Much has been made in the Indian media about the US President-elect Donald Trump’s supposed changed stance towards global warming and the Paris Agreement on climate change. His stand during the presidential campaign had been that he would pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. But when queried about climate change in the course of a long interaction with the editors and senior columnists of the New York Times at their office on November 23, Trump is believed to have said he has “an open mind to it”.
On reading the transcript of the interaction in detail, one hardly gets a sense, contrary to what has been reported in India and what may now be the perception of many, that he is open about the issue. Two things in fact stand out: one, and most glaring, how sceptical Donald Trump is about global warming. Even while he says he has an open mind – he uses the term six times – the patchy information he spouts is one of a sceptic. Two, his scepticism is not a healthy, informed scepticism but one based on lazy, lamentable ignorance.
Open or closed?
Answering the only direct question, put to him by Michael Shear, the White House correspondent of NYT, about whether he would pull out of the Paris Agreement, Trump’s reply was, “I am going to look at it.” This is completely ambiguous, to say the least. When questioned about what would happen if other governments impose tariffs on American goods were the US to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Trump’s response was, “They are in no position to do that to us, no matter what I do. But I am going to take a look at it … I want to also see how much this is costing.”
This ambiguity needs to be read along with the other things Trump said about climate change. Having an open mind would suggest he is open to another point of view, but there’s nothing he said that tells us what that is. “There are few things,” he said in response to a question from the columnist Thomas Friedman about how the President-elect would approach climate change, “where there’s more division than climate change,” implying that there are people who think differently about the subject from Friedman and the New York Times. “There are people on the other side of the issue,” making the point more explicitly, “a lot of smart people disagree with you.”
At this point, Arthur Sulzberger, the newspaper’s publisher, stepped in with a tangible issue and asked – presumably referring to hurricanes along the US east coast – “We saw what these storms are now doing, right? We’ve seen it personally.”
“We have had storms always, Arthur,” said Trump.
“Not like this,” Sulzberger replied.
The discussion then moved on to issues about wind power, which reveals Trump’s skewed mindset about renewables. Wind, let’s bear in mind, currently comprises a fifth of the renewable energy consumed in the US, three times more than solar power. “I have a problem with wind … Wind is a very deceiving thing … Windmills need massive subsidies, for the most part they don’t work. I don’t think they work at all without subsidy.” That’s not entirely true – with wind power in the US proving increasingly competitive even without government subsidy. What’s more, Trump is blind, or perhaps wilfully oblivious, to the subsidies that fossil fuels benefit from. According to a recent working paper drawn up by the International Monetary Fund, the overall energy subsidy worldwide amounted to $5.3 trillion last year, or over $10 million every minute. But “I wouldn’t want to subsidise wind,” says Trump.
Weather v. climate
No one should be surprised about Trump being a sceptic. But what left this author startled on reading the transcript, was how poorly informed his scepticism is.
It’s been widely reported that Trump said there was “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. What he also said was: “There is some, something. It depends on how much.” His earlier stated position was so daft: he is believed to have called climate change “a Chinese hoax” – that something as tepid as “some connectivity” seems a giant leap for Trumpkind. That human beings adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere causes the globe to warm has been established science for a hundred and twenty years, ever since the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius published a scientific paper about it in April 1896. That human activity is responsible for global warming has been told us for years in report after report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Clearly, Trump has some catching up to do.
The editors of the NYT and the President-elect were having this conversation on a day and at a time when the temperature at the North Pole has been a jaw-dropping 20º C warmer than it should be at this time of year. Arctic ice has been melting and in long-term decline for the last 40 years. “There is nothing but climate change that can cause these trends,” says a professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey, who studies the Arctic. But meanwhile, Trump has merely this to say to the NYT: “It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.”
He goes on: “You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, ’98. You can make a lot of cases for different views.” He has no clue what he is talking about. If he is referring to a single hottest day, it is irrelevant because random temperature spikes are perfectly possible as natural variation and may have nothing to do with global warming. What matters are trends, and the long-term trends are and have been upwards, as the World Meteorological Organisation’s temperature data has revealed for years.
Since he mentions ‘98’, he is presumably referring not to a “hottest day” but to the year 1998, dredging up what is by now discredited climate sceptic argument. Global temperatures had shot up in 1998 – due to what was then the strongest El Nino of the 20th century – and then flattened out for over a decade thereafter, referred to in the climate science literature as a ‘hiatus’ in warming. This flattening is used by climate sceptics to question the basic science of global warming, which Trump is parroting.
There are varied explanations for this hiatus in the scientific community, the most widely-held being that much of the excess heat trapped during those years went into the deep oceans. And even in this period of relatively flat growth, average global temperatures exceeded 1998’s record in 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2015. This year, 2016, will end up as the hottest year ever, the third year in a row – something that has never happened before. Every single month this year has been the hottest respective month ever recorded since 1880.
But none of this seems to have made any impression on the man who is going to be President of the United States in less than eight weeks. One could be hopeful about someone with a genuinely open mind. But one also feels extremely pessimistic about Trump; he is ignorant and is surrounding himself with people who are themselves hostile to climate science. The latest report coming out of the US suggests that he will strangle funding for climate research at NASA’s world-renowned Earth Sciences Division, which studies the planet from “the unique perspective of space”. Serious climate scientists are alarmed.
Michael Mann has said, “Without the support of NASA, not only the US but the entire world would be taking a hard hit when it comes to understanding the behaviour of our climate and the threats posed by human-caused climate change.” For us to assume that Trump has an open mind – just because he says so himself – would be unforgivable naïveté on our part. Let’s focus on what he does. And so far the signs aren’t good.
Nagraj Adve is a member of India Climate Justice. He works and writes on issues related to global warming.