The fires incinerating America’s West Coast are the latest sign that climate change has made landfall in America and is torching its way inward like an occupying army overwhelming battle-weary fortifications. Only, that military metaphor seems a bit off, because if you look carefully, you can see that we are not valiantly losing a battle — our government has made it impossible for us to even fight, and has arguably taken the side of the invasion.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. When Donald Trump became president, the expectation was that he would follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and merely allow emissions, fossil fuel subsidies, and oil exports to continue to rise. That kind of run-of-the-mill villainy is so bipartisan and has been so normalized that it’s barely considered news when even Democratic governors publicly lament climate change while continuing to approve fossil fuel development.
But normal villainy wasn’t enough for Trump. He and the GOP wanted to be supervillains for their fossil fuel industry donors, and so they have not merely enacted policies encouraging more carbon emissions and tacked on fossil fuel subsidies to pandemic response bills. They have also overseen an effort to change the rules of environmental politics and disempower climate activism for the long haul.
In other words: they haven’t just waived the white flag; they have used federal and state governments to undermine the opponents of the climate disaster now lighting the country on fire.
This attitude shift from passive surrender to active complicity is most evident in Trump and the GOP’s behavior in the past six months. The same president who was quick to send in federal police to crush Portland protests hasn’t lifted a finger to try to help extinguish the wildfires now bearing down on the same city — and that federal inaction happened only months after Trump’s fellow Republicans shut down the Oregon state legislature in order to block climate change legislation.
But that’s hardly a surprise, because Trump long ago made clear that in the with-us-or-against-us climate war, he is against us and has enthusiastically joined the side of the inferno.
“They’re Saying They’re Not Going To Do Anything About It”
A now-forgotten 2018 Washington Post story momentarily spotlighted the tectonic change of attitude.
The newspaper reported that the Trump administration predicted a seven-degree rise in global temperatures under our current policies. Considering the mayhem now unfolding with one degree of warming, that prediction is a death sentence — but this wasn’t a case of Trump merely fessing up to a calamity. Instead, the administration cited that prediction as a fixed eventuality and thus as a rationale to kill fuel-efficiency standards that might help prevent that disastrous outcome.
“The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” one scientist told the Post.
That’s an understatement — in truth, Trump and his party have taken proactive steps to prevent anyone else from doing anything about it either.
For example: last year, the White House moved to prevent states like California from strengthening emissions standards.
Regulators at the Trump-led Securities and Exchange Commission have been helping corporations block shareholders from even voting on climate-related corporate resolutions. Rather than cracking down on industry officials who have been caught lying to the public, those same SEC regulators are refusing to use their power to require companies to disclose climate risks to those same shareholders.
Amid the summer fire season, Trump’s Labor Department is helping oil and gas companies make it harder for pension managers, workers, and retirees to move their savings out of fossil fuel investments.
In the courts, judges are helping the Trump administration block climate cases before they are even fully litigated, they are helping the fossil fuel industry steamroll pipeline opponents, and they have shut down the case aiming to hold oil companies responsible for misleading the public about the dangers of carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, Republicans in state legislatures have been passing laws criminalizing climate protests. Though Trump promised to let local communities regulate fossil fuel development, his party has been doing the opposite — GOP lawmakers have pushed preemption laws to try to block cities and towns from restricting that development.
“Expected To Be Small”
Again, these aren’t just efforts to let oil and gas companies increase carbon pollution. These are actions designed to change the basic rules of politics in order to permanently limit the democratic power of any movement that wants to fight climate change. And perhaps most frighteningly of all, you can see that insidious form of climate denial now seeping into the governmental assumptions that determine what is and is not legislatively permissible.
About a year and a half ago, I was perusing a report from the Congressional Budget Office, which arbitrates whether or not legislative proposals adhere to predetermined budget rules and can move forward. Deep inside the report I discovered a passage (which I flagged for reporter Alexander Kaufman) in which those arbiters inadvertently admit they are denying climate science.
In one section, CBO officials declare: “The effects of climate change on the US economy and on the federal budget are expected to be small in the next few decades.”
In another section, they say that “many estimates suggest that the effect of climate change on the nation’s economic output, and hence on federal tax revenues, will probably be small over the next 30 years and larger, but still modest, in the following few decades.” Officials touted the “positive” aspects of climate change including “reductions in deaths from cold weather and improvements in agricultural productivity in certain areas.”
Kaufman’s article showed how these assumptions are at odds with science, but here’s the thing: those assumptions could have very real-world ramifications because the CBO can play a crucial role in what passes — or even gets considered — by Congress.
If, for instance, the CBO says that a Green New Deal’s spending to slow and mitigate climate change would eventually generate significant efficiencies and cost savings, that might boost that legislation’s chances. By contrast, if the CBO insists that a Green New Deal’s spending will not generate a solid return on investment because the effects of climate change “are expected to be small,” then that could kill the legislation outright.
Now imagine those kinds of climate-denying assumptions being imperceptibly baked into decision-making processes all throughout different levels of governments. In fact, you don’t have to imagine it — there is evidence that is exactly what has been happening.
Reforming the Rules So That Climate Activists Have More Power
None of this is to suggest that resistance is futile or that climate activism is a fool’s errand.
Campaigns against pipeline development have notched victories. The push for fossil fuel divestment has made tremendous progress. Groups like the Sunrise Movement are forcing climate change into the political process and are winning elections. Indeed, as climate scientist Peter Kalmus and fire ecologist Natasha Stavros recently wrote: “The grassroots climate movement has gotten so strong that climate is rapidly becoming the deciding factor in major elections around the world.”
All of those efforts have seen success despite the obstacles thrown up by Trump and Republicans and despite the nonchalance that too many Democratic leaders have exuded throughout this crisis. Those successes offer a glimmer of hope and optimism, even as the wildfires burn.
However, to achieve the kind of energy transformation required to ward off the worst effects of climate change, we need government officials who will not just stand up to Big Oil and advocate for good policy. We need them to also reform the rules of politics to empower the climate movement — or at least level the playing field and make it a fair fight between the movement and its fossil fuel industry adversaries.
There are all sorts of seemingly small tweaks that can start doing that — and the easiest are what’s already on the table.
For example, a new SEC under a new president could finally move forward with requiring more climate risk disclosure from corporations, thereby giving the climate movement more fuel for activism. A new president could rescind the rule making it harder to divest from fossil fuel assets and could halt federal lawsuits against states that seek to strengthen their own emissions rules.
Similarly, instead of preempting local climate initiatives, states could devolve more power to cities and towns to enact their own fossil fuel development restrictions.
At the same time, state legislatures and Congress could replicate Colorado’s recently passed law that allows legislators to request a climate-impact report for proposed bills. That information can let the climate movement and the lawmakers themselves understand the environmental effects of their proposals before they are passed into law. If we’re already evaluating the financial cost of proposed bills, shouldn’t we also be evaluating the environmental cost of those bills, too?
There are countless possibilities like this — and that’s what we must demand from the next administration and all of our state and local leaders.
It is not enough to win the election, appoint a few people who are slightly less bad than Trump’s rogues’ gallery, and then call it a day. It isn’t even enough to just roll back Trump’s worst policies. The underlying rules of the political game must change to give more power to those trying to fix the problem — and less power to industries that are actively, knowingly creating the problem to pad their own bottom line.
That is the only way that we will reorient the government to stop fighting for climate change and instead start defending our country against climate change.