Election Day 2012 was an important day for Donald Trump. It may have been important for the planet, too.
As Americans across the country traveled to the polls to select their next president, Trump tweeted 46 times. He endorsed Mitt Romney. He congratulated himself for The Apprentice’s high ratings. He asked whether Americans wanted a president “who bows to the Saudis.” And he advanced a claim that followed him around for years: that human-caused climate change was a hoax invented by a foreign government.
“The concept of global warming,” he tweeted, “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
Election days have come and gone, and another one draws near. And Trump, now president of the United States, has been called to account for that view. On Sunday evening, in a lengthy interview on 60 Minutes, President Trump clarified that he no longer believes climate change is a hoax.
“I think something’s happening,” he told the journalist Lesley Stahl. “Something’s changing, and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference, but I don’t know that it’s man-made.
“I will say this,” he continued. “I don’t wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t wanna lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t wanna be put at a disadvantage.”
Trump’s answer contains some new claims—but in many ways, it’s classic Trump, weaving together some of his most common environmental themes. There’s a sense of grievance: the idea that even if climate change isn’t a hoax, its only role is to cost people money and harm American industry. There are mangled facts: Contrary to Trump’s claims, for instance, all evidence suggests that climate change is man-made. As one of NASA’s lead climate scientists happened to tweet Sunday afternoon, “all” of the “recent trends in climate are due to human activity.”
And there’s the most important element of all: The president really doesn’t seem to have any clear views on climate change. Trump has overseen one of the most consequential overhauls of U.S. climate policy: leaving the Paris Agreement, slashing rules against coal pollution, rolling back fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Yet he doesn’t have any opinions about climate change other than a base-level skepticism of it.
This lets Trump regularly shift his claims based on whom he’s talking to. When addressing his base, for instance, he implies that climate change doesn’t exist in the most trollish ways possible. In a tweet last December, amid a frigid cold snap on the East Coast, he joked, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against.”
But when talking face-to-face with people who accept climate change, he’s more equivocal. In late November 2016, he told editors and executives at The New York Times, “I think there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. When Thomas Friedman, a writer for the Times’ op-ed page, said that climate change was “very near and dear to my heart,” Trump replied that he would keep an open mind on the issue. “I’m looking at it very closely, Tom,” he said.
The same dynamic played out on Sunday, as Trump struggled to come off as thoughtful in response to Stahl’s implacable, and mostly excellent, questioning. “I wish you could go to Greenland,” she told the president, “watch these huge chunks of ice just falling into the ocean, raising the sea levels.”
“And you don’t know whether or not that would have happened with or without man. You don’t know,” Trump replied.
That just isn’t true, and Stahl said so, replying that “your scientists” at NOAA and NASA have shown ice loss at the poles is driven by warming temperatures. “We have scientists that disagree with that,” Trump answered. “I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back. You know, we’re talking about over millions of years—”
“But that’s denying it,” said Stahl. The two then went back and forth on whether storms such as Hurricane Michael have gotten worse because of climate change—the answer is yes, but it’s complicated—before Trump implied that he couldn’t trust scientists because “they have a very big political agenda, Lesley.”
Trump, meanwhile, has allowed his own political agenda to blind him to the facts. Last year, researchers at a staggering array of U.S. federal institutions—including NASA, the Department of Energy, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Naval Postgraduate School—published the Climate Science Special Report at Congress’s behest. They surveyed the best-available climate science and reached a number of conclusions that would evidently shock the president, including that “human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” Trump should read it.