The mechanism behind global warming isn’t terribly complex.
The slow (and then faster) release of certain gases — including carbon dioxide and methane — has led to a buildup of those gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Heat that would normally rise from the surface of the planet and escape into space is instead absorbed by those gas molecules. Sometimes, that heat is expelled from the molecules back toward Earth. The more molecules in the atmosphere, the more heat that gets absorbed or redirected and the less heat that escapes into space.
The planet slowly warms up.
This isn’t me speculating about how things work. This is the broad consensus of the scientific community, a consensus that has been reinforced by comparing observed changes to the planet with past predictions about the effects of an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases — so-called because they create a greenhouse-like effect.
President Trump, meeting with Britain’s Prince Charles this week, apparently joined the prince in a lengthy conversation about climate change. The subject was broached in an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan.
"What did [Charles] say to you about climate change?” Morgan asked.
“What he really wants and what he really feels warmly about is the future,” Trump replied. “He wants to make sure future generations have climate that is good climate, as opposed to a disaster. And I agree.
“I did mention a couple of things,” Trump continued. “I did say, well, the United States right now has among the cleanest climates there are, based on all statistics, and it’s even getting better. Because I agree with that. I want the best water, the cleanest water. Crystal clean, has to be crystal clean air.”
Morgan interjected. “What people want to hear about climate change,” the host said, “is that you, basically, understand that almost every scientist that looks into this believes climate change is a very real and present danger. That if we don’t tackle it now — and America has to lead the way, along with China and India — then we’re going to be in serious trouble. Do you accept that?”
Trump replied: “Well, you know, you just said it. China, India, Russia, many other nations, they have not very good air. Not very good water, in the sense of pollution and cleanliness. If you go to certain cities — I’m not going to name cities, but I can — if you go to certain cities, you can’t even breathe. And now that air is going up. So, if we have a clean — in terms of a planet, we’re talking about a very small distance between China and the U.S. or other countries.”
Morgan agreed that there was “mutual responsibility.” But, he asked, does Trump “believe in climate change"?
“I believe that there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways,” Trump said. He then went on to his established riff about how “climate change” used to be called “global warming” but “that wasn’t working.” This isn’t true and doesn’t make much sense.
But let’s step back and consider Trump’s initial response to Morgan. Asked whether he and Charles spoke about climate change, Trump said that he wants the United States to have clean air and water. Asked whether the United States has a role to play in curtailing climate change, Trump reinforces that other countries have a role, too — like countries that have “not very good air . . . in the sense of pollution and cleanliness.”
Advocates for addressing climate change do talk about “carbon pollution” — the unmitigated, massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, largely from burning coal to generate electricity. But that’s not the pollution that Trump appears to be talking about. When he’s talking about clean water, he’s not expressing concern about carbon dioxide absorption in our oceans.
He appears instead to be talking about old-school 1970s-era pollution: smog and soot and so on. That’s also a problem, certainly, particularly in cities in China and India. It often stems from the same electricity production that generates carbon-dioxide emissions. But it’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about climate change.
It occurred to me that I’ve never really heard Trump talk about carbon dioxide as a contributor to climate change. He has talked about climate change a lot, of course, generally disparagingly. He has regularly talked about “clean coal,” a term that’s generally used to refer to nascent efforts to capture carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal. But he’ll say things like “nice, beautiful, clean coal” (as he did in a rally in Montana last year), which suggests he sees the word “clean” more as a favorable descriptor than anything with any additional meaning.
A review of Trump’s speeches using Factbase for mentions of carbon dioxide (or simply “carbon,” as is common) doesn’t yield much. Before the 2016 campaign, he slammed concerns about carbon dioxide because they would lead to more wind power, a nemesis of his because he worried about the aesthetics of one of his golf courses in Scotland where a wind farm was built nearby. As the campaign got underway, he would talk about President Barack Obama’s “carbon footprint” a lot, mostly to disparage Obama’s fuel-chugging trips on Air Force One. At times Trump would disparage proposals for a “carbon tax” — efforts to make emitting carbon dioxide more costly — but it was clear that he was using the term mostly for the pejorative political effects of “tax.”
As president, Trump once mentioned “black carbon” during a news conference with President Sauli Niinistö of Finland, after Niinistö brought it up. Black carbon — essentially soot — is released by aircraft as they fly. Because flights pass over the Arctic and Nordic countries as they go from Europe to North America, that soot often lands on snow, darkening it and, therefore, reducing the reflective effects of the otherwise white surface. Trump’s comment about “black carbon” was that the subject had come up and that he and Niinistö both wanted “crystal clean water, and we want to clean air, the cleanest ever.”
The only time Trump appears to have spoken about carbon dioxide as a contributor to climate change was in his speech announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. (That accord, it’s worth noting, was historic in that it did precisely what Morgan was getting at: establish standards to which all global actors would agree.)
“Fourteen days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from America — and this is an incredible statistic — would totally wipe out the gains from America’s expected reductions in the year 2030,” Trump said in June 2017. Close Trump observers will notice one of his signature moves in that quote. As he was reading the statistic from his prepared remarks, he looked up at the audience and added that superlative about it being an incredible statistic.
Later in the speech, he added a point about carbon-dioxide emissions, also reading from his prepared remarks. In other words, the only mention he appears to have made of carbon dioxide as a contributor to warming came as he was withdrawing from a global climate accord and while reading from a pre-written speech.
Again, the process behind global warming involves a complex set of contributors, but the effect itself is fairly simple. During his time in politics, though, Trump doesn’t seem to have ever articulated an understanding of the case that scientists are presenting, choosing instead to talk in gauzy terms about clean air as though he were channeling Woodsy Owl.
Maybe Trump chooses to make that transition to downplay the importance of climate change. Or maybe he doesn’t understand what climate change is.