If we’re already doomed to disastrous climate change, then there’s no reason to cut carbon pollution, argues the Trump administration

Dana Nuccitelli   Mon 8 Oct 2018 06.00 EDTLast modified on Tue 9 Oct 2018 03.26 EDT


A cartoon illustration of the Trump administration’s climate policy logic Illustration: John Cook

Several years ago, I wrote about the five stages of climate denial:

Stage 1: Deny the Problem Exists
Stage 2: Deny We’re the Cause
Stage 3: Deny It’s a Problem
Stage 4: Deny We can Solve It
Stage 5: It’s too Late

Look where the Trump Administration is. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/sep/16/climate-change-contrarians-5-stages-denial …   

To date, the Trump administration has pinballed between Stages 1, 2, and 3, calling climate change a Chinese hoaxdisputing the degree of human causation (100% since 1950), and claiming it’s not a threat.  But the purpose of climate science denial is to obstruct climate policies, and science denial doesn’t hold up in court.  Unlike in the political realm, judicial decisions are generally based on evidence.

The Trump administration wants to roll back the Obama administration’s increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards.  But under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), “if a proposed major federal action is determined to significantly affect the quality of the human environment,” the agency has to publish an environmental impact statement (EIS).

Vehicle fuel efficiency standards to date (blue) and required under the Obama administration rules (green) and the Trump administration’s proposal (red) Illustration: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

And so, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was required to publish an EIS detailing how the proposed fuel efficiency rollbacks would impact the environment, including via climate change.  Here, the Trump administration shifted to Stage 4 and 5 climate denial.

We’re screwed anyway, what’s the big deal?

In modeling the proposal’s climate impact, the NHTSA assumed we will follow a scenario in which Earth’s average surface temperatures will warm 3.5°C (6.3°F) by 2100.  That’s surprisingly realistic – it’s a scenario in which countries follow through with their current climate policies but don’t enact any more stringent ones in the future.  The problem is that the NHTSA assessment then concluded the fuel efficiency rollbacks aren’t important because they won’t have a significant impact on those hotter global temperatures:

The impacts of the Proposed Action [freezing fuel efficiency standards] and alternatives on global mean surface temperature, precipitation, sea level, and ocean pH would be extremely small in relation to global emissions trajectories. This is because of the global and multi-sectoral nature of climate change. These effects would be small, would occur on a global scale, and would not disproportionately affect the United States.

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 but would also require drastic reductions in all U.S. sectors and from the rest of the developed and developing world.

We could make this argument about literally any and every individual climate policy.  Just like a single step won’t move a person safely out of the path of an oncoming truck, no single climate policy will significantly change global temperatures eight decades from now.  It will take a myriad of climate policies passed by countries all around the world.  That’s precisely why virtually every country signed the Paris climate agreement.  The report’s maddening illogic doesn’t stop there:

In addition, achieving GHG reductions from the passenger car and light truck vehicle fleet to the same degree that emissions reductions will be needed globally to avoid using all of the carbon budget would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to substantially move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically practicable.

This isn’t entirely true – electric vehicles are becoming increasingly affordable and economically competitive with gasoline-powered cars.  But more importantly, rolling back fuel efficiency standards will only slow the transition away from fossil fuels.  Requiring higher fuel efficiency in fleets forces automakers to accelerate the research, development, and deployment of zero carbon vehicles.  It’s ludicrous to argue that because the transition isn’t yet feasible we should roll back a policy meant to make it more feasible.

The climate tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual actors using a shared-resource system act in their own seeming self-interest and deplete the resource as a result.  For example, consider a small fishery with a dozen fisherman each catching as many fish as he can.  Soon the resource becomes overfished and every fisherman suffers the consequences.  Only if they all agree to limit their catches to sustainable levels can the fishery remain a long-term stable resource for all of the fishermen.

We’re in the same situation with climate change.  Every country can act in its own short-term self-interest and continue burning lots of seemingly cheap fossil fuels; the long-term result in that scenario would be a catastrophic destabilization of the global climate on which we all rely.  Or every country can agree to take steps like increasing vehicle fuel efficiency standards that cumulatively will slow global warming and avoid the worst climate change impacts.

Of course, being a short-sighted nationalist, Donald Trump is the only world leader to reject the Paris climate agreement.  His administration is similarly making short-sighted arguments that coincidentally serve the best interests of the fossil fuel industry, while in this case producing the equivalent carbon emissions of adding 9 million more cars on the road.

At least the Trump administration doesn’t deny basic climate science in this report, but worse yet, they’ve taken the nihilistic viewpoint that we’re screwed and nothing we do matters. Like the other stages, this is simply another form of climate denial meant to protect fossil fuel industry profits at everyone else’s peril.