WASHINGTON – The incoming Trump administration will face passionate and hostile resistance if it tries to deny the reality of human-induced climate change. We can already hear the drums of war.
▪ The Department of Energy flatly denied a demand from the Trump transition team to supply the names of employees or contractors who have participated in international climate change negotiations in the last five years. Also rejected was a request for names of staff who helped calculate the “social cost” of carbon emissions. The obvious concern is that these workers would be labeled as unreliable, and perhaps shoved aside, by political appointees determined to pretend that climate change does not exist.
▪ Scientists have begun a frantic effort to archive decades’ worth of climate data, copying it onto servers that are beyond the U.S. government’s reach. The voluminous data sets, compiled by agencies including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, help form the basis for the consensus view that the atmosphere and the oceans are rapidly warming due to heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. There has been no threat from the Trump camp to do anything untoward regarding the data, but the researchers are taking no chances.
▪ California Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday that if President-elect Donald Trump tries to impede his state’s vigorous efforts against climate change, “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers and we’re ready to fight. We’re ready to defend.” Speaking in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Brown warned that rumored budget cuts might end a NASA program that uses satellites to take measurements of the earth, including temperature. “If Trump turns off the satellites,” Brown declared, “California will launch its own damn satellite.”
All of this is just the beginning. Trump, who has repeatedly described climate change as a “hoax,” will try to reverse the Obama administration’s progress in limiting carbon emissions. Assuming he follows through, he’ll have a real fight on his hands.
At one of his strongman-style victory rallies this past Tuesday night, Trump said that “we will cancel the restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale, oil, natural gas, and clean, beautiful coal.”
Apparently, Trump never met a fossil fuel he didn’t like. And he has announced his intention to appoint the most prominent oil man he could find – Rex Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the largest non-government oil company in the world – as secretary of state.
Trump may renounce the historic Paris agreement, in which the world’s biggest carbon emitters – China, the United States and India – all pledged curbs. He can also eliminate regulations limiting carbon emissions by power plants; encourage more drilling for oil and natural gas; and try his best to revive the moribund coal mining industry, though its decline is due more to market forces than to anything the government has done.
These threatened actions come near the end of what will almost surely be the warmest year on record. Continuing what scientists see as an indisputable trend, 2016 was an absolute scorcher. And yes, I realize that right now it’s cold outside in much of the country; some scientists believe that rapid warming at the North Pole has destabilized air flow patterns and perhaps made these “polar vortex” cold snaps more common. In any event, the key measurement is the global temperature average, not the local wind chill.
Trump is being advised by a number of vocal climate-change deniers. The data that scientists are rushing to preserve clearly refutes those who say there is no warming – hence the urgency to protect the information. Some deniers acknowledge the fact of warming but say it is due to some unfathomable natural cycle. But Occam’s razor argues persuasively for the simpler explanation: Since the Industrial Revolution, we have increased the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide – known to trap heat – by an incredible 40 percent.
Much of the rest of the world understands the need to move toward clean energy. The technology isn’t quite there yet, so some breakthroughs will be required. Smart government policy would be to invest in research to make it more likely that these advances are made in Berkeley rather than Bangalore or Beijing.
Dumb policy would be to fire up the smokestacks, stop collecting all that annoying climate data and marginalize federal employees who best understand global warming. This is the direction Trump appears to be headed.
The president-elect threatens to make the United States a second-rate player in the coming clean-energy economy. I guess that’s his idea of greatness, but it’s not mine.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.