Is there any hope that the Trump administration will help fight climate change—or at least not make it worse?
So far, the signs are not good. As has been widely reported, one of America’s leading climate deniers, the fossil-fuel-funded non-scientist Myron Ebell, is heading Donald Trump’s transition team for the EPA. Ebell isn’t just the fox guarding the henhouse; he’s a wolf. Add to that the “Drill Baby Drill” mantra, which will subsidize oil production but not renewable energy, and there is reason to be extremely pessimistic.
And then, as if on cue, the news got worse. As the Washington Post reported, the North Pole is an astonishing 36 degrees warmer than usual at this time of year. Coming after 2015, the Earth’s hottest year on record, that will have devastating effects for polar ice caps, which are already in a death spiral; thinner polar ice causes warmer ocean water beneath, which causes thinner polar ice, which causes warmer ocean water beneath, which… you get the picture.
On the other hand, there are some reasons to hope. Let’s look at three of them, and give each of them a name: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mike Pence, and Newt Gingrich.
Let me explain.
1. Save Us, Leo!
It’s time to stop complaining about “normalizing” Trump. The guy is our next president. More than 60 million people voted for him. Whatever he stands for may be evil, or visionary, or deluded, or outrageous—but it is now “normal,” descriptively speaking. And as Saul Alinsky wrote nearly 50 years ago, even radicals must deal with the world as it is, not as it should be.
That means climate activists need to talk with Trump. But who will he listen to?
Well, quite possibly another hugely famous person, like Leonardo DiCaprio, who has just released yet another excellent climate documentary that no one will watch.
Leo, it’s time for you to go to Washington (or Fifth Avenue, I guess). Many liberals will hate you for it, but put a safety pin on your lapel and get a meeting. Trump won’t listen to Bill McKibben, he won’t listen to the Union for Concerned Scientists, and he sure as hell won’t listen to me. But he might just listen to one of the highest-status celebrities of our time.
The thing is, climate change is detachable from most of Trump’s program. Fine, he’s committed to expanding fossil-fuel exploration. But this issue isn’t the core of his message; it’s an outlier. It’s easy to reframe investment in renewables as job-creation, as investing in infrastructure, as promoting innovation—because all of that is true. We’ve got to try.
Trump changes his mind on a lot of things. And unlike true climate deniers, he has only a passing familiarity with the giant heap of pseudo-science that was created to give the false appearance of scientific uncertainty. The guy has reversed himself on deportations, locking up Hillary Clinton, the extent of the wall—this should be easy.
Moreover, even climate deniers change their minds—because they have to. Take Myron Ebell himself. In the 1980s and 1990s, he denied that the Earth was warming at all. When that became undeniable, he denied that humans had anything to do with it. But just this past year, he’s said that, yes, manmade climate change is real, yet it’s not nearly as serious as people say. (Which is still obviously false.)
The same people lying about climate change were the people who lied about cigarettes and cancer back in the 1980s. But a funny thing happened: The truth eventually won out, and hard-core defenders of tobacco changed their minds. Leo—we need you.
2. Praying for Pence
A second unlikely hero could be our incoming Catholic-evangelical vice president.
As we reported two years ago, there has in fact been significant movement within the evangelical community on the issue of global climate disruption. White evangelical Protestants are still the most likely to be climate deniers—in 2014, only 27 percent accepted the scientific consensus that human activity is causing the planet to warm. Yet a new generation of conservative religious environmentalists has pointed out that it’s not responsible stewardship of God’s creation (see Genesis 1:28) to radically disrupt the Earth that God has made. Nor is it pro-life to leave our children a planet with widespread agricultural disruptions and species extinctions. Nor does it “love the least of these” to allow poor nations to suffer from climatic devastation while rich ones adapt to it.
And for good measure, God promises in Revelation 11:18 that “I will destroy those who destroy the Earth.”
Unfortunately, most environmentalists speak a different language from evangelicals, and Christians have long worried that environmentalism is a kind of paganism—the “green dragon” in one hyperbolic presentation. Evangelicals have had to create an entirely new vocabulary—Creation Care, for example—not just to find better messaging, but to truly understand the issue of climate change within a conservative Christian worldview. Organizations like the Evangelical Climate Initiative and books like Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley’s A Climate for Change are shifting the Christian environmental conversation.
And don’t forget that Pope Francis’s radical encyclical on the environment was a complete game-changer for Catholics.
So, to take a cue from evangelicals themselves, I pray that the wisdom will prevail here. This is not a conversation that will involve people like me, but I hope that Mike Pence meets with the sincere evangelicals and Catholics who urge a spiritual approach to climate change. And whatever my profound disagreements with Mike Pence, he is a person of sincere faith.
Can that be said of Ebell, whose organization, Competitive Enterprise Institute, has taken millions from Exxon, Texaco, the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch Brothers, and other fossil-fuel giants? Can it be said of fake scientists like Willie Soon, who just about every climate denier relied upon until he was exposed as a fraud? Just as tobacco companies muddied the water with fake science, so oil companies are doing so now. Their agenda is obvious.
Or as Matthew 7:16 says, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”
3. Chasing Newt
Finally, there’s Trump’s strategic adviser.
Funny thing about Gingrich: He’s long toed the standard Republican-Libertarian line that environmental regulations are job-killers and the EPA should be dismantled. Back in 2008, he wrote a blog post titled “Stop the Green Pig.”
And yet, in that same post, he noted that geoengineering—direct human intervention in Earth’s climatic systems—could be a way “to address concerns about global warming.” Well, what do you know—climate realism.
Geoengineering is controversial. Even though some of its methods are incremental and benign—for example, allowing airplanes to fly a bit dirtier to scatter enough dust in the atmosphere to reflect more of the sun’s rays—obviously the uncertainties are daunting. It’s easy to imagine catastrophe.
Yet as I argued back in 1998, geoengineering is also a method of addressing climate change that Republicans might actually like. As Gingrich pointed out, it doesn’t involve regulation. And it can be pursued gradually, as the effects of climate change become more acutely felt. Most importantly, it avoids the Hobson’s Choice of either regulating or doing nothing at all.
Will Gingrich have the courage to say what he knows is true—that climate change is a real crisis—as long as it’s clear that there are alternatives to the kind of top-down regulations that conservatives love to hate? Does he dare defy Big Oil’s orthodoxy that the best strategy is to deny, deny, and deny?
To be sure, this is messy stuff. Environmentalists usually like big marches, symbolic protests, and offsetting their carbon footprints. But your personal carbon footprint won’t mean a damn thing if the country’s energy infrastructure doesn’t evolve, or if other means aren’t found to collectively address global climate disruption.
If there is hope for the climate over the next four years, it won’t be found in the gestural, romantic politics of “think globally, act locally” or protests like the one in North Dakota or pious slogans that only preach to the converted.
Celebrities, Christians, climate hackers – I’m looking at you. We need your help. Please, don’t be too pure to save us.