed to respond when those who oppose climate action actually do accept the science behind global warming, and do understand that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind . . . but simply don’t care?

Scientists and economists have spent lots of time imagining what the world would look like after a 4 °C rise in global temperatures, and it’s utterly horrifying. They predict that sea levels would rise by three feet or more, laying waste to coastal cities. Heat waves would turn grasslands into deserts; coral reef ecosystems would disappear. Food stocks would be thrust into jeopardy. Climate refugees, by the hundreds of thousands, would swarm the places that still offered some promise of future habitability, increasing international strife and warfare and general suffering. According to one study, led by environmental economist Tom Kompas of the University of Melbourne, losses in income to the global economy would amount to more than $23 trillion annually—equivalent to the impact of three to four repeats of the 2008 global financial crisis packed into every year.

This isn’t just the future that the Trump administration is preparing for. This is the future that the Trump administration is paving the way for. The same scientists who have given us a glimpse of the nightmare scenario resulting from a 4 °C temperature rise have made it clear that the only way to stave it off is for the nations of the world to take bold, collective, and immediate action along the lines of what was stipulated in the Paris Agreement, in hopes that we can perhaps limit the increase to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 °C . The nations of the world did indeed come together and nervously but resolvedly committed themselves to taking steps to reach that goal. And the United States helped lead the way.


Then Trump happened. Not only did he pull our country, the world’s second largest greenhouse-gas emitter, out of the agreement, but since taking office, he’s taken step after step in the wrong direction. His proposed replacement for the Clean Power Plan is a bad joke that his own environmental agency admits will literally kill people. His moves to ease requirements on methane leaks suggest that the relatively minor burden on the oil and gas industry is somehow worse than the impacts of climate change. And his senseless rollback of fuel-efficiency standards would stymie progress that’s already been made by the U.S. auto industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, which generates the largest share of those emissions.

This past week, members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change met in South Korea to discuss ways that governments can cooperate to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, which many experts consider to be the “guardrail” increase, past which disaster looms. They warn that unless we can find a way to reduce global emissions by about 40 percent over the next dozen years and work diligently toward a zero-net-emissions model by mid-century, we’re not likely to get there.

The thing is, though: Many very smart and powerful people around the world are trying to do just that. They believe we can get there. They’re passing new laws, forming new coalitions, and developing new technologies. They refuse to succumb to the fatalism and nihilism that have infected our current presidential administration, and they are in fact proving to be the antidotes to the resulting sickness.

If we’re to survive, we’ll need to follow their lead. In the meantime, we can only hope that the United States is someday in a position to lead again.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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