Two wildfires that burned this month in California, including the Camp Fire that leveled the town of Paradise, are expected to cost at least $19 billion to the state, homeowners and insurance companies. Last year′s Hurricane Harvey was estimated to cost six times as much, with the government putting that figure at $125 billion.
These are simply the bigger-ticket items on the list of weather- or environment-related disasters in recent years, but they also serve to reinforce a central point in a comprehensive new assessment of the risk posed by climate change released by the government last week. That central point? Climate change will be expensive to the economy.
While no single weather event can be said to be solely a function of climate change, Harvey and the Camp Fire are the sorts of weather events that climate change is expected to make more common. Harvey’s one-day rainfall record is what we would expect of a warmer atmosphere holding more moisture. Rapidly moving fires devouring parched terrain will become more common, too.
For Trump, the argument that climate change is itself expensive is problematic. His main rationale for opposing action to curtail carbon dioxide emissions — a main contributor to the greenhouse effect that’s warming the planet — is that imposing new restrictions on fossil-fuel use might hurt the economy. The report his administration released, though, notes that the economy will take a hit anyway. Not just from Harveys or Camp Fires but also from a thousand smaller things, like rising sea levels and shifts in agricultural production.
On Monday, Trump spoke briefly with reporters as he headed to Mississippi for a campaign rally. One reporter raised the climate change report.
REPORTER: Have you read the climate report yet?
TRUMP: I’ve seen it. I’ve read some of it and — it’s fine.
REPORTER: They say the economic impact could be devastating.
TRUMP: Yeah. I don’t believe it.
REPORTER: You don’t believe it?
TRUMP: No, no. I don’t believe it. And here’s the other thing: You’re going to have to have China and Japan and all of Asia and all of these other countries — you know, it addresses our country. Right now, we’re at the cleanest we’ve ever been, and that’s very important to me. But if we’re clean but every other place on Earth is dirty, that’s not so good.
We should quickly address the last part of Trump’s comments there before getting to that “I don’t believe it,” the most direct summary of Trump’s position on the environment to date.
Trump’s assertion that we are “the cleanest we’ve ever been” makes little sense. There’s no metric to that end, and his administration has enthusiastically and directly revoked rules or undermined proposals put in place to protect air and water. In this context, though, “clean” would presumably mean “lower greenhouse gas emissions,” but carbon dioxide emissions in particular are expected to increase this year. Trump’s administration also wants to make it easier for fossil-fuel companies to release methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
The broader argument he’s making is an old one. Climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. If we cut our emissions, but China doesn’t, for example, the effects of our reduction would be muted. At the same time, Trump and other conservatives have argued, we would be hurting our own economy.
Ironically, the Paris climate agreement was meant to be a global compact aimed at, among other things, evening out the responsibilities of different countries. Trump announced that the United States was leaving the agreement last year, citing, among other things, the cost of compliance to the United States.
“The Paris accord would undermine our economy, hamstring our workers, weaken our sovereignty, impose unacceptable legal risks, and put us at a permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world,” Trump said in June of last year.
Which brings us back to his response to the reporter Monday.
As the examples of Harvey and the Camp Fire make clear, major disasters will continue to exact a cost on the U.S. economy. But it’s that combination of factors that will run up the price tag, with unaddressed climate change resulting in “annual losses in some economic sectors [that] are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century — more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states,” the report reads.
There’s no credible way for Trump to accept the report broadly but reject its conclusions about the economic effects of the warming world. He has no data at hand that he can offer to rebut the conclusion about cost. If one accepts that the world is warming, it’s hard to avoid that the result will be expensive.
Trump didn’t really try. He just waved away the conclusions from the report’s hundreds of pages. It’s just wrong, he offers, without explaining why he says that. He won’t and can’t engage with any robust rebuttal and clearly doesn’t feel as if he needs to.
We’ve seen this before. We see this almost daily, in fact, when Trump makes an untrue claim that’s shown to be false and he reiterates it anyway. Immigrants are less likely to commit crime than American-born citizens, but Trump suggests that the opposite is true. He claims that widespread voter fraud exists, even though it doesn’t. There have been several instances in which the administration seeks to bury information that contradicts Trump’s official line, but here it didn’t even bother. Trump waves it away: I don’t believe it.
How can that fly, given that Trump’s rebutting a thousand-plus-page document with a simple “nope”? (Related.)
The first is that Trump has primed his base of supporters to believe him instead of the media. In July, Quinnipiac University found that three-quarters of Republicans are more likely to believe him than, say, The Washington Post. There’s no further analysis needed for much of his base; if he says it’s not true, it’s not.
The other is that climate change is a particularly partisan issue. Before the midterm elections, the Pew Research Center found that the gap between members of the two parties on the extent to which climate change is a “very big” problem the country faces was wider than any other issue, save racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Climate change is dismissed by Republicans, a group that generally gives Trump a wide berth in contesting the claims made by the media. Granted, a report from his own administration is different than a report from a newspaper, but there’s no reason to think that Trump’s base is more likely to accept claims made under the auspices of the government than ones made by the president.
In that way then, Trump’s terse response to the report is a very good encapsulation of his approach to the presidency. Climate change makes severe weather events worse and costlier. It also causes a lot of other, more subtle changes that will hurt American industry — in addition to costing lives and livelihoods.
Trump doesn’t want to address those risks, so he simply doesn’t. He remains, as always, impervious to the unpleasant prods of reality.