The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two stark reminders about the political challenge of tackling climate change

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Banks County Dragway in Commerce, Ga., on March 26. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

There was an unappreciated irony to the placard that graced the lectern from which former president Donald Trump spoke over the weekend. “Save America,” it said, reflecting Trump’s preferred descriptor for the threat the country faces should it fail to acquiesce to his whims. But it was from behind this apocalyptic imperative that Trump laughed off an actual threat the country faces.

Well, not “laughed off,” really.

Trump claimed we were at the “single most dangerous time for our country in history” thanks to the threat of nuclear weapons, somewhat downplaying decades in which the exact same threat lingered.

“And yet you have people like John Kerry worrying about the climate! The climate!” Trump continued. “Oh, I heard that the other day. Here we are, [Russian President Vladimir Putin is] threatening us [and] he’s worried about the ocean will rise one-hundredth of one percent over the next 300 f----n’ years.”

The crowd, pleasantly surprised by the vulgarity, cheered loudly.

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In reality, of course, the risk of sea-level rise related to climate change is far more dire than what Trump presents. The increase in sea levels — largely driven by melting glaciers on land and expansion due to warmer water — is not measured in percentage-point increases, since that makes little sense given the ocean’s depth. Instead, projections are measured in meters or feet over less than a century, a rapid, large increase that poses a particular risk because of how close humans around the world live to the ocean. Trump’s private business recognizes the risk; his golf course in Ireland cited climate change in a permit application to build a sea wall.

But Trump recognizes the political value in pretending that it’s all a big joke, that this risk to America and Americans is a punchline about crazy leftists. That’s because his core political instinct is to play to the most reactionary part of the Republican base, and that part of the Republican base indeed sees climate change as a nonissue.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has polled Americans on climate issues for more than a decade. Over that time, a wide partisan gulf has opened on significant issues, in large part because liberal Democrats have grown more concerned about and aware of climate issues while conservative Republicans have not changed their views.

A lot of parallels have been drawn between climate change and the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years, many overwrought. But here, as with the virus, many of the most Trump-adjacent Americans see the whole thing as contrived ridiculousness. Partisanship and anti-elitism lead to treating climate change as a punchline.

That’s a seemingly intractable part of the slow pace of the country’s shift toward addressing the need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. The day after Trump’s rally, though, the country was reminded of another, intertwined factor: economics.

Since January 2021, Democrats have controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. That has allowed them, within the wonky constraints of Senate rules, to pass several pieces of legislation representing the party’s achievable denominator of policies. A large bill focused on infrastructure included components that will address climate change, in part by bolstering protections against its effects. But a more robust response to climate change has not been passed despite the Democratic majority thanks in large part to opposition from within the party. Specifically, thanks to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

Manchin’s career in the federal government began with an explicit rejection of climate-change legislation. Many Americans first learned about him thanks to a campaign ad in which he literally shot at a bill that would create a marketplace aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions. As then-governor of West Virginia, one of the country’s largest coal-producing states, this was not surprising rhetoric, even if it was a surprising visual.

Since then, though, his party has moved left on climate change — and his state has grown less reliant on coal mining as a source of employment. In part, that’s because the amount of coal extracted each year as a function of employees has increased, meaning that fewer workers can produce the same amount of coal. That’s beneficial to coal companies, if not coal miners.

Which brings us to the New York Times’s look at Manchin’s ties to the industry, published Sunday. It explains how Manchin several decades ago helped clear administrative hurdles for a power plant in Grant Town, W.Va. — and then began selling the plant a type of coal (called “gob”) to burn.

“He created his business while a state lawmaker in anticipation of the Grant Town plant, which has been the sole customer for his gob for the past 20 years, according to federal data,” the Times’s Christopher Flavelle and Julie Tate report. “At key moments over the years, Mr. Manchin used his political influence to benefit the plant. He urged a state official to approve its air pollution permit, pushed fellow lawmakers to support a tax credit that helped the plant, and worked behind the scenes to facilitate a rate increase that drove up revenue for the plant — and electricity costs for West Virginians.”

Manchin is not a climate-change denier of the sort who might have cheered Trump’s vulgar dismissal of the issue. Instead, he’s what a prominent climate scientist described to E&E News as a “delayist,” someone who urges a slow response to climate change rather than a more rapid one. It’s a favored political tactic for those closer to the political middle from both parties, getting to tell people that you hear their concerns but that you also worry about moving too quickly in response.

What’s driven much of the country’s response to climate change from the outset has been the massive economic strength of the fossil-fuel industry. When scientists first realized that releasing carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere risked warming the planet — something the fossil-fuel industry itself has recognized for decades — the industry moved quickly to raise questions about the idea that the planet was warming. (The effort has been compared to the effort to downplay the lung cancer risks of cigarettes.) In recent years, it, too, has shifted in a Manchin-y direction, often acknowledging the change while offering baby-step responses to the problem.

The overlap between where Manchin is and where Trump is comes from that initial push to raise questions about the science. Soon after Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” drew international attention to the problem, both Democrats and Republicans (including former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John S. McCain) embraced a robust response. Thanks in part to fervent advocacy from fossil-fuel companies against legislation and the increase in partisan polarization that occurred soon after Barack Obama was elected, tackling climate change became anathema to Republicans. By the fall of 2010, red state Democrat Joe Manchin III was running against the Environmental Protection Agency and climate legislation.

In one weekend more than a decade later, we see the effects of climate change’s injection into the national political conversation. A Democratic Party dependent on Manchin’s vote; Manchin with deep cultural and economic reasons not to shift away from coal. And on the other side, a baseline assumption that climate change is ridiculous, as ridiculous as wearing a high-quality mask to prevent the spread of an airborne virus.

And here we are.