Facts are stubborn things, as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is repeatedly discovering. While the president and many of his top appointees deny the reality of climate change, science continues to amass unmistakable evidence of its existence. The administration’s refusal to acknowledge that unpleasant truth will have profound implications for the United States, doing not only great physical damage, but also affecting its economy and its leadership.
The latest indictment of Washington’s ostrich-like policy is a massive study released Nov. 3, that concluded that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” for the changing climate other than “human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases.” The Climate Science Special Report notes that warming temperatures, rising sea levels, more frequent heat waves and other extreme weather events are evidence of climate change. For an administration led by a man who declared climate change is a “hoax,” whose energy secretary, Rick Perry, said only the day before the report was released that “science is still out” on whether human activity is the primary driver of climate change, and whose Environmental Protection Agency is focused on rolling back climate initiatives that are in place, including the gratuitous withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, the report is a head scratcher. Its conclusions shred the skepticism behind Trump policy; why then was it published?
The simple answer is because it was mandated by law. The National Climate Assessment is produced every four years by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a group of 13 federal agencies, and analyzes human- and naturally-caused global changes. Scientists and researchers from those agencies, along with outside experts, compile the report, and it is published after an extensive review and comment process. It is considered the most comprehensive and authoritative statement on climate science by the U.S. government.
Drafts of the report had been in circulation for some time and thus a significant revision was not possible. Trump administration dysfunction would have undercut efforts to suppress its findings: The report is overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the head of that agency still has not been appointed.
Still, denialists in the administration are busy at work trying to lift what they consider unreasonable and unscientific restraints on U.S. companies. Regulations that require assessment of the climate implications of investment and operations are being challenged, climate research is being defunded, experts on climate science are being reassigned and marginalized, and reports that challenge administration orthodoxy have been scrubbed from government websites.
Denial of the facts does not change the facts, however. Extreme weather events in the U.S., ranging from hurricanes to forest fires, are happening more frequently, and exact a mounting human and economic toll, even if the administration prefers that they do not exist.
The great irony of the Trump administration’s climate denials is that they are being done to aid industry — and much of U.S. industry acknowledges climate science and recognizes the opportunities afforded by doing so. Consumers are increasingly conscious of the environmental costs of their purchases and companies that cater to that preference are being rewarded. International institutions such as multilateral development banks, along with private sector financial firms, are increasingly transparent about the climate impact of their loans.
The U.S. failure to lead on this issue gives other governments the chance to do so. They are doing so. China, in particular, is staking a claim to global leadership. In his work report to the recently concluded 19th Chinese Communist Party convention, President Xi Jinping declared that his country would take a “driving seat in international cooperation on climate change.” That ambition is validated by reports that Beijing hit its Paris accord target for capping CO2 emissions 10 years ahead of schedule. Other countries will be touting their bona fides at climate talks in Bonn this week. French President Emmanuel Macron will defend the Paris agreement and tout the climate summit that he will host next month in Paris.
Also at Bonn are California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but they are merely the most prominent of a large group of climate activists that includes city and state leaders, as well as companies like Walmart and Citi, that back more aggressive action.
With Nicaragua and Syria agreeing to join the Paris climate agreement, only the U.S. remains outside the framework. That is a shocking situation but one to which the world, for now at least, must become accustomed. That means both filling the void created by Washington’s new perspective and ensuring that U.S. opposition is limited in impact.