That new report detailing the dramatic expected effects of a warming world is not the sort of document that rewards casual browsing. Created by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it spans hundreds of pages detailing specific scientific findings outlining the best, if incomplete, understanding of how higher temperatures will affect the globe, almost entirely for the negative. It’s not entirely inaccessible, but it’s the sort of document that was written for a community that isn’t the general public.
Its findings have been broadly reported: We have a limited amount of time to halt more significant warming, time that would need to be spent on drastic changes to how the world works. Without those changes, warming will continue to inch upward, and the effects — drought, severe storms, flooding, food scarcity, death — will be ever more severe.
On Tuesday afternoon, President Trump was asked about his reaction to the report. Trump has been somewhere between deliberately apathetic about and dismissive of climate change as a candidate and as president. He’s taken significant steps to undercut previous efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scaling back Obama-era programs targeting electricity production while encouraging an expansion of the coal industry. He’s claimed to be worried about the United States being put at an economic disadvantage by unilaterally limiting our industry to battle the problem, but he also withdrew the nation from the first significant global climate pact, the Paris accord, using the exact same excuse.
So had he considered the new U.N. report?
“It was given to me,” Trump said. “It was given to me, and I want to look at who drew it. You know, which group drew it. Because I can give you reports that are fabulous, and I can give you reports that aren’t so good. But I will be looking at it. Absolutely.”
It’s not really clear what Trump meant by “drew it,” but it is clear the regard in which he holds the report. He apparently needs to know who created the report — a U.N. panel leveraging input from scores of scientists — to determine whether it is biased. It is biased, in favor of addressing the issue of climate change and in favor of science. But Trump has also seen other reports that might contradict the views of those scientists, it seems, reports from (one might guess) people like Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy.
Murray hit the jackpot with Trump’s election. He’d been involved in politics for years prior, hosting Mitt Romney for a campaign rally at a mine in 2012, but his support for Trump paid off more than he probably expected. Trump embraced coal miners as a symbol of a bygone, embattled blue-collar America and Murray leveraged that embrace to pass a pie-in-the-sky list of suggested actions to the Trump administration.
Trump has put many of the items on Murray’s list into action. The extent to which he first had to balance out Murray’s articulation of what needed to be done with reports from other people, his concern about the U.N. report, was probably limited.
Murray has an advantage that scientists contributing to an international effort to combat climate change do not: He is a businessman who supported Trump’s candidacy. When someone in that club wants Trump to effect a change, the president’s deliberative process appears to be somewhat shorter.
Take Sheldon Adelson, the gaming billionaire who backed Trump in 2016. Adelson wants to open a casino in Japan, a point he made to Trump during a meeting early in the president’s administration. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan subsequently visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the president raised the subject.
“It was totally brought up out of the blue,” someone briefed on the interaction told ProPublica. “They were a little incredulous that he would be so brazen.”
Perhaps Trump asked his staff to draw up a list of the pros and cons of Adelson’s proposal and moved forward after careful consideration. Perhaps he was likewise assured that Murray’s list of changes to energy policy were sound and would best serve the American public. Or perhaps not.
But that's what Trump promised from the U.N. report. He would sit down with it, peruse its hundreds of pages. Consider what's presented and who is presenting it. He will consider diagrams like this and evaluate the implications.
The specifics of Trump's response to the question should spur some skepticism. But it's worth considering what he didn't say.
He didn’t say that he understood that climate change was a significant threat. He didn’t say that while he was reluctant to take drastic action to address the problem, something needed to be done. He didn’t say that he’d been briefed on the risks climate change poses to the United States. He didn’t even say that he understood what the report — which was splashed across front pages on Monday — actually said.
Trump might not have seen much of that coverage. He reads newspapers but mostly relies on cable news as a media information source. In only one hour did his preferred network, Fox News, cover the U.N. report in any detail: the more-moderate Shepard Smith's show on Monday.
Trump probably wasn’t watching.
There’s some irony to Trump’s tendency to put business needs first. There’s a growing clean-energy industry globally, a market in which the United States could be a major player. But Trump puts the fossil-fuel industry first, undercutting clean energy even indirectly.
To some extent, Trump's approach to the U.N. report is a microcosm of the political difficulties those hoping to address climate change have faced for years. Apathy is easier than action on Capitol Hill, particularly when the action demanded might force change in an industry that spends a lot of money on political contributions.
What makes Trump's response to the question about the U.N. report is that it comes at this point, years after the risk posed by climate change was made obvious and days after the report itself warned that time was short to take action. It's one thing to not call the fire department when a pan on the stove goes up in flames; it's another thing to not call the fire department when the entire second floor is engulfed.
But, then, I’ve seen reports suggesting that allowing huge fires to burn your house is a good thing. You’ve got to consider both sides before deciding whether to call 911.