The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump's latest climate denial undercuts attempted rebrand as a ‘great environmentalist’

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

President Trump is trying to rebrand himself as an environmentalist. But he is undermining that message with a fresh denial of global warming.

The Trump campaign’s recent efforts to put a positive spin on the president’s environmental record during the final stretch of the 2020 election are coming undone after Trump on Monday again scoffed at the scientific consensus that climate change is fueling the historic wildfires out West.

“It'll start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump told Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, during a trip to Sacramento to assess the damage from the unprecedented wildfires engulfing the state.

“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot responded. 

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump replied.

While speaking with the California natural resources secretary on Sept. 14, President Trump downplayed the impact of climate change on West Coast wildfires. (Video: The Washington Post)
The exchange shows how difficult it is for Trump to stay on message during a campaign in which climate change is suddenly in the fore.

In recent months, the Trump campaign has taken pains to emphasize the presidents efforts to protect land and water — especially in swing states — amid a barrage of attacks from Democrats over his record of rolling back environmental regulations. The president, who once called climate change a “hoax,” himself pulled back from directly attacking climate change in speeches.

Trump’s most recent remarks about climate change are giving Joe Biden fresh fodder. 

In a dueling appearance addressing the wildfires, the Democratic presidential nominee called Trump a “climate arsonist” and excoriated his environmental record. 

“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes,” Biden said Monday in Wilmington, Del. “But if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly.”

“You know what is actually threatening our suburbs?” Biden added. “Wildfires.”

By contrast, Trump blamed the fires on solely poor forest management. Fire researchers say a century of rising temperatures and decades of fire suppression policies, which have allowed flammable material to build up in forests, are both contributing to the blazes.

In a flash, the West Coast wildfires have become a campaign issue.

The blazes, which have burned more than 3 million acres in California alone, have drawn the attention of Trump and Biden during the crucial September stretch of the presidential campaign.

The fires have “injected the issue of climate change squarely into a presidential campaign that has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, a faltering economy, racial justice protests and questions about which candidate has the character to lead,” our colleagues Seung Min Kim and Brady Dennis write

Biden has made tackling climate change a central tenet of his presidential campaign. His $2 trillion climate plan rolled out earlier in the summer would eliminate carbon pollution from the electric sector by 2035, while making big investments in electric vehicles and energy-efficient buildings.

Trump, by contrast, had no plan to address climate change, and his party did not address the issue at its nominating convention. 

Still, his effort to turn over a new, green leaf on offshore oil and other issues comes as polls show that young and suburban Republicans are concerned about climate change. 

Almost 7 in 10 Republican adults under age 45 attribute climate change to human activity, according to a 2019 poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It remains to be seen how the Trump team will message on the environment from here. 

It was only last week that Trump flew to Florida to announce a ban on oil and gas drilling off the coasts of the crucial swing state. “This protects your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come,” Trump said in speech not far from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, declaring himself “a great environmentalist.”

The move extends for 10 years the existing ban on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and added new protections to the Atlantic Ocean along the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. But the announcement was only necessary because his administration had sought to open the entire Atlantic and Pacific seaboards to offshore drilling.

In an appeal to Midwestern and Floridian voters, Trump has bragged in recent months about money he authorized for restoring both the Great Lakes and South Florida’s Everglades. He has also touted his August signing of a major piece of conservation legislation called the Great American Outdoors Act. 

The bipartisan bill will funnel nearly $2 billion per year to restore trails and roads in national parks and put playgrounds and other amenities in urban areas. At the signing ceremony, Trump called himself “the same or almost as good” as Theodore Roosevelt, the original conservationist statesman, for approving the law. Passing the act may help not only Trump, but also aids Republicans senators such as Steve Daines (Mont.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.) in their reelection bids.

More on the West Coast wildfires

The death count from Western wildfires reached at least 35 across California, Washington and Oregon.

“Smoke is shrouding large swaths of the West Coast as wildfires continue to ravage the region. Millions of acres have burned across California, Oregon and Washington, where thick plumes are making it difficult to breathe, creating harmful air conditions that may not let up in some areas for days,” our colleagues Paulina Firozi and Andrew Freedman report.

