Playing with fire and ice over climate change – the Trump Administration’s own goal

By J Brooks Spector 26 November 2018

Protesters march from the US Capitol to the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 29 April 2017. Thousands of demonstrators turned out for the ‘Peoples Climate March’ which also marks the 100th day in office for US President Donald J. Trump. EPA/TASOS KATOPODIS

The release of the newest US government climate change report, with its dire warnings about the human, financial and environmental costs of continuing climate change, has put the Trump administration in a bind. They tried to bury its release during the Thanksgiving holiday, but that only focused more attention on it.

The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer-watchers in the Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling’s closing words for The Midnight Sun, an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire.
I hold with those who favour fire.

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

You have to hand it to Donald Trump’s world-class team of spin doctors and spielmeisters in the White House. They managed to bury a story by getting it smack on to the front pages of newspapers around the world as the big story, as the repeated lead story on international TV news channels, and as a trending story on social media for the whole, entire weekend. Great job, folks.

And to top it all off, this story was paired with some increasingly bizarre tweets from their fearless leader that yet again became objects of snarky derision by sentient beings everywhere. This just reinforced a belief by many that Donald Trump has little or no capability to process actual information from anywhere besides Fox News TV.

What are we speaking of? Why, it was the American Thanksgiving weekend release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment authored by hundreds of scientist-civil servants from a whole gaggle of science-focused US government agencies, as well as yet more scientists from outside the government. The Trump administration had apparently thought, after giving it careful hours of contemplation, cogitation, and professional rock-scissors-paper exercises, that advancing the release date of the exhaustive — and very alarming, even horrifying — report to the Thanksgiving weekend, rather than at the originally planned, early December date, would somehow help bury it.

Their thinking seemed to be that absolutely nobody would be paying the slightest bit of attention to boring old science-style news like this, what with Thanksgiving’s groaning board meals to wolf down; a slew of professional and university football games to be watched live or on television (or even that now-popular, televised national dog championship); the usual orgy of bargain shopping on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the weekend in between to be accomplished; then, finally, the millions coping with all those hordes during the week’s peak travel days via planes, trains, and automobiles all across the nation. Ha! Great work, that. Nicely played, Trumpians. Except that it became a front page, top-of-the-news-hour story. Everywhere.

The report, at its core, is a frontal attack on the positions of an anti-science, pro-superstition and obscurantist president and his band of acolytes. The report delivers stark warnings about the inevitability of climate change with current policies and its devastating costs and impacts (unless some really serious measures come on board really soon), saying the economy could lose hundreds of billions of dollars — or, in the worst-case scenario, more than 10% of its GDP — by the end of this century.

The National Climate Assessment’s publication marks the government’s fourth comprehensive look at climate-change impacts on the United States since 2000. The most recent previous report came out in 2014. This newest one, produced by 13 federal departments and agencies and overseen by the US Global Change Research Program, stretches to over 1,600 pages and draws more definitive, and, in some cases even more startling conclusions than those earlier versions.

The authors argue that global warming “is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us”. And they conclude that humans must act aggressively to adapt to current impacts and mitigate future catastrophes “to avoid substantial damages to the US economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades”.

The new publication is the second of two related volumes. The first, released in November 2017, concluded that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” for the changing climate other than “human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases”.

At the report’s release, David Easterling, director of the Technical Support Unit at the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, and a participant in the report’s writing, said the climate change the Earth is experiencing is unlike any other and that “the global average temperature is much higher and is rising more rapidly than anything modern civilisation has experienced, and this warming trend can only be explained by human activities”. He insisted there had been no interference with the contents or conclusions of the report by President Trump — or by Lord Voldemort or that evil criminal genius, Moriarty (Okay, not the latter two).

The Washington Post, reporting on the new document, noted:

The report’s authors, who represent numerous federal agencies, say they are more certain than ever that climate change poses a severe threat to Americans’ health and pocketbooks, as well as to the country’s infrastructure and natural resources. And while it avoids policy recommendations, the report’s sense of urgency and alarm stands in stark contrast to the lack of any apparent plan from President Trump to tackle the problems, which, according to the government he runs, are increasingly dire.

The congressionally mandated document — the first of its kind issued during the Trump administration — details how climate-fuelled disasters and other types of worrisome changes are becoming more commonplace throughout the country and how much worse they could become in the absence of efforts to combat global warming.

Already, western mountain ranges are retaining much less snow throughout the year, threatening water supplies below them. Coral reefs in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Florida and the United States’ Pacific territories are experiencing severe bleaching events. Wildfires are devouring ever-larger areas during longer fire seasons. And the country’s sole Arctic state, Alaska, is seeing a staggering rate of warming that has upended its ecosystems, from once ice-clogged coastlines to increasingly thawing permafrost tundras.”

A Trumpian tweet, effectively in response to this report’s release by his own administration, was to offer a kind of tongue-stuck-out “bah, humbug”, smirked that the cold wave during the Thanksgiving weekend and some early snow in the greater Northeast had put paid to that foolish notion by a bunch of politically motivated scientists. In previous years, Trump had insisted climate change was a hoax, or something cooked up by the Chinese for trade advantage, as his explanation for removing the US from the Paris climate accord.

