Candace Phillips sifts through what was her third-floor bedroom while returning on Sunday to her damaged home in Mexico Beach, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. (David Goldman/AP)
Opinion writer

Credit Lesley Stahl with conducting one of the toughest, most effective interviews of President Trump to date — revealing Trump’s abject ignorance on a range of topics (e.g. falsely stating that China is taking $500 billion out of the United States each year), his stunning disdain for human rights (e.g. Russian killings of dissidents aren’t a big deal since they aren’t occurring on U.S. soil) and his abject amorality (e.g. if he hadn’t mocked Christine Blasey Ford, he couldn’t have gotten Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court; justifying the child separation policy). None of this is new, to be certain, but it was a helpful reminder of the mind-set of today’s Republican Party, which celebrates know-nothingism, an “ends justify the means” amorality and cruelty.

Most striking was the exchange on climate change:

STAHL: Do you still think that climate change is a hoax?

TRUMP: I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade. I will say this. I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage.

STAHL: I wish you could go to Greenland, watch these huge chunks of ice just falling into the ocean, raising the sea levels.

TRUMP: And you don’t know whether or not that would have happened with or without man. You don’t know.

STAHL: Well, your scientists, your scientists–

TRUMP: No, we have–

STAHL: at N.O.A.A. and N.A.S.A.–

TRUMP: We have scientists that disagree with that.

STAHL: You know, I– I was thinking what if he said, “No, I’ve seen the hurricane situations, I’ve changed my mind. There really is climate change.” And I thought, “Wow, what an impact.”

TRUMP: Well– I’m not denying.

STAHL: What an impact that would make.

TRUMP: I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back. You know, we’re talking about over a millions —

STAHL: But that’s denying it.

TRUMP: of years. They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael.

STAHL: Who says that? “They say”?

TRUMP: People say. People say that in the–

STAHL: Yeah, but what about the scientists who say it’s worse than ever?

TRUMP: You’d have to show me the scientists because they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.

STAHL: I can’t bring them in.

TRUMP: Look, scientists also have a political agenda.

Trump is cornered, resorting to ad hominem attacks. He is hardly alone in his ignorance and irrationality. Without proof, senior White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow insists that climate-change reports overestimate the extent of the problem.

The telltale sign of their intellectual dishonesty is their insistence that they don’t want to spend billions to address the issue or lose millions of jobs. Where they get these figures is far from clear, but the degree to which they reason backward (climate change can’t exist or they’d have to do something they don’t want to) is evident.

This, unfortunately, is the default setting for most Republicans these days, even as their own constituents suffer the effects of rising temperatures and sea levels. As the horrific damage from Hurricane Michael is still being tabulated, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) talked about climate change on Sunday on “Face the Nation”:

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you a question about climate change in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Congressman Carlos Curbelo, a Republican colleague of yours, believes that Republicans need to stop questioning the science behind climate change. He said that, that America was saddling young Americans with an environmental debt that was as bad as the fiscal debt. What’s your response to that?

RUBIO: Well, I respect Carlos tremendously, he’s been a leader on that topic. My view is climate, sea level rise, these are measurable things. You can measure that. So there, it’s not even a scientific debate at some point it’s just a reality debate. You can measure whether sea levels are higher than they used to be, warmer than used to be and the like. For, as a policymaker the fundamental question is, what can we do about it? And if if fact humans are contributing to that, what public policy can we pursue that you can actually pass, does not destroy your economy and can be effective.

DICKERSON: But what the congressman and others are saying is, is that if you believe the science about human contribution that there are mitigation efforts you can take with greenhouse gases and that that’s where there needs to be a little more focus from Republicans is on admitting that, that climate change is caused by human activity and taking actions whether it’s coal plants or emissions from cars or methane gas to actually get, get it where the problem is occurring.

RUBIO: The increases come from the developing world and in other places but we’re not a planet, we’re a country. And the question becomes I, I don’t think in my mind anyway the debate has been necessarily about, always about whether or not it’s human contribution. It’s about whether the public policies that are being advocated would be effective.–

DICKERSON: –So–

RUBIO: –In light of the fact that in other places carbon emissions continue to grow and by the way technology is moving us in the direction that those who support those measures want us to go anyways.

DICKERSON: –So your view then, Senator is that humans are the chief contributor to climate change, in this recent period? You- that’s–

RUBIO: –my view is that’s what–

DICKERSON: –settled for you?

RUBIO: My view is that- that’s what a lot of scientists say. I think there are others that dispute what percentage of that is humans and not. I’m a policymaker. There’s no way that I can ever debate with a scientist or people who spend their whole life on that–

DICKERSON: –But do you accept their finding?

RUBIO: What I can debate is public policy. I can- I can accept this and that is that we’re going to have a debate about human contribution because scientists are saying that and, you know, a few are saying not- something different. But if we’re going to have that debate about whether certain laws should be passed in order to alleviate what some scientists or a lot of scientists are saying is the cause of this, that has to be balanced with the public interest and other topics like the economy and the like.

Again, you see the Republicans’ playbook: vague assertions that the problem is not so bad or the cause is unknown, insistence that there is scientific doubt, and ultimately confession that they don’t really want to do anything to address the problem because they envision some huge economic costs.

The utter contempt for facts and reliance on mumbo-jumbo rhetoric in lieu of arguments is not simply a sign of intellectual rot. As the signs of climate change abound and real people see real devastation in their lives, Republicans’ climate-change denial becomes a matter of public safety and economic pain for more voters with each passing year. Their irrationality now poses a threat to voters’ lives and property.

Democrats perhaps have erred in the past in making abstract, global arguments and appealing to voters’ sense of social responsibility. They expected voters to be moved by the plight of animals and by the harm to Third World populations in low-lying regions. Too many voters lack an appreciation for threats they (falsely) believe will play out only decades from now.

The better argument is the simplest: Republicans’ junk science renders them unable and unwilling to take steps to prevent human and economic loss right now. If Republicans refused to admit there were international threats and disbanded the military, or if they pretended there was no opioid crisis so we can go ahead and cut Medicaid (actually, they tried to cut Medicaid, but stick with me), they’d be laughed out of office. Unfortunately, their irresponsibility — egged on by tribalistic right-wing pundits and activists who revel in ignorance — is no joke. Democrats would be wise to highlight the issue in 2020, rightly identifying it as a matter of life and death.