As a journalist, I go back a long way in writing about global warming, although rumors that I covered the end of the Ice Age are exaggerated. In the late 1980s, or maybe it was the early 1980s, I interviewed an environmental lobbyist about the politics of the “greenhouse effect,” which was what we used to call climate change. In my innocent youth, or maybe early middle age, I found it hard to understand the reluctance of the Reagan administration to address, or even acknowledge, this threat to the global ecosystem.
“Don’t these people have children?” I asked incredulously.
“Well,” the lobbyist replied with a shrug, “the rule is you dance with who brung ya” — meaning officials who owed their positions to support from the fossil fuel industry were not about to turn against their patrons merely out of concern for the future of life on earth.
The question came back to mind recently when the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration was acknowledging a mainstream scientific prediction for global warming: a catastrophic 7-degree (Fahrenheit) rise in average temperature, cumulative since preindustrial levels, by the end of the century — swamping islands and coastlines, disrupting agriculture and making parts of the globe uninhabitably hot.
“I was shocked when I saw this,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I thought, wait, they’re putting this out? This is the administration, it’s not some aging hippie in Santa Monica.”
But the administration wasn’t bringing up this scenario to emphasize the need for more urgent action to fight climate change. Instead, it treated it as a reason to do nothing, on the grounds that the world is screwed no matter what, so why bother trying to save it?
This marks the endpoint of the process of rationalizing inaction whose beginning I witnessed 30-some years ago. It began by denying the fact of global warming, then in the face of evidence admitting it was happening but claiming human activity wasn’t responsible, then arguing that people were causing it but the effects would be tolerable, or preferable to incurring the costs of controlling it, and has now arrived at the position that it’s too late to do anything about it.
The 7-degree calculation, buried in an environmental impact statement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, assumes that worldwide greenhouse gas emissions continue indefinitely at the same level after 2021. Thus it concedes in advance the failure of the 2015 Paris Agreement on global warming, which is meant to limit further increases in global temperature to roughly half that amount by transitioning away from burning fossil fuels for energy. Trump has already announced his intention to withdraw from the agreement. The NHTSA statement was in support of scrapping one part of the Obama administration’s plan to comply with the agreement, a mandated increase in fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and trucks through 2026 — because we’re all doomed anyway.
By NHTSA’s calculations, the net effect of the Obama plan would provide at best a marginal benefit for the climate, amounting to a small fraction of a degree, compared to the Trump administration’s preferred approach, which is to do nothing. Meeting the Obama standards “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible,” the statement says.
“They made some assumptions to make the number come out where they wanted,” Pettit told me. “They wanted to show their proposal won’t make any significant difference. They got to the number they attribute to the Obama rules by a crazy assumption that after 2021 nobody does anything else to fight global warming. That gets you to the 7 degrees.”
Needless to say, most environmentalists don’t agree that it is not feasible for “the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels,” because it is already starting to happen. The administration proposal seems motivated almost entirely by right-wing ideology and reflexive hostility to anything originating with its predecessor. Not even the auto industry is calling for freezing mileage requirements. Detroit would prefer some leeway in meeting the standards proposed by Obama, which in very general terms require a corporate-fleet average increase to 55 miles per gallon by the mid 2020s. But carmakers have to design their products years in advance and don’t want the uncertainty of going through a whole new rule-making process, or the ensuing lawsuits from environmentalists and from individual states. Also, they want to be able to sell their cars in other countries, which are trying to limit carbon emissions. The Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, representing over 1,000 suppliers of automobile parts, submitted a comment on the administration proposal that made these points. The group asserted that freezing mileage standards “would result in a loss of 67,000 direct auto industry jobs with a full impact of 500,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs by 2025,” compared with letting the Obama rules take effect.
Also, some of those people probably have children too.
Which brings me to Trump, and what this little episode says about him. Matt Taibbi, in Rolling Stone, aptly describes Trump’s philosophy as “nihilism,” the denial of meaning and purpose in human existence. I never thought of Trump possessing any kind of considered philosophy that extended beyond “I’ve got mine,” but maybe I was underestimating him. Someone with the “very good brain” he likes to boast about — his uncle was a professor at MIT, in case you didn’t know — undoubtedly is well versed in the philosophy of Nietzsche. Trump certainly fits the description of one kind of postmodern nihilist found here: “a dehumanized conformist, alienated, indifferent, and baffled, directing psychological energy into hedonistic narcissism or into a deep ressentiment that often explodes in violence.” If life has no meaning, you might as well take advantage of its pleasures, which is what Trump has been doing all along. Trump, who was born in 1946, can afford not to worry about sea level rise in the year 2100. If worse comes to worst, he can always find a golf course above the flood zone, or put one behind a wall. Apres Trump, le deluge. Or even before then — just ask the residents of North Carolina.
And by the same token, why should he be concerned about adding almost $900 billion to the national debt? Trump won’t be around when the bill comes due, and even if he is, the New York Times just published a 14,000-word article explaining how successful he’s been at wriggling out of paying taxes. Why should he worry about the implications for American democracy of his reckless trampling of civic and political norms? Norms are meant to be broken by people like Trump, who are in the best position to profit from the wreckage.
Of course, nihilism is opposed to Christianity, but I suspect that even the evangelical hucksters who cluster around Trump realize that he is a pagan at heart.
But Trump, as we know, has children, and grandchildren who could well be alive into the next century. Does he think about them at all? To even ask the question is to answer it. I am of the same generation as Trump, and if I outlive him it probably won’t be for too many years. If I had to think of one thing he has done for me, it’s to give me a reason to be glad I’m old.
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