Amid the daily infamies of Donald Trump’s presidency, his greatest dereliction of duty is his decision not to confront but to accelerate the greatest threat facing this country: the clear, present and growing danger of catastrophic climate change.
Last week in Hackberry, La., Trump celebrated his collusion with the furies that threaten us, hailing the United States as the “energy superpower of the world.” Trump’s speech consisted of his stale stew of lies, exaggerations, boasts and insults, claiming credit for transformations that began long before his presidency, and scorning alternative views and opponents. Yet in the midst, he made it clear: He is proud to contribute to the horrors that now threaten us.
The reality is no longer in dispute by anyone willing to be honest about the science. We are on a path that has already begun to take casualties and rack up staggering costs. A recent U.N. report warns of the extinction of a million species — and the imperiling of humanity itself — in the next few decades.
The conservative scientific consensus is that we have about 12 years to transform how we produce energy to avoid unimaginable destruction. Continuing the current course will cost trillions over the next decades (more than the Green New Deal) and, more importantly, displace hundreds of millions in forced migrations, and spread disease, starvation and death at levels far beyond any war yet witnessed. No wall Trump succeeds in building would be able to deal with the 140 million climate refugees that the World Bank predicts by mid-century.
In Louisiana, Trump bragged that “American energy independence” would make our nation “wealthier” and “safer." “We have an America First energy policy,” he brayed. “We don’t need anybody. And we don’t need to be ripped off by the rest of the world, either, because those days are over.” He boasted about getting out of the Paris climate accord, “replacing the EPA,” torpedoing President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, “unlocking” the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, and more.
And, of course, Trump repeated his mockery of the Green New Deal, calling it a “hoax, like the hoax I just went through." He continued, “We will never let radical activists, special interests, and out-of-control bureaucrats wreck our economy, eliminate our jobs, or destroy your future.” In fact, that is exactly what Trump is doing. Lining up with the radical fossil-fuel activists and special interests, installing energy lobbyists and lawyers into government, and empowering them to make decisions that will — if not reversed rapidly in the next years — “wreck our economy, eliminate our jobs, [and] destroy your future,” to say nothing of your children’s lives and possibilities.
The stakes could not be higher. As Bill McKibben, the climate expert who first warned of the climate change threat 30 years ago, noted, “The problem with climate change is that it’s a timed test. If you don’t solve it fast, then you don’t solve it. No one’s got a plan for refreezing the Arctic once it’s melted. ... We’re not playing for stopping climate change. We’re playing — maybe — for being able to slow it down to the point where it doesn’t make civilizations impossible.” And we are facing an opposition led by a president throwing in with powerful fossil-fuel interests and corporations that have pumped millions into disinformation and deception, and corrupted politics and politicians to preserve their profits while posing a direct threat to our lives.
The betrayal of Trump and the Republican Party is self-evident. Sadly, the leadership of the Democratic Party has also been AWOL, as have too many voices in media, particularly television. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), former vice president Joe Biden and too many other Democrats mistakenly seem to think that the best response to extremism is moderation. Rather than seeking a mandate for the change we need immediately, they choose to woo a mythic center with modest reforms.
Biden promises only to return to the Paris accord, a policy that might have been promising in the late 1980s, but simply represents inadequate moral signaling now.
In the end, as McKibben writes, the fossil fuel interests and their collaborators like Trump will lose this battle. Already insurance companies are refusing to guarantee against losses that are coming to coastal properties and elsewhere. The only question — and it is fundamental — is how long it takes for the climate destroyers to lose and how much damage is done in the interim. This is why Trump’s collusion is his greatest dereliction of duty.
The change we need will come — as it usually does — from independent citizen movements calling our compromised and corrupted leaders to account.
It’s the Extinction Rebellion that brought traffic to a crawl in London last month. It’s millions of children walking out of school. It’s the young activists of the Sunrise Movement vowing to force Democratic presidential contenders to take a position on the Green New Deal — and demanding that this debate be at the center of the next presidential election. These efforts would be amplified if the media stepped up with heightened urgency to report on the climate crisis and on the growing movements to address it. Toward that end, the Nation magazine, which I edit, and the Columbia Journalism Review are launching a new project — Covering Climate Now — to bring journalists together to try to find ways to dramatically improve media coverage of the climate crisis and its solutions.
Fifty years from now, McKibben says, we are going to run the world on sun and wind. The only question is whether the world will be completely broken, or whether we will have acted in time to avoid the worst. Trump has committed his administration to buttress the immensely rich and powerful fossil-fuel interests in accelerating the worst. Now we will see who has the courage and the conviction to stop them.