From the earliest days of his administration, President Trump has been at war with his own government over climate change.
He upbraided his first economic adviser by telling him that he didn’t care that American executives backed the Paris climate agreement because “my voters don’t live on Park Avenue.” He has told aides that he thinks the Earth’s climate will begin cooling again, so there is no need to act forcefully before then.
And he was enraged by a recent National Climate Assessment released by more than a dozen federal agencies showing climate impacts are ‘intensifying across the country” and that only aggressive action will avoid “substantial damages” in the future. The report spurred the White House to make plans for an internal working group to counter the scientific consensus that climate change represents a major threat to the United States and the globe.
For a president who has yet to receive an extensive scientific briefing on climate change, the topic amounts to a political litmus test ahead of the 2020 elections. Rather than accept the conclusions espoused by elites and loathed by many of his voters, Trump has opted to question the premise that global warming represents a major problem or, at times, if it even exists at all. And now through its new working group, his National Security Council is working to muster ammunition for his arguments.
But Steven Milloy, a climate change skeptic who served on Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency and questioned humans’ contribution to climate change, said Trump is simply keeping his promise to millions of voters who backed him in 2016 after he campaigned on the energy policies he is now pursuing.
“I don’t have a problem with people having different points of view. It’s the president that gets elected,” said Milloy, who previously ran a group that received funding from the oil industry. “In the end, it’s the president agenda, and he gets to decide.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced this week that all 47 senators in the Democratic caucus had signed on to a resolution saying that climate change is real, caused by humans and that Congress needs to take immediate action on it.
Trump sees the climate debate as a war of political messaging, according to several current and former administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. Convinced that the scientific literature on climate change is funded and directed by liberals, he has said on repeated occasions that he expects the climate to change back to colder average temperatures. It amounts to an endorsement of the “global cooling” forecast some researchers made in the 1970s.
When Trump and his aides discussed whether to remain in the Paris climate agreement two years ago, he emphasized the impact low-carbon policies could have on average Americans. Under the accord, the United States pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025.
While Trump occasionally asks aides for their opinions on climate change, he has been unwavering in his denial that human activity bears the brunt of the blame.
“When you talk to him about it, he’s openly skeptical,” George David Banks, who served as special assistant to the president for international energy and environment during the start of Trump’s term, said in an interview.
Since Trump announced a withdrawal from the Paris deal in 2017, climate change has rarely come up as a priority inside the White House, according to current and former officials. “He knows his voters see it as bunk,” a White House official said.
Trump’s views have been largely consistent for the better part of a decade, as he has railed against renewable energy and claimed that environmentalism puts U.S. industry at a disadvantage.
Trump’s rejection of climate science stretches back to at least 2010. Shortly after signing a letter calling for U.S. action to combat climate change, Trump changed course and began calling the whole concept “a con,” voicing many of the same arguments he uses today.
In a February 2010 interview on Fox News, Trump noted the “freezing” temperatures at the time, and claimed that the United States was “scrubbing” its coal while China, Japan and India pursued dirtier energy, putting American companies “at a competitive disadvantage.”
“It’s probably getting a little bit warmer,” Trump said. “And then, in a number of years or decades, it will get a little bit cooler.”
In 2012, he tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” And in the years leading up to his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump continued to opine about global warming, seizing on cold snaps to argue that the science showing rising temperatures and sea levels amounted to a “hoax.”
Trump has already begun targeting his potential 2020 opponents over their environmental positions. The president also touted January’s frigid temperatures in much of the United States but ignored his government’s announcement two weeks later that 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record.
“Amy Klobuchar announced that she is running for President, talking proudly of fighting global warming while standing in a virtual blizzard of snow, ice and freezing temperatures,” Trump tweeted after the Democratic senator from Minnesota made her presidential announcement in a snowstorm.
Some federal officials in top scientific posts offer a more nuanced view on climate change, but they choose their words carefully.
“Certainly, the climate is changing; it has been changing. It’s a combination of natural variability and human influence,” Kelvin Droegemeier, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in an interview last week. “Over the past 70 years or so, human influence has played a significant role.”
The NSC is pressing ahead with its plan to convene federal researchers to decide how the White House might reassess the government’s climate findings, and it has asked agencies to find outside experts who endorse the idea.
Kasich, who called on lawmakers Tuesday to impose either a tax on carbon or a nationwide cap on emissions, said that eventually voters would pressure his party to act.
“Do you know why politicians will finally get off the dime?” Kasich said. “Because they’ll have no choice.”
Josh Dawsey and Tony Romm contributed to this report.