Environmental reporters have had the emotionally taxing job of covering three dramatically varying climate stories since Donald Trump declared he was running for president 16 months ago: The increasingly clear science of global warming and the impacts that are already under way, the heartening global effort to take meaningful action, and a presidential race where one candidate refuses to even acknowledge the problem.
To the overwhelming majority of scientists, global leaders, and concerned citizens of the world, climate change is a reality that’s here now and demands urgent attention. To Trump, it’s something that China manufactured, or maybe just a natural occurrence of minor concern. Trump, in his own words, is “not a big believer in manmade climate change.”
Since my first story on Trump in July 2015, the tone and underlying message haven’t changed much. Trump is a climate change denier who is supported by the fossil fuel industry. He doesn’t like wind power because it looks ugly, especially near his golf courses. He is categorically opposed to any environmental actions taken under the Obama administration. He likes to joke that we need more climate change when it's cold out.
It’s always been clear that Hillary Clinton, while not an extreme environmentalist, would be a better president for the environment than Trump. She listens to scientists when it comes to the science of climate change and has vowed to carry on Obama’s robust climate legacy.
The difference between how a Trump administration and a Clinton administration would impact the United State’s effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions is well illustrated by this chart:
— Ned Resnikoff (@resnikoff) November 3, 2016
And further broken down by these posts I’ve had the pleasure of authoring over the last year or so:
- It’s Trump vs. the world (maybe not Russia) as biggest climate pact ever enters into force
- Breitbart, source of Trump’s new head executive, classifies climate believers as ‘pure scum’
- Trump fools Republicans again with his unconventional take on fracking bans
- Trump voters really like renewable energy. Someone should tell Trump.
- Everyone is talking about the Dakota Access Pipeline except Clinton and Trump
- Even the local paper was unpersuaded by Trump’s ‘low energy’ coal country speech
- National Parks, already strained by partisan rift, face huge chasm between Clinton and Trump
- Welcome to the maddening world of false equivalence journalism (from a climate reporter who knows)
- #NatureTrumpsWalls targets Trump’s golf course ‘climate’ plan
While a big part of an environmental journalist's job during the presidential campaign is sussing out the candidates' views on the issues that matter, Trump has been able to get away with his uninformed perspective on climate in part because he hasn't been tested by the mainstream media. Through all three debates, climate change—one of the most pressing problems of our time—barely came up. As Media Matters documented, "there were roughly 190 questions (including follow-ups) asked to the candidates during the presidential and vice presidential debates this year, and not one of them was about climate change."
In an election season dominated by scandal, speculation, and consternation (and Anthony Weiner), critical issues requiring coordinated, thoughtful, fact-based responses have fallen out of the spotlight.
Almost as frustrating as covering Trump's environmental agenda is realizing how few people prioritize it as an issue—especially how few Trump supporters.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 15% of Trump supporters care a great deal about climate change, with about half caring not too much or not at all about this issue. Furthermore, only 22% of Trump's supporters believe the Earth is warming mostly because of human activity.
A Gallup poll from March found that only 33% of Americans are worried a “great deal” about global warming, making it the penultimate concern in the survey, with the “availability and affordability of energy” being the only concern less worrisome.
However, change may be in the air as a combined 64% of adults surveyed in the poll said they are worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, up from 55% from March 2015 and the highest reading since 2008.
This could have something to do with the reality of climate change becoming harder to deny with each passing year.
July 2016 was the warmest month in Earth’s recorded history dating back almost 150 years, part of an extended and unprecedented global heatwave associated with climate change and a strong El Niño. Last year was the warmest winter in the continental United States in 121 years of record keeping. And the atmosphere appears to have surpassed the long-feared 400 parts per million concentration level of carbon dioxide.
Not everything has been trending negative though, and at last year’s COP 21 climate conference the global community established the next big climate pact to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Agreement. It officially went into force earlier this month after enough countries signed on. Sadly, even this valiant effort is only a starting point in confronting climate change—and more emissions cuts than are called for in the agreement will likely be needed to keep catastrophic damages to a minimum.
The more people in positions of power that make climate change a priority, the more the general public will tune in. Recent efforts by global celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and world leaders such as Obama have had a positive impact, but it will take a bipartisan coalition to build the momentum for really far-reaching, fast-moving change domestically.
Imagine what a difference it would make if the Republican party shed the fossil fuel-sponsored veil of climate denial it's been wearing for over a decade and accepted the science of climate change.
My stories would have very different headlines, for starters.