Some months ago I agreed to give an address in February this year on the topic ‘President Trump and climate change’. At the time I wondered whether it would be a sensible topic in 2018, but it is, so I’m giving it as asked. This isn’t the address, but it is the sort of mulling around that you need to do before you write your speech notes.
It’s not difficult to see what President Trump thinks about climate change, and what he has thought about it. He had said, during the election campaign, that it was a concept dreamed up by the Chinese in order to displace American manufacturing. He didn’t mention it much in his campaign, and it wasn’t part of his debate material, either. He dismissed Barack Obama’s assertion that ‘climate change’ was the most serious threat facing the USA and humanity in general. In November 2016 he promised to pull the US out of the Paris Accord, and he did so not long after taking office. Within moments of his inauguration the White House website was emptied of all references to climate change. In December last year, he dropped ‘climate change’ as an item in the US national security strategy, and during that year he told the Environment Protection Agency to concentrate on clear air and clean water, not on the supposed threats from carbon dioxide. He told NASA that he wanted it to concentrate on space missions, not on climate and weather. Most recently, he didn’t mention ‘climate change’ at all in his State of the Union Address. Perhaps more significantly, neither did the Democrat charged with the response to his address, Joe Kennedy III.
Needless to say, these statements and actions have worried those concerned about the supposed threat from global warming, and they keep demonstrating and speaking against him. He doesn’t take any notice. He knows that the media are almost wholeheartedly against him, and he uses social media to get his messages out. Since he uses social media in the way a larrikin might, that makes the media even more hostile. He doesn’t care. The media were almost unanimously for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and even from Australia that bias looked extreme. We don’t hear as much now as we did a few months ago about likely impeachment and other powerful anti-Trump possibilities, while the Democrats aren’t pursuing climate change as a major policy item. What are we to make of all this?
Setting aside the President’s style, which is just about all we in Australia learn about the President from our own mainstream media, Mr Trump is not combatting the global warmists so much as simply ignoring them. He talks about ‘energy’, providing more of it more cheaply to more people. He talks about ‘getting the economy moving again’. He talks about other things altogether: immigration, nationalism, national pride, and so on. And he can afford to do so. As I’ve pointed out in other essays, the notion that the whole world is anxious about global warming or climate change is an artefact of the way in which public opinion surveys construct their questions. If you begin with the topic, you alert the respondent to the realisation that this question is important, and that they should have an answer.
Ask, ‘Do you think that global warming is a very serious problem, a serious problem or a not very serious problem?’ and you’ll get a lot of respondents saying that, Oh yes, it is very serious, that problem. If, on the other hand, you ask the respondent to identify the problems that are most serious to him or her, or even those problems most important to the world at large, the proportions nominating climate change fall away to almost nothing. In 2016, when the first type of question was asked of an American sample, only 20 per cent of Republicans but 68 per cent of Democrats thought climate change was a very serious problem. In July 2017, when people were asked to nominate the problems the President should be dealing with, ‘environment and pollution’ were cited by just 3 per cent of the sample. Global warming, or climate change, was a smaller part of that very small part.
Since the proportions in Australia deeply concerned about the possibly catastrophic effects of anthropogenic global warming (however much warming there actually is) are probably about the same as in the USA, how is it that President Trump can ignore something in his country that no one in ours seems to be able to do? There are several reasons. One is that the American President is, in terms familiar to Australians, both the Prime Minister and the Governor-General. He is an elected monarch. He appoints his own Cabinet, he appoints the executive officers in charge of large sections of the civil service, and he can issue ‘executive orders’ telling both the military and the civil service what to do in particular areas. He can do all this without Congressional approval. Executive orders are growing in their number and use.
‘Climate change’ is one of the key policy areas for the Australian Greens, but there is no comparable political party in the USA. Indeed, American political parties have no real counterparts in any other land, while counterparts to our parties can be found in Europe, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. While Democrats are generally more worried about the issue than Republicans, there is no organised force within Congress to make ‘climate change’ an everyday issue. The Australian Public Service has a number of departments and agencies for which ‘climate change’ is a serious matter, and every department could have an interest in it should appropriate circumstances arise. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for example, will see the issue as an important factor in how Australia is seen by other countries, and will intervene in the development of Cabinet papers if it thinks the issue is not being taken seriously enough by other departments. In the USA it is the Environment Protection Agency that has the key role, and President Trump has told it, as I have said, to concentrate on clear air and clear water, and not on carbon dioxide. It is possible that future policies developed by the EPA will have to run the gauntlet of a ‘red team’ — a group of scientifically savvy experts who look to see past the rhetoric and ask inconvenient questions of the proposers. We have no equivalents to that procedure here, though in my view they ought to be mandatory wherever a policy is said to be necessary because of what ‘science’ is supposed to say.
How likely is it that President Trump’s position on climate change will remain in force? The short and obvious answer is — indefinitely while he remains President, and while weather conditions remain as they have done for the past fifty years or so. Yes, there were three powerful hurricanes last year in the USA, but they followed twelve years of low tornado frequency. That sort of stuff is weather. When does weather become ‘climate’? Terminologically, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, climate is thirty years of weather. I’ve never liked that definition. To me real climate change is what we see over long periods of time — the change in North Africa, for example where most of Rome’s wheat came from two thousand years ago, but is now mostly sand. Or the change in Central Australia, where lakes abounded in human times, because Aboriginal cave paintings in the area show fish, reeds and water birds. Or the shift from the Little Ice Age in Europe to the present, where we see no Frost Fairs on the Thames in London, and no frozen canals in Holland.
What we have today is an argument about ‘climate change’ that rests on poor quality temperature data until 1979, computer climate models that have failed really to describe what has happened in our own times, and a portrayed villain in carbon dioxide, mostly because the causes of natural variation are poorly understood. And the high point of the scare has passed. That was ten years ago, when Al Gore and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize, and Kevin Rudd said that climate change was “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”.
The trouble for the orthodoxy was that the predicted bad things haven’t happened, and don’t seem likely to. Carbon dioxide has kept increasing in the atmosphere, but the rate of increase in global temperature dropped right down, kept up most by el Nino spikes. The Millennium drought was followed by substantial floods. While the faithful kept meeting and declaring that doom was coming, ordinary people got on with their lives, governments played down what they would do to ‘combat climate change’, and a sort of ritual attended the COP meetings. President Trump, to repeat, has not gone into battle against the AGW faithful. He has simply ignored them, secure in the knowledge that it is jobs, a return of optimism about the economic future, and a feeling that the nation is important again that are the important priorities for most of his countrymen.
And after a pretty horrible Northern winter, he can see out the next year or two with equanimity. ‘It’s weather,’ he can go on saying. And most Americans will nod and shrug their shoulders.