“Brazen” might as well be the official motto of the Trump Administration. Even so, it’s hard to top the most ecologically unsound President in modern American history giving a speech on Monday touting his environmental record while standing in the East Room of the White House beside David Bernhardt, the former oil lobbyist who is the Interior Secretary, and Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who is the administrator of the E.P.A.—both of whom have been trying to gut America’s environmental laws. Oh, and on the day when a rainfall described by local authorities as “historic” managed to flood the White House basement.
By now, we are used to Trump’s big-lie technique. Even by that standard, however, the claim that “we are working harder than many previous Administrations, maybe almost all of them,” on environmental protection will be believed by exactly no one for whom words have not yet lost their common-sense meaning. Trying to parse the nonsense of Trump’s speech sentence by sentence is silly, so concentrate instead on its underlying meaning: the oil companies clearly won a crucial battle with Trump’s election, postponing their moment of reckoning. (Less so the coal barons, whose decline was already too far advanced). But they clearly sense that they are losing the war, and more decisively than before. Trump’s big-man folly—withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, for instance, when it would have been easy enough to sabotage progress more quietly—has decisively discomforted the suburban voters that he must retain for reëlection.
By all accounts, it was the President’s pollsters who insisted on this strange talk, because they are desperately afraid that they are losing those independents (particularly women) who have come to fear the physical future that climate change is imposing. What does it mean, after all, to boast that we have the “cleanest air” ever, when wildfire smoke now obscures swaths of sky for large portions of the year? What does it mean to say the water is cleaner than it was in 1970, when water now drops from the sky in such volumes that insurance companies have begun to declare cellars “uninsurable?”
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The absurdity of the whole enterprise is clear when you remember that Trump doesn’t even believe that global warming is real—he has stated this repeatedly. In that case, only fear of the polls could possibly drive him to stress that America’s carbon emissions are down (except for, um, last year, when they went, um, up). Why else would he care? So that’s craven as well as brazen. But cravenness is probably a good sign—it means that the school strikers and the divestment campaigners and the pipeline protesters and the marching scientists have carried the debate. The tiny minority of climate deniers currently wield federal political power, but it’s finally beginning to sink in with the broader public that climate change is the threat of our time. Among Democrats, that process is well advanced—by some measures, climate change is the No. 1 voting issue in the primary, and, indeed, they are announcing serious cash-on-the-barrelhead plans to do something about it. But Trump’s performance on Monday must indicate that it’s also increasingly the case among independents, the group that holds the key to his electoral future.
This is good not because it means that Trump will act—he won’t. It’s good because it means that if we move past Trumpism there’s at least a somewhat greater chance that the larger political system will move, too. But, at this point, it’s also hard to believe that political action will be swift enough or comprehensive enough to make a decisive difference. After all, the Obama Administration, which sincerely believed that climate change was real, succeeded only in replacing some coal-fired power generation with natural gas, which in turn succeeded only in replacing heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions with heat-trapping methane emissions. (It’s not clear that total greenhouse-gas emissions budged at all during the Obama years.) If the G.O.P. maintains any political traction at all in the next dispensation, it will be hard to pass legislation like the Green New Deal, which represents precisely the scale of commitment needed to catch up with the out-of-control physics of global warming. If the Trump follies have lowered the bar to the point where a return to Obama-era politics is all that’s politically possible, then significantly slowing the rise of the planet’s temperature by federal action will remain difficult.
So it’s profoundly important that activists keep the pressure on other power centers, too: on state and local governments, and on the financial institutions that keep the fossil-fuel industry afloat. To use an unfortunately apropos metaphor, all that pressure will eventually force a hole in the dam. The political flop sweat that Trump was trying to mop up on Monday is a sure small sign of the coming deluge.