Meanwhile, however, the nation had also been transfixed by scenes of those extraordinary wildfires consuming vast expanses of California’s forests, despite the president’s admonition that more raking of leaves would have made things so much better, a la an imaginary forest service in Finland with their millions of rakes and leaf bags. And, of course, in the earlier months of 2018, there had been media coverage of some truly bodacious hurricanes hitting the US East Coast and Gulf Coast, and the nations of the Western Pacific — and the extraordinary costs associated with subsequent rescue, recovery, and rebuilding.

Despite the denialists, the science, as explained in these most recent reports — and a whole shelf of other federal government reports over the years, is increasingly compelling. The reality of climate change does not become negated by the extreme weather over one day or a single week. Instead, per these studies, this reality leaps out from the graphs and mountains of data describing long-term trends.

As this report notes, humans are now living with the warmest temperatures in modern history and even if — unlikely as it sounds — greenhouse gas emissions dropped to absolutely zero, the world would still warm by 0.6°C. Moreover, as of now, not a single G20 country is actually meeting climate targets, research shows. The challenge is that without significant reductions in greenhouse emissions, the annual average global temperature could increase 5°C or more by the end of this century, in comparison with preindustrial temperatures.

This new report also expends considerable space in defining actual likely costs as a result of the global climate shift. These measurable costs could reach hundreds of billions of dollars annually, with a drop of 10% in the nation’s GDP. The report explains that agriculture’s share of the economy will be particularly hard hit. The quality and quantity of their crops will decline across the country due to higher temperatures, drought and flooding. In parts of the Midwest where corn, soya, and pork are king (including massive export earnings), farms will be able to produce less than 75% of the corn they produce today, and the southern part of the region could lose more than 25% of its soybean yield.

The challenges do not end with the land. There will be a $230 million loss for shellfish processing by the end of the century due to ocean acidification, a problem already killing off shellfish and corals. Red tides, or algae blooms that deplete oxygen in the water, killing sea life — like those that triggered a state of emergency in Florida in August — will also become more frequent.

Beyond these economic costs, climate change and the consequent higher temperatures will also lead to more fatalities. In the Midwest alone, the area predicted to have the largest increase in extreme temperatures, there are projections of an additional 2,000 premature deaths per year by 2090.

Then there are the bugs. Ugh, something like the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt. There will be more mosquito and tickborne diseases such as the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya virus. West Nile virus cases are expected to more than double by 2050, due to increasing temperatures. And remember, this is just in the US, not the tropics, let alone the entire globe. Meanwhile, health experts expect asthma and allergies to be worse due to climate change, and people will have to cope with additional foodborne and waterborne diseases. This sounds like a very nasty, very dystopic SF film.

Given events in California at the present, gargantuan wildfires have been on the minds of many, and this report notes that the fire season — already longer and more destructive than any in previous years — could burn up to six times more forest area annually by 2050 in parts of the United States than has been going up in smoke at present rates. Burned over areas in Southwestern California alone could double by 2050.

Naturally, coastal areas will be increasingly affected as well, and the report estimates that along the country’s coasts, public infrastructure and $1-trillion in national wealth held in real estate will be threatened by rising sea levels, flooding and storm surges. Similarly, the country’s energy systems will take on more strain with more blackouts and power failures with the potential loss of hundreds of billions of dollars a year by the end of the century. It is going to get hotter pretty much everywhere, and the report’s writers say a place like Chicago will come to resemble Phoenix or Las Vegas. Now imagine how hot that will make things in Atlanta, the Southwest, or Florida.

Globally, sea levels have already gone up 18-20cm since 1900, and nearly half of that has come since just 1993, with a rate of rise greater than during any century in the past 2,800 years; that is, since before the rise of Rome. Some nations are already seeing parts of their countries permanently underwater, and a place like the South Pacific island chain of Vanuatu threatens to vanish beneath the waves entirely. More ominously, by around 2050 or so, it seems likely the Arctic will lose all — as in 100% — of its sea ice in late summer. Not nice for polar bears, but that might be the least of the problems.

Such a catastrophic melt could lead to yet more permafrost thaw across the northern areas of North America and Asia. As that permafrost thaws, still more carbon dioxide and methane will be released, yet further amplifying human-induced warming and thereby making things that much worse.

An earlier report from the UN the month before had urged all governments to take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disaster from climate change. That UN report had predicted the planet would reach the crucial threshold of 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030. It also suggested the world faces a risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people.

This newest report also points to an awkward political reality emerging from the report for the president and his values. As Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and a professor at Dillard University, said of the new report:

The findings in the Trump administration’s NCA report show how the health and daily lives of Americans are becoming more and more interrupted because of climate change. We challenge the administration to finally begin using this information to rebuild and strengthen the communities in the direct path of the atrocities wrought by the fossil fuel industry and decades of poor policies that have neglected our concerns. The science is undeniable, let’s fix it.”

What is now facing the president, therefore, following the publication of this report from his own government, as well as the newly emboldened Democratic Party now in control of the House of Representatives, is that every one of his new proposals for further industrial pollution control relaxation, greater use of coal, more coal mining, and backing away from international efforts to dial down climate change, as well as every previous decision in these areas, are now all going to get some intense, gimlet-eyed scrutiny.

Every new, proposed measure is going to attract rebuttals drawn straight out of this new climate report, a report effectively issued by the Trump administration. The incoming House of Representatives will no doubt look very hard at any decisions designed to benefit polluters, especially any closely associated with the president’s own administration. But will all this political stiffening be enough to hold back the climate change tide? That is a key question. DM


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