Washington: Donald Trump insists he’s an environmentalist. But on the biggest issue of the day — the origins of climate change — his exact position remains a mystery.
In his 31-minute remarks on pulling out of the Paris accord, Trump never stated his personal view about whether climate change is man-made. Questioned about the President’s view, press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday, “Honestly, I’ve never asked him."
At a briefing after Trump’s Rose Garden ceremony Thursday, administration officials chided reporters asking Trump’s views on climate science to stay on topic. Just Friday, his environmental chief Scott Pruitt was asked about Trump’s views on the origins of global warming.
“All the discussions we’ve had for the last several weeks" have focused strictly on whether Paris was a good deal for America, Pruitt said. When it was pointed out that he still hadn’t answered the question, Pruitt responded: “I did answer the question."
In the past, Trump has put forth different views. He joined a 2009 letter calling on then-President Barack Obama to lead on fighting the dangers of climate change. But as his criticisms of Obama increased in recent years, so did that of climate science. He suggested it was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to damage American manufacturing — a claim he has not backed away from, nor repeated lately.
This isn’t merely about semantics. The uncertainty over his climate views could complicate US efforts to negotiate greenhouse gas reduction agreements with other countries — the kind of new deal Trump said he would be willing to pursue as he announced his Paris decision. If climate change is a hoax, after all, why would it make sense to force China or India to further curb their use of fossil fuels?
“The idea that it’s a hoax really makes you look like even more of an outlier than not wanting to do anything about it," said Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
This debate could also inject climate science into the 2018 midterm elections and the presidential race in 2020.
Trump frequently mentions that he is “someone who cares deeply about the environment." In meetings with European leaders last week, he mentioned the environmental awards his company has received, and he has pledged to protect clean air and clean water even as he repeals governing greenhouse gas emissions.
In recent years, Trump has issued scores of tweets deriding climate change and the global effort to fight it. Trump cast the phenomenon as a myth perpetrated by the Chinese to “destroy the competitiveness of our factories." In 2012, he said global warming was “based on faulty science and manipulated data."
And in November 2012 he joked about needing global warming while it was “freezing and snowing in New York" — an idea he reiterated again in January, March and December the following year as well at least three times in 2014.
“This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING b******t has got to stop," Trump tweeted in January 2014. “Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice."
Trump later cast his hoax assertion as a laugh line. “I often joke that this is done for the benefit of China," Trump told Fox & Friends in January 2016, adding: “China does not do anything to help climate change."
There is an almost universal scientific consensus on the issue. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported with 95% confidence that humans are warming the planet. And that warming is becoming harder to ignore: The 10 hottest years on record all happened since 1998 — and last year was the warmest ever, followed by 2015.
“At this point the White House does not want to say that climate change is a hoax," said John Coequyt, head of international climate programs for the Sierra Club. “That is not a position that is supportable by the facts or embraced by the public. And when they say things like that it makes them look crazy."
Americans who worry “a great deal" about climate change rose to a three-decade high of 45% this year, up from 37% in 2016, according to a Gallup poll. But they remain deeply split about whether climate change is caused by human activity. In a survey last year by Pew Research Centre, just 45% of respondents agreed that the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity.
The views break along party lines. While 79% of self-described liberal Democrats surveyed by Pew said human activity is causing the Earth to warm, just 34% of moderate Republicans and 15% of conservative Republicans agreed.
The partisan split may explain why top Trump administration officials have approached the issue gingerly, with carefully worded assertions that the climate is changing but it is not clear how much — or how to meaningfully address it. The formulation allows them to avoid accusations that they are “climate deniers," while also dodging any explicit acknowledgment that the use of fossil fuels is a factor, much less a specific prescription for addressing the phenomenon.
“What the President is not doing is saying he’s not going to try to improve the climate," commerce secretary Wilbur Ross said on NBC. Trump is saying that the Paris agreement “is destructive of economic growth."
“He is an environmentalist," Ross says. “I’ve known him a long time. He’s very pro-environment." Bloomberg