With so many metaphorical five-alarm fires blazing across the political landscape in real time, it can be hard to focus on a looming catastrophe of science-fiction-like proportions. But the 1,656-page US government report by 300 scientists released last Friday, forecasting devastation from climate change to our economy, agriculture, infrastructure, and coastal cities; an eight-foot rise in sea levels; a cascade of deadly events from hurricanes and forest fires to drought; and a 10 percent loss in GDP by the end of the century, is a wake-up call stronger than the bitterest cup of coffee.
Tragically, President Trump continues to deny clear evidence presented by the scientific community and his own government of the devastating costs of man-made climate change — and the urgency to act now. Trump withdrew from the international climate accord that was decades in the making; is a cheerleader for fossil fuels; and has energetically reversed regulations that would slow climate change.
In a jaw-dropping interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, the president justified his refusal to accept facts by saying, “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers.” He rambled on in a baffling stream of semi-consciousness, tossing incoherent, meaningless word salads. Falsely claiming that “you look at our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean,” he counterfactually asserted that “oceans are very small” and blamed Asia for “tons of garbage” that “blows over and it sails over.” We all hate garbage, but what, you may ask, has that got to do with climate change?
Last week, Trump proved he doesn’t grasp the difference between weather (a short-term event, like rain or snow) and climate (how the atmosphere behaves over relatively long periods of time), as defined by NASA. “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS — Whatever happened to Global Warming?” he tweeted gloatingly before the release of the climate report mandated by Congress, which the administration sought to bury by putting it out the day after Thanksgiving. It’s ironic that Trump changed the subject from a dire climate report to pollution, considering greenhouse emissions are themselves pollutants and his EPA has weakened rules that restricted emissions from vehicles and power plants.
A recent UN climate study warned that the world has a window of 12 years to cap global warming for this century at 1.5 degrees Celsius or face disaster. Even a half-degree more will lead to floods, drought, extreme heat, and rising ocean levels that will devastate hundreds of millions of people, depleting fisheries and agriculture, eradicating the ocean’s coral, destroying habitats for insects vital to pollination of crops, and fueling food shortages and deadly extreme weather events, according to the review of 6,000 references by scientists from 40 nations. If governments don’t take steps to halt warming climate, the report said, a 2.7 degree Celsius rise in global temperature this century may cause $54 trillion in damages — two-thirds of the entire global GDP this year.
It’s obvious Trump hasn’t read the climate change reports, but it’s painful to hear him inchoately dismiss evidence by claiming he’s seen articles saying “the planets could have freeze [sic] to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion.” Maybe he doesn’t believe in climate science because he inexplicably thinks it means the planet is “going to die of heat exhaustion.” He repeated that if forests were “raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire,” a trope Trump wheeled out to blame bad “forest management” for a California fire that has caused at least 88 deaths and damage likely to climb into billions of dollars.
Trump’s denial of climate change — bolstered by some like-minded Republicans in Congress, where the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying money outstrips the clean energy movement’s spending by 10-to-1 — puts humanity at risk. Ironically, Trump — who has called global warming “a total hoax” — applied two years ago to build a sea wall to protect his golf course in Ireland, citing dangers of climate change and erosion in his permit.
It’s not too late to stave off a dystopian future. We must invest in clean energy, reforestation, and future-proofed infrastructure. We need to impose strict limits on emissions, adapt farming, and prepare for the toll of extreme weather on housing, public health, and overstressed roads, bridges, and sewers. It will cost billions — a fraction of the price of not taking steps. But we can’t save ourselves if the White House stands in the way. If there’s one issue that deserves bipartisanship in the new Congress, let it be this.
Indira A. R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. She is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.