The Trump administration’s announcement that it would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement is a largely symbolic move, but it is nevertheless another reminder of President Donald Trump’s greatest folly: his disgraceful denial of the threat posed by catastrophic climate change. No matter who wins the Democratic presidential nomination, Trump’s open hostility toward any action on climate will elevate it to a defining issue in the 2020 campaign. Voters will choose between a president and Republican Party proud of systematic resistance to any action on climate, and a challenger and Democratic Party dedicated to historic efforts to limit the already costly threat to life as we know it.
This stark divide will occur against the backdrop of metastasizing wildfires, blackouts and mass evacuations in California, floods in the Midwest and intensifying hurricanes from Texas to the Eastern Seaboard. And that’s just the start: The damage caused by global warming has been consistently worse than the scientific projections, which are themselves terrifying.
Recently, a study by Climate Central concluded that revised measurements of land elevation show that even if global warming were limited to 2 degrees Celsius — a goal that four more years of Trump would render virtually impossible to meet — 150 million people will be living on land below high-tide level in 2050. Most of southern Vietnam, with 20 million people, will be underwater, as will much of Bangkok, Mumbai and Shanghai. Indonesia’s president has already announced plans to move the capital from Jakarta to higher ground in Borneo. Forget Trump’s border wall; we’ll be building walls and dikes on the shores at historic scale.
Against this real and escalating threat, Trump — aided and abetted by Republicans in Congress — has pushed to roll back regulation after regulation to curb fossil-fuel emissions. The president has deep-sixed President Barack Obama’s climate plan, rolled back automobile mileage standards and opened federal lands to fossil-fuel companies. Trump has staffed his administration with former lobbyists from Big Oil and other fossil-fuel interests. In a truly Orwellian crackdown, the administration has even sought to purge the words “climate change” from government reports.
There is perhaps no better example of Trumpian malfeasance on climate change than California. Over the past decade, California has suffered its deepest droughts ever, the worst wildfires in its history, record downpours and mudslides, and dry spells that killed an estimated 100 million trees. Its worst wildfires ever have occurred over the past two years, yet Trump’s response is to direct his minions to focus particular energy on sabotaging that state’s climate policies. As California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, summarized, “We’re waging war against the most destructive fires in our state’s history, and Trump is conducting a full-on assault against the antidote.”
Trump believes his denial is a political winner, that he can gain by painting Democrats as “socialists,” mocking the Green New Deal with jibes about “cow flatulence,” and boasting about the United States becoming the world’s greatest oil producer. This, he no doubt figures, will consolidate his base in coal country, particularly in the swing states of the Midwest. With the United States being the largest emitter of greenhouse gases historically and still spouting two times more per capita than the next largest emitter, he thinks he has much to brag about. Many Washington pundits believe Democrats may get hurt in 2020 if they are too radical on this issue.
But the urgent warnings from the Pentagon and the nation’s scientists, combined with the calamities we are already witnessing with our own eyes, suggest Democrats have every good reason to be bold. Catastrophic climate change already rouses the young who will live in the savage years to come. It has already sparked growing demonstrations across the world. Democratic voters rank it second behind health care as the country’s most pressing issue. Two-thirds of Americans consider it either a problem or a crisis.
At a time when the international scientific community has concluded that we have 11 years to avert the worst of climate change, Trump and his Republican allies are working to intensify the threat, not deter it. A more egregious dereliction of duty is impossible to imagine. Trump’s denial mirrors the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Like Nero, Trump is helping set the flames. Democrats are raising the alarm. The contrast cannot be clearer.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly column for The Washington Post.