Throughout his time in office and during his campaign, Trump has expressed his doubt in the idea of manmade climate change. Despite some mixed signals, he has generally oscillated between denying the science of climate change altogether and focusing on the perceived short-term costs of efforts to reduce emissions. At one point, he famously called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Though he later said he was joking, and has sometimes expressed an openness to compromise on measures like the Paris agreement, his administration has revoked climate and environmental measures at nearly every turn. So the only question that remains is whether or not the administration really doubts the science of climate change, or whether they are simply to catering to opposition from industry.
Late last month, a Washington Post report unearthed a telling detail buried in an environmental impact report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). According to the administration report, the planet’s climate will inevitably warm about four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.
Astoundingly, the prediction is not used to emphasize the need for robust action to combat climate change. Instead, it’s part of the administration’s rationalization of a decision to freeze planned increases in fuel standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. The report admits that the decision would increase emissions of greenhouse gases, but argues that the difference would be negligible as part of what they call a fundamentally unrealistic goal of actually addressing climate change.
The policy would have gradually increased fuel standards to an average of 46.7 miles per gallon by 2025. They say the rollback would increase atmospheric CO2 levels by 0.65 parts per million, increasing auto emissions by nine percent from 2021 to 2100.
“The emissions reductions necessary to keep global emissions within this carbon budget could not be achieved solely with drastic reductions in emissions from the U.S. passenger car and light truck vehicle fleet,” according to the report.
In other words, larger scale reductions in emissions would be necessary to avert catastrophic warming. The report asserts that abandoning fossil fuels on that scale is “not currently technologically feasible or economically practicable.”
For one, this statement fails to address the economic feasibility of allowing for such severe warming. The Paris agreement seeks to limit warming to two degrees Celsius, with an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees. Four degrees Celsius of warming would lead to catastrophic changes, bringing severe heat waves to much of the world, killing coral reefs as oceans become increasingly acidic, and without expensive measures to stay above water, parts of both Manhattan and Miami would be submerged. It’s not a stretch to imagine a severe economic impact from such an outcome.
The White House did not respond to the Washington Post to comment on the prediction, which is in line with what scientists expect if no further action is taken around the globe. While the auto emissions rule change does result in what is arguably a relatively small increase in emissions, it is far from the only emissions-increasing move that the administration has taken. Trump has moved to revive the declining coal industry, relax methane emission regulations, cut Nasa’s climate monitoring program, proposed cuts to clean energy research, removed mentions of climate change from government websites, dropped climate change from a list of national security threats, stepped up oil and gas extraction, and eliminated the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.
It’s not possible to determine the cumulative effect of all these moves on global emissions. But given that the US is the world’s second largest emitter of CO2, they will likely add up to have a substantial impact on global emissions as a whole.
Even if we agree that the NHTSA argument justifies the auto-emission rollback, it calls into question Trump’s thinking behind a series of measures that consistently increase, or fail to reduce, carbon emissions. If the administration does accept the scientific consensus that climate change is a real threat, and that human activity is the cause, we’re left wondering whether he cares more about short-term profits for a handful of industries than long-term prosperity or survival for the rest of the world.