Donald the Denier by Christy George
Editor Matty Byloos, Editor's Choice, January 19th, 2017
"Donald Trump may well bring on an irrevocable climate catastrophe."
Whether his victory was due to voter suppression, Russian hacking, an FBI coup, hidden sexism, unacknowledged tough times in the heartland, or simply voters who were craving a four-year reality TV show, Donald Trump being elected president is terrifying to more than half the electorate, including Muslims and Mexicans and gay and trans people and Jews and liberals and seniors and women and people of color.
But when I lie awake in the dark of midnight, sweating in the cold after the furnace throttles down, unable to sleep, I think about something different.
Donald Trump is a climate denier. And he may well bring on an irrevocable climate catastrophe.
Unless Trump gets religion on climate change – and fast – people will die. Maybe millions on his watch. The coming climactic changes will be like the Black Death, only falling from above as rain or snow or heat from sunshine so intense that vast swaths of the United States and Europe and more than half the world will become uninhabitable.
Droughts that spark raging wildfires, parch the land, and turn it barren.
Superstorm hurricanes in summer and catastrophic blizzards in winter.
Old diseases will resurface – polio, malaria, cholera, smallpox, anthrax, plague.
Twenty-three feet of sea-level rise.
The extinction of 75% of all animals on Earth.
Rebellion, riots, refugee camps.
At the moment in history when all credible scientists agree it’s imperative that the world leave all remaining fossil fuels in the ground – and maybe because this is the moment we’re at – Trump’s cabinet picks include gas and oilmen, coal mine bosses, financiers who are bullish on fracking, and generals whose specialty is fighting oil wars.
It would appear they’re going after every last drop, and our children will suffer for it. And our grandchildren will suffer, and on and on to the seventh generation, and beyond.
We’ll suffer, too.
Scientists have warned us that there was almost no time left to take action. No time before the warming of the world hit tipping points from which there is no return. The 2016 election, they said, was the last chance for America to change: to embrace new forms of energy; to mount a crash program to find breakthrough technology to power the country; to rethink how America manages its land, its resources, its infrastructure.
Instead, the man who will occupy the oval office until 2020 tells us there’s nothing to worry about – it’s all a hoax put on by China. Or scientists trying to get money for bogus research. And a little less than half of the country’s citizens thought this was just fine.
The last time Americans were this divided, we went to war.
With each other.
In 1991, I took a class about the Antebellum Period, taught by the late Jay Fliegelman. What I learned in that class has resonated ever since.
We studied the years 1835-1860 by reading original texts, listening to music of the era, and going to museums to look at period furniture and sculpture. Soaking in all these manifestations of the culture in the first half of the 19th Century, it became clear that America was deeply divided across all kinds of fault lines, and not just the North-South split over slavery, but fights over suffrage for women, Mexican immigration, the economies of farms versus factories, and on and on.
That class continued to resonate over the years. It resonated in the way Republicans vilified Bill Clinton the moment he entered the White House in 1993. It resonated in how his fellow Southerners in Congress impeached him in 1998 for lying about a blowjob. It resonated in 2000 when Clinton’s vice-president Al Gore won the popular vote – and probably Florida, too – but was pronounced the loser by a Supreme Court in a decision they said shouldn’t be used as a precedent. It resonated again in 2009, when Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell swore his party would oppose everything newly elected president Barack Obama would do.
On Inauguration Day.
And it resonated again last year, when for eight months Congress refused to vote on Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Every time the lawlessness gets worse, the deep divisions in America seem like 1860 all over again.
Geographically, today’s divisions aren’t North and South so much as a sea of rural red voters dotted with urban blue islands that stretch from East to West.
States’ rights, gun rights, and flying the Confederate flag all roiled the nation during 2016.
That sounds familiar, too, right?
The election’s most disturbing new development, though, is the chasm between reality and lies. The future of journalism, my profession, is being challenged by a nation filled with citizens who no longer seem to know or care what is true and what are lies.
I shivered all during the election season, even in the summertime.
I can live with a few lies, like what a great businessman Trump is, or that he won a mandate, even though he lost the popular vote by more than any other president in modern U.S. history.
But lies about climate change can wipe out humanity.
Almost all the nations in the world have signed on to a global climate pact. So did Obama. But if America pulls out, the deal may crumble. We owe it to the world to lead. We’ve been emitting greenhouse gases – more of them and for much longer – than any other nation on Earth. We are the world’s superpower. And we claim we are the world’s conscience.
We tell ourselves we are good people.
The truth is, not all of us are.
The people who run fossil fuel companies know all about the dangers of climate change. Exxon did its own climate studies for years, but when they realized how bad it might get if the company kept drilling, they trashed their own research. Exxon, along with Shell and Texaco and many other companies, poured money into deceptive operations meant to muddy the science and confuse the American people about what was true.
And it worked.
And they bought time to drill even more.
They know full well that the Arctic is melting. That it’s frequently ice-free. Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, signed a deal with Rosneft – Vladimir Putin’s state oil company – to drill for oil under the North Pole.
I’ve spent years trying to stay optimistic. If a big storm hit an American city, New Orleans, say, or New York, I thought it would convince the doubters that the climate is changing. But then came Katrina and Sandy, and nothing changed. If volcanoes erupted and spewed enough particles in the air to dull the impact of global warming, it might buy us time. Didn’t happen. Nature is resilient and might pleasantly surprise us. But that’s magical thinking.
Here’s one last fantasy: Trump changes his mind.
And the best part is, he wouldn’t even have to change much of his platform. Trump’s infrastructure plan could create hundreds of thousands of green jobs by retooling America to adapt to rising seas, severe storms, and searing heat.
He could hire laid-off coal miners to paint every roof in American cities white, to reduce the urban heat island effect. He could fix all those bridges and roads and line the side of the interstate highway system with solar panels and wind turbines to store sunlight at night and wind when the air is still.
He could mount a crash program to find a better battery to store all that renewable power, and crack the riddle of how to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it somewhere safe.
Trump could renegotiate trade treaties so America cuts its dependence on cheap globalized labor, and rebalances the trade deficit with China in the process. And Trump could pressure American companies to bring manufacturing back home, where it will be done more sustainably, and where it will create good jobs.
Now that’s not so hard.
As candidate George W. Bush said about disadvantaged black and Latino kids back in 1999, Donald Trump right now is enjoying the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Even Trump’s supporters have told reporters they don’t really expect him to build a literal wall, or to ban Muslims, or to ‘lock her up.’ But imagine how they’d feel – imagine how Hillary Clinton’s voters would feel – if Trump flipped on climate change.
If Trump saved us all.
Like Nixon going to China. Like Reagan starting to end the arms race.
Who better to surprise us all than the man who’s done nothing but surprise us from the first gold-plated moment he escalated down into the presidential race?
There’s a meme in play about 2016 being the worst year in American history.
It’s not. Not even close.
Human history is full of terrible years – recessions, depressions, pandemics.
Holocausts, genocides, world wars.
But if Trump does nothing, the worst years are still to come.
I’m heading to bed. The overnight temperatures will be in the twenties, and the furnace is about to kick off. But I already feel the first trickle of sweat down my chest.
It’s getting very late.
Blow my mind, Donald Trump.
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Header image is titled “Lanzhou, Pollution at Dusk, “and is courtesy of Diego Luis.
Christy George is a multimedia journalist. She’s covered politics, business, and environment for years, and now edits news for local, regional, and national public broadcasting. She’s working on two books: a nonfiction book about climate change, and the other is a book of fiction.