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The glaring hole in Trump’s State of the Union address: Climate change

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President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night zigzagged between paeans to unity and sops to his hardcore base. He eulogized World War II soldiers and then wheeled on immigrants and leftist rivals at home. But absent amid the nativist demagoguery and partisan jockeying was any reference to the threat looming above all others: climate change.

That’s no surprise. Trump is an avowed climate skeptic who casts environmentalist efforts as challenges to American sovereignty, not ways to stave off a planet-wide disaster. As much of the United States endured a deep freeze last month, Trump took to Twitter to plead for more “global warming.”

Experts quickly noted that the president was confusing weather with climate — and that the warming of the Arctic could lead to sharper, snowier cold spells in the North American winter.

“Only with an ill-informed citizenry could you plausibly dismiss the consensus of the world’s scientists based upon a single cold spell,” wrote climate scientist Michael E. Mann. “Trump and, more to the point, the fossil fuel interests whose bidding he is doing have weaponized the public’s poor understanding of science.”

Trump is certainly at odds with the global scientific community — including leading scientists in the United States and even in his own government. In November, the Trump administration tried to bury the terrifying findings of its own National Climate Assessment by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving. In that report, researchers affiliated with a number of federal agencies offered alarming conclusions about the increased risk of natural catastrophes because of the changing climate.

The U.S. assessment landed just a few weeks after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its own stark warning. The global scientific body wrote that humanity has barely more than a decade to slash carbon emissions on an unprecedented scale to avoid calamity. “Absent aggressive action, many effects once expected only several decades in the future will arrive by 2040,” the New York Times wrote in October.

Now, with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, Trump’s climate denial is being thrown in his face. Democrats will hold the first House hearing on climate change in six years on Wednesday. And at the State of the Union itself, they brought in a host of academics and activists focused on the climate as their guests.

“The climate-themed invitees run the gamut, from longtime climate activist Bill McKibben, who was invited by Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), to relative newcomers such as Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, who got a seat from Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.),” noted Dino Grandoni of The Washington Post’s Energy 202 newsletter.

“Instead of tackling the problem head-on, President Trump is burying his head in the sand and handing out favors to his friends in the coal industry,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who invited University of Washington climate scientist Lisa Graumlich as her guest, said in a statement.

Here are moments from President Trump's 2019 State of the Union speech where he addressed U.S. foreign policy, including in China, North Korea and Iran. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

For some, there’s no time left to debate with climate change deniers. While the United States shivered, Australia experienced its hottest January on record, a volatile period that saw vast wildfires in Tasmania, epic floods in the country’s northeast that brought crocodiles into town streets and searing heat and drought that led to the mass deaths of fish in parched rivers.

Experts in Australia warned that whole swaths of the country’s coastline could become uninsurable. For right-wing Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who came to office thanks in part to a party revolt against his predecessor’s climate activism, it presents an intensifying political headache.

“It’s extremely inconvenient for any government that does not have a cogent answer for what they’ll do about climate change, to see the effects of climate change putting more and more people and homes at risk,” said Greg Mullins, a decorated former Australian fire chief, to the Sydney Morning Herald. He added that fire seasons “are longer, more severe” and that blazes are “much harder to put out.” This seems also true in California, beset by increasingly devastating wildfires each year.

On top of the extreme weather, two staggering new studies added to the sense of impending doom. Researchers discovered an “enormous void” under a major Antarctic glacier, a hole amounting to some 14 billion tons of ice that have disappeared within the past three years.

Experts now fear that the melting of Antarctic ice is occurring at a scale and pace previously not imagined. If this particular glacier collapses — something that could happen anywhere between 50 and 100 years from now — sea levels would rise by about two feet across the globe. That’s enough to radically affect life in myriad coastal towns and cities.

A separate study involving more than 350 scientists and policymakers from 22 countries estimated that at least a third of the huge ice fields in the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges will be gone by the end of this century — and that’s even if the most ambitious emissions targets are met by countries around the world. The Asian mountain ranges’ vast glaciers have been known as the “Third Pole” and are the major source of drinking water for close to 2 billion people.

“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” Philippus Wester, a water and climate scientist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, said in a statement. “Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks … to bare rocks in a little less than a century.”

For Trump, that may be a timeline of no consequence to his political career. But his inaction and indifference is already part of a broader political legacy likely to be remembered in decades to come.

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