Australia’s raging infernos, like our Western wildfires and more devastating storms, prefigure a darker climate future for all of us without urgent action. But for President Donald Trump, the climate crisis is just another opportunity to stoke anger among the American people and further divide us.
Trump has undermined every climate protection possible, not out of any philosophical conviction about smaller government, but in large part to deliberately provoke outrage on the left, and then use the limelight to falsely portray climate-protecting policies to his base as a culture war waged by left-wing elitists against average voters.
Earlier this month, it was a White House event where he announced proposals to weaken climate protections in the National Environmental Policy Act. In fact, NEPA could benefit from reasonable reforms — not the ones Trump proposes, but, for instance, allowing the siting of clean energy infrastructure needed to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions. But in Trump World, creating contempt for climate protection itself, like slurring immigrants or race-baiting rhetoric, is a key ingredient in the toxic stew of cultural resentment he pre-cooks in search of alienated voters hungry for scapegoats.
Leaving Paris more than Hemingway
Overturning auto emissions standards; making the United States the only nation to leave the Paris climate agreement; rolling back methane, energy efficiency and many other climate rules — each new policy outrage is carefully calibrated to bring the culture war to a fresh boil, with a little help from “Fox & Friends.”
Why else has Trump left Paris more times than any American since Ernest Hemingway? Of course, it’s to draw attention to his nose-thumbing to crucial United Nations climate efforts, and to highlight his mock-slaying of the dreaded “deep-state.” His second and most recent “leaving Paris” announcement at the White House was in November, and he often mentions the climate agreement derisively at his rallies.
Yet Democrats, and especially the party’s presidential candidates, should remember that during the 2016 campaign, the “Trump Digs Coal” message, while absurdly ineffectual as policy, proved stunningly effective politically. Trump’s identification with working-class energy concerns was a key element in helping him win the cultural allegiance of the industrial swing state voters who decided that election.
Such energy and climate symbolism will again play a major role in 2020. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, for example, would ban all shale oil and gas fracking. That’s despite the fact that natural gas has been crucial to cutting U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in the past decade and to displacing coal, which has twice the carbon emissions of gas. Key swing states like Pennsylvania have deployed gas to cut coal use since 2010 by more than half, lowering carbon emissions dramatically in the process.
During the most recent Democratic debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar was asked about her opposition to a ban on hydraulic fracturing, and she noted that natural gas was a key “transition fuel” that would still allow the United States to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, also opposes a shale gas ban, but needs to be clearer in his remarks about the continuing need for natural gas in the clean energy transition.
Showing the centrality of the issue to his campaign, in August Trump staged an “energy rally” at a Pennsylvania petrochemical plant, which he went out of his way to describe as “made possible by clean, affordable, all-American natural gas.” He then parodied a couple discussing life under Democratic plans: “Darling, I want to watch Donald Trump on television tonight. But the wind stopped blowing and I can’t watch. There’s no electricity in the house.”
Climate not all grim for Democrats
Still, Democrats have important advantages they lacked in 2016. Public concern over climate change has risen markedly, due to devastating climate impacts that are increasingly impossible to ignore. New clean technologies — solar, wind, electric vehicles, electricity storage, carbon capture — are rapidly falling in price, yet they need government incentives to be more widely deployed. And more than 4 million clean energy jobs have become far more important to the U.S. economy, such that the two fastest growing jobs in America today are wind turbine technician and solar power installer.
Even so, threatening to immediately take away the shale natural gas and oil Americans still rely on for power, heat and transportation will strike most voters as punitive, not preventative.
So Democrats, don’t fall for inflaming the cultural fire that Trump, like an obsessed arsonist, is cynically setting. Instead, support candidates who will unite us around putting out the fires — and gaining the trust of voters we need to solve the climate issue crucial to all our futures.
Paul Bledsoe is a senior adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter:@paulbledsoe