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Opinion The Trump administration takes climate denial to new heights

George Luber, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's climate and health program, is in professional limbo for simply doing his job. (Video: The Washington Post)

Fifty or 100 years from now, we may well say that President Trump’s concerted effort to exacerbate climate change — and that’s precisely what it is — was the single worst thing he did in a presidency full of horrors. A new report from the New York Times gives new details about just how diabolical his administration’s actions have been:

In the next few months, the White House will complete the rollback of the most significant federal effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, initiated during the Obama administration. It will expand its efforts to impose Mr. Trump’s hard-line views on other nations, building on his retreat from the Paris accord and his recent refusal to sign a communiqué to protect the rapidly melting Arctic region unless it was stripped of any references to climate change.
And, in what could be Mr. Trump’s most consequential action yet, his administration will seek to undermine the very science on which climate change policy rests.

The goal appears to be to keep the government from ever confirming that climate change exists and, failing that, to do everything it can to make it look less serious than it is. The administration also plans to create a new panel to downplay climate change and discredit legitimate science on the topic, led by National Security Council senior director William Happer, who once said, “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”

But I have to draw particular attention to this part of the Times report, discussing how the administration wants to neuter the National Climate Assessment, which the government produces every few years:

A key change, he said, would be to emphasize historic temperatures rather than models of future atmospheric temperatures, and to eliminate the “worst-case scenarios” of the effect of increased carbon dioxide pollution — sometimes referred to as “business as usual” scenarios because they imply no efforts to curb emissions.

While this is going on, the administration has taken a broad range of actions seemingly designed to increase carbon emissions, including moving to roll back emissions-limiting regulations on power plants and vehicles and open up public land to fossil-fuel development. (You can read a list of the actions here.)

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So while the Trump administration is doing everything it can to prevent any reduction in carbon emissions, it is simultaneously trying to stop government scientists from explaining what will happen if we don’t reduce carbon emissions. That is simply mind-boggling.

This is on its way to becoming the most radically pernicious administration on climate change in history. In fact, the Trump administration is placing itself on the outer edge of opinion even within the Republican Party. With the evidence of climate change becoming impossible to deny and young voters in particular increasingly contemptuous of politicians who try, many Republicans are gingerly stepping out of the denialist bubble, even if what they propose to do about the problem is modest at best. “Denying the basic existence of climate change is no longer a credible position,” said Republican political consultant Whit Ayres.

So it isn’t as though there’s some kind of political benefit to be gained from this kind of attack on the future of humanity and every other species on the planet. You couldn’t even argue that Trump is doing it because it’s something he feels strongly about. Though it’s true that the president used to believe that climate change is a hoax concocted by the Chinese and now takes a denialist position that is only slightly less deranged (“Something’s changing, and it’ll change back again”), it’s not like he cares so deeply about this issue that he’d be demanding this kind of full-bore assault on every shred of climate-science integrity in the federal government if the people he appointed weren’t pushing in that direction. It’s not that he objects, but I’d guess that he’s only vaguely aware of the particulars of what’s going on in his administration on this issue.

So the explanation may lie in a theory I’ve had for some time about why a president with no real commitment to conservative ideology — something that in 2016 made many conservatives extremely nervous — could wind up running the most extreme right-wing administration in memory. Outside of a couple of issues including trade and immigration, Trump has almost no interest in the details of policy. Combine that with his intense focus on appealing to only his base, and the fact that working for Trump necessarily entails a substantial risk to one’s reputation.

The result is that the Trump administration is overwhelmingly staffed with two kinds of people: grifters who see in Trump a model for their own corrupt ambitions, and extremist ideologues who see in his indifference to policy an opportunity to indulge their wildest fantasies of swinging the United States in a retrograde direction.

A different Republican president might at least impose some guardrails on this war on science, if for no other reason than to pretend for political purposes that they cared about the fate of the Earth. But precisely because he doesn’t much care what most of the federal government does, Trump is letting the radicals he appointed run wild.

Imagine that the government decided to provide subsidies to tobacco companies, actively encouraged people to take up smoking, then instructed the National Institutes of Health to not only shut down its cancer research but to also cease all mentions of the word “cancer.” That is pretty much what the Trump administration is doing on climate. And we’re all going to pay the price.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Trump’s war on government is going swimmingly

Joel Clement: Once again, the U.S. embarrasses itself on climate change

Karen Tumulty: The administration tried to muzzle this scientist on climate change. But he won’t go away.

The Post’s View: Wake up, Republicans. Even corporations are calling for action on climate change.