The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A brief history of Donald Trump’s denialist position on climate change

Donald Trump speaks to the media on the golf course at his Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland, on June 25. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
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One of the most readily debunkable comments Donald Trump made during the first presidential debate was his claim that he had never blamed global warming on China.

"Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese," Hillary Clinton said at one point. "I think it's real."

"I did not. I did not. I do not say that," Trump replied. But he had — and, inconveniently enough, he'd said it on Twitter, so the tweet could quickly be passed around as refutation.

Trump has said in the past that he will "often joke that this is done for the benefit of China," as he did in January. But for nearly a decade, Trump's position has been fairly consistent: He doesn't believe that the warming climate is a function of human activity. That was the explanation offered by his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, during an interview Tuesday morning with CNN's Alisyn Camerota.

CAMEROTA: "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make the U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive." I mean, these are his thoughts. "Snowing in Texas and Louisiana, record-setting freezing temperatures throughout the country and beyond, global warming is an expensive hoax." Does he believe that global warming is a hoax?
CONWAY: He believes that global warming is naturally occurring.
CAMEROTA: What, naturally?
CONWAY: Naturally that — that climate change is naturally occurring.
CAMEROTA: He believes in climate change?
CONWAY: That there are shifts in — that there are shifts naturally occurring.
CAMEROTA: Oh, he doesn't believe it's man-made.
CONWAY: Correct.

This position — which is at odds with the scientific evidence — has been fairly consistent, save a few deviations one way or another. It has also prompted him to repeatedly embrace some of the most common (and erroneous) objections to addressing global warming — which is what got him into trouble Monday night.

Our story, weirdly enough, begins in Scotland.

A little over a decade ago, a renewable-energy partnership proposed building large wind turbines off the Scottish coast. A central concern in the fight against climate change is how to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which get trapped in the atmosphere and prevent heat from escaping into space. Burning coal to generate electricity releases carbon dioxide. Generating electricity by letting the wind turn a large magnet does not.

The planned location of those turbines was just off the coast of a stretch of land that Donald Trump purchased to build a golf course. In short order, he began complaining about the proposed turbine project, telling the BBC in 2006 that he was "not thrilled" about the idea. "I want to see the ocean," he said. "I do not want to see windmills."

That was the year that "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary about the threat of climate change. The subject was suddenly much more politically potent, which was potentially problematic for Trump's efforts to keep the clean-energy windmills from going up near his planned resort. In April 2008, he offered what appears to be his first public opinion on the threat of global warming — to the Glasgow Herald.

Asked about the frequent fog that would blanket the area where the course was going to be, Trump said that he didn't know anything about the weather. But that maybe "global warming — which I don't necessarily believe in, at least the human part — is going to take care of that," he said.

Over the next several years, Trump's feud with the turbines, and then with the Scottish authorities that sought to approve the project, heated up. By now, Trump was relying on Twitter as his personal ticker-tape service, and he tweeted frequently about Scotland and wind turbines — and how global warming wasn't really a problem anyway.

And so on. More than 100 tweets on wind turbines alone. Eventually, his opposition to President Obama (who was exploring more clean-energy projects) merged with his opposition to turbines and his dislike of wind turbines.

This evolution wasn't without fits and starts, though. In the winter of 2009, he was a signatory to a call for action on climate change, along with his son Eric and daughter Ivanka. It's not clear how direct his hand was in that, though, since a few months later he was bad-mouthing climate change to Fox Business's Neil Cavuto.

In "Washington, where I'm building a big development, nobody can move, because we have 48 inches of snow, and the snow is not melting because it's so cold," Trump told Cavuto. "And, in New York, we have had the coldest winter on record." Efforts to fight climate change, he said, were "putting this country at a competitive disadvantage."

That theme continued. He has called climate change an "expensive hoax," again blaming snowfall during the winter as his evidence. He's retweeted disparagement of Gore, linking to shoddy articles about temperatures during the summer. (This line of argument does seem to undercut Conway's "he believes it's occurring" suggestion somewhat.)

On the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, Trump has generally been fairly consistent in his opposition to taking action on climate change. He's again called it a hoax and implied that there's a profit incentive behind the idea, presumably resurrecting his past claims that scientists make up the problem so they can get grant money. This is a long-standing theory, skipping over how lots of money would certainly be (and has been) offered for evidence that the oil and gas industry isn't accelerating a massive environmental shift.

The vast majority of scientists, however, agree that climate change is a function of human carbon dioxide emissions, and 2016 will almost certainly be the warmest year on record globally — passing the previous record-hot year, 2015, which passed the previous record-hot year, 2014. A group of hundreds of scientists sent a letter to Trump, calling for him to embrace reality on the subject.

To The Post's editorial board in March, Trump repeated the central tenet of his candidacy.

I think there’s a change in weather. I am not a great believer in man-made climate change. I’m not a great believer. There is certainly a change in weather that goes — if you look, they had global cooling in the 1920s and now they have global warming, although now they don’t know if they have global warming. They call it all sorts of different things; now they’re using “extreme weather” I guess more than any other phrase. I am not — I know it hurts me with this room, and I know it’s probably a killer with this room — but I am not a believer. Perhaps there’s a minor effect, but I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.

He has previously suggested that environmentalists changed from using "global warming" to using "climate change" to describe the shift because the world isn't actually warming. That's not true. The change actually stems from a memo sent by pollster Frank Luntz to the Republican Party in 2003, arguing that "climate change" was a more effective phrase for Republicans to use. (Luntz also recommended that the White House "continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.")

There was one interesting moment in which Trump's position on environmental issues seemed to soften. At a town hall in Iowa last November, Trump was asked by a woman if he supported subsidies that encouraged wind turbine manufacturing. A turbine manufacturer moved into the town to replace Maytag after that company shifted its operations to Mexico, and her husband worked there.

Trump demurely acknowledged that he was "okay with it," even stopping to marvel at how the technology worked: "It's an amazing thing when you think — you know, where they can, out of nowhere, out of the wind, they make energy."

The answer was a bit different from this tweet, sent at the height of his business war with Scotland:

Sometimes, politics prevails.