The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s climate change denial is a political loser

16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (in blue) and other environmental advocates join D.C.-area students at a rally near the White House on Friday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

President Trump and his fellow Republican climate-change deniers are wildly out of step with Americans, according to a poll conducted by The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). “The poll finds that a strong majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — say that human activity is fueling climate change, and roughly half believe action is urgently needed within the next decade if humanity is to avert its worst effects.” It is difficult to get 8 out of 10 Americans to agree on anything (other than background checks for firearms purchases, which Trump also opposes). In addition, “Nearly 4 in 10 now say climate change is a ‘crisis,’ up from less than a quarter five years ago."

The president is not even in step with his own party. “Though Democrats and independents are more likely to think climate change is caused by human activity, a majority of Republicans — 60 percent — say they, too, believe that, The Post-KFF survey finds.” In addition, “23 percent of Republicans say they disapprove of how Trump is handling the issue, compared with just 9 percent of Republicans who disapprove of his job performance overall.”

Unfortunately, Americans want to believe someone else will pay the costs of conversion to clean energy (“clear majorities say they would prefer that climate initiatives be funded by increasing the taxes on wealthy households and on companies that burn fossil fuels”). Americans, nevertheless, seem — realistically or not — to count on technology to help solve the problem. Seven in 10, according to the survey, say "it is very likely or somewhat likely that technological advances will stave off most of the negative effects of climate change.”

This points to a new challenge for those who advocate a vigorous approach to dealing with climate change.

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First, rather than continue to argue that climate change is real and man-made — propositions the public already accepts overwhelmingly — climate-change advocates should make the case that Trump is clueless and unaware of the modern reality that everyone else must deal with. Democrats should stress there is extraordinary bipartisan acceptance of the phenomenon.

Second, and more important, climate-change proponents need to be much clearer and more succinct in how they describe the steps necessary to address climate change. Spurious and silly arguments that we all must become vegans or give up plane travel get traction only when the public is confused by multi-pronged, technical white papers on the dozens of things needed.

Advocates of climate change would be wise to break down their plans into three areas: What government must do, what business must do and what individuals must do. Rather than set a deadline for achieving their goals — which suggests to wary voters that they may have to take herculean steps to achieve — it would be far more helpful to describe not only the costs but also the cost savings (end fossil-fuel and coal subsidies), and the benefits (new green-energy jobs).

We accept that modern medicine comes with a cost, but it also is essential to save lives and plays a vital role in our economy (about 18 percent of gross domestic product is related to health care). The same is true of the science and technology necessary to prevent the planet from cooking. (And not believing in climate change, come to think of it, is analogous to not believing in germ theory or the carcinogenic effect of cigarettes.)

If the end result is a million or more good-paying jobs, but the added monthly cost is equivalent to a Starbucks latte, then the public might conclude this is a very good deal. Moreover, the public should know how much unrestricted climate change is costing us (e.g., emergency funding, lost crops, property damage, increased health-care treatment).

In sum, proponents of vigorous measures to combat climate change should stop fighting the last war. Climate-change deniers are a crank, rump group in the country. Climate-change denial should be a political liability, just as an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association has become in all but the deepest red jurisdictions. The conversation now needs to turn to the cost/benefits of fighting climate change. Americans need to understand what it will cost to not do something as well as the benefits (financial and otherwise) of acting.

Read more:

Max Boot: A new poll shows voters aren’t buying what Trump is selling

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s how to get through to red-state Americans on climate change

Paul Waldman: Trump’s enthusiasm for pollution is too much for even the oil industry

David Von Drehle: Trump’s wall is child’s play compared to Bernie Sanders’s climate plan