Publicly, President Trump says he doesn’t believe the CIA or the FBI when they tell him Vladimir Putin fucked with the 2016 election. He also says he doesn’t believe the CIA when they tell him the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. For Trump, alliances are all about power and money, not morality or justice. So it’s hardly surprising that when confronted with a new report by America’s top government scientists about the dire impacts of climate change, Trump says, “I don’t believe it.”
The Fourth National Assessment of Climate Change, which is the first detailed climate report to be issued by government scientists while Trump has been in office, was publicly released the day after Thanksgiving, which is traditionally one of the slowest news days of the year. The intent couldn’t be clearer: Bury the news in a pile of shopping lists and move on to something more appealing to Trump’s base, like tear-gassing migrant families at the Mexican border.
It’s not hard to guess why Trump wants to discredit and deny the report. It is nothing less than a smackdown of the president – a longtime climate denier and fossil-fuel promoter – from America’s own government scientists. It highlights Trump’s profoundly destructive idiocy on climate change, and is about as close as a group of nerdy scientists can come to an indictment against a sitting president for crimes against humanity.
Of course, there have been lots of climate reports before. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been spinning out data for decades, and each report has been more dire than the last. They are the gold standard of science, but the reports are clotted with jargon and arcane graphs and data points that only a UN bureaucrat could love. The most recent IPCC report was a big improvement, underscoring that the industrial nations of the world need to eliminate carbon pollution by 2050 if we hope to avoid climate catastrophe.
The National Climate Assessments, which are mandated by Congress and issued every four years, are singularly focused on the risks America faces from climate change. Earlier versions of the report have been excellent, but this new report is a huge leap forward, both in how well it is designed and packaged online, as well as for the depth and significance of the content.
For one thing, the new report underscores that climate change is not a future event, but it is happening now. The impacts are clear and perceptible. To cite just one of many examples, the report includes studies showing that the rainfall associated with Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston in 2017, increased by 38 percent because of human-induced climate change. Another study found that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere made the hurricane itself three times more likely.
The report makes a similar case with sea-level rise. In the 2014 assessment, scientists forecast that coastal cities would see more flooding in the coming years as sea levels rose. In the new report, the consequences of sea-level rise are no longer theoretical. Scientists have now documented a record number of “nuisance flooding” events during high tides in cities like Miami and Charleston, South Carolina. “High tide flooding is now posing daily risks to businesses, neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation, and ecosystems in the Southeast,” the report says.
But where the report really shines is in showing the connectedness between the human-built world and the natural world. It goes into detail about how the rapid melting of the Arctic will impact weather patterns in North America. How the aging infrastructure on the East Coast, including petroleum refining stations and toxic waste management facilities, will increase public health risks as flooding intensifies. How drought, rising temperatures and suburban sprawl are amplifying wildfire risk in the Southeast. How as the Northeast warms and plant species change, white tail deer will proliferate, increasing risks for drivers on highways. All in all, the report does a remarkable job of demonstrating the complex weave of our world, of how, say, changing disease vectors in the Southeast are linked to declining crop production in Minnesota and the rise of climate refugees from coastal Virginia.
But it’s the economic costs of climate change that are most damning for Trump’s vision of the world. By pushing fossil fuels and ignoring the ever-increasing risks of climate change, he is essentially stealing from the future. The report points out that by the end of the century, warming on our current trajectory would cost the U.S. economy upward of $500 billion a year in crop damage, lost labor and extreme weather damages. “With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century —more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states,” according to the report.
By 2090, in a worst-case climate-change scenario, labor-related losses as a result of extreme heat — which makes it difficult to work outdoors or lowers worker productivity — could total $155 billion annually. Deaths from temperature extremes could take an economic toll of $141 billion per year, while coastal property damage could total $118 billion a year.
In the end, what separates this report from others is not precise numbers and better modeling results; it’s that given the state of our world today, it’s impossible not to read it as an overtly political document. The report was released just days after the worst wildfire in California history, which now feels like a drama-in-real-life movie ripped from the pages of the report.
But what makes this climate assessment particularly brilliant and subversive is that it comes from U.S. government scientists. The people who wrote the report are not tree-hugger activists or left-wing socialists. They are men and women who work at NOAA and USGS and the Army Corps. I have met many of these people. And they are about as radical as your uncle Fred. They are men and women who wear fleece jackets to work and live in modest homes and have devoted their lives to grinding out science at the agencies where they work. They are people who put up with all the bullshit forms that you have to go through when you work for a government agency and who know they are never going to make any money and are OK with that because they are in it, as climate scientist Andrea Dutton tweeted, “for the humans” (which makes accusations by deniers like former Sen. Rick Santorum that climate scientists are “in it for the money” particularly moronic and offensive).
The question is, will the terrific science in this report change anyone’s mind about the scale and urgency of climate catastrophe? Probably not. But that does not mean it’s not a remarkable achievement and a deeply inspiring document. Despite all the shit they have taken in recent years, climate scientists have not given up hope during these dark days of Trump. And for that, they deserve our respect and admiration. They are the heroes of our time.