Oregon officials have said that 10 people have died as firefighters continue to try to contain at least 30 fires. In California, at least two dozen people have been killed in fires that have destroyed 3.2 million acres and 4,200 structures over the past month. One death has been reported in Washington.

Oregon residents are struggling with the effects of smoke.

“A week after wildfires began ravaging the state and displacing thousands of people, the air quality in many parts of Oregon ranks among the world’s worst, as bad as the pollution ‘airpocalypse’ in Beijing in 2013,” our colleague Samantha Schmidt reports.

The Almeda fire in southern Oregon was driven by powerful, dry winds and an abundant fuel source, destroying over 1,000 homes and businesses. (Video: The Washington Post)

Now 10 percent of emergency room visits are from asthma-like symptoms, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Although firefighters have made some progress containing the blazes in Oregon, many continue to rage, and officials do not expect clearer skies until later in the week. 


Hurricane Sally has rapidly intensified as it approaches the Gulf Coast.

“Sally rapidly intensified to a Category 2 hurricane Monday, edging toward the coastline of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, where it is forecast to push ashore a ‘life-threatening’ surge of up to 11 feet and unload tremendous rainfall through Wednesday,” Freedman and Jason Samenow report.

The storm may further intensify before making landfall between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. The latest projections also show the storm shifting east somewhat, with landfall now expected along the Mississippi coast.

“Sally is part of a hyperactive 2020 Atlantic hurricane season in which there have been a record-breaking 20 named storms,” Freedman and Samenow write.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tweeted that this is the first time since 1971 that there has been five named storms in the Atlantic at once:

Two Antarctic ice sheets are breaking free from their restraints, increasing the threat of a large-scale rise in sea level.

A report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, based on satellite images, found that a natural buffer system that prevents two critical glaciers from flowing outward has broken down, our colleague Chris Mooney reports. This could mean that far more ice enters the sea, accelerating sea-level rise. Scientists say climate change has damaged ice shelves.

“Located along the coast of the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica, the enormous Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers already contribute around 5 percent of global sea-level rise,” Mooney writes. “The survival of Thwaites has been deemed so critical that the United States and Britain have launched a targeted multimillion-dollar research mission to the glacier. The loss of the glacier could trigger the broader collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which contains enough ice to eventually raise seas by about 10 feet.”

A video shows changes in the past four years to the Thwaites glacier:

Satellite imagery shows the damage evolution of Antartica's Thwaites Glacier. (Video: Stef Lehrmitte)

In the courts

Connecticut is the latest state to file a lawsuit against a big oil company.

William Tong, the state’s attorney general, alleged ExxonMobil misled the country for decades on climate change and left the state ill-prepared for rising sea levels, I reported for The Post on Monday.

Connecticut joins more than a dozen states, counties and cities, from fire-ravaged California to flood-prone South Carolina, suing oil companies to hold them responsible for the damage they say their products have caused due to climate change. Just last week both Delaware and Charleston, S.C., filed separate lawsuits seeking damages from Exxon and other oil companies.

Representatives from the oil industry have argued that the courts are the wrong mechanism for adjudicating harms for a worldwide problem with diffuse responsibility. 

“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” ExxonMobil spokesman Casey Norton said.

Daimler AG has agreed to pay a $1.5 billion settlement over allegations of emissions cheating.

Officials say that German automaker and subsidiary Mercedes-Benz USA will pay $1.5 billion to the U.S. government and California state regulators in a settlement over allegations they cheated on emissions tests, the Associated Press reports.

“The U.S. Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency and the California attorney general’s office say Daimler violated environmental laws by using so-called ‘defeat device software’ to circumvent emissions testing and sold about 250,000 cars and vans in the U.S. with diesel engines that didn’t comply with state and federal laws,” Reuters writes.

The company will also pay $700 million to settle consumer lawsuits. Daimler has denied that it cheated on the emissions test and said that the settlement makes no determination over the use of defeat devices.

Twenty states sue the Trump administration over rollback of methane restrictions.

“California and 19 other states on Monday filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision to weaken curbs on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, saying the widespread West Coast wildfires should be a reminder of the dangers posed by climate change,” Reuters reports.

The lawsuits target EPA policy amendments that roll back rules aimed at setting a limit on methane emissions and requiring monitoring and prevention of methane leaks.

This is California’s 54th lawsuit challenging environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration.