The Trump Two-Step

Talk like a maverick. Act like an extremist Republican.

One step forward, two steps back
Mike Segar / Reuters

There’s a pattern shaping up in the Trump administration, at least when it comes to climate change.

It works like this: Donald Trump, the president-elect himself, says something that sounds like he might be moderating on the issue. Then, his staff takes a radical action in the other direction.

Last week, Trump told the staff of The New York Times that he was keeping an open mind about the existence of climate change.

“I think there is some connectivity” between human activity and the warming climate, Trump said. “There is some, something. It depends on how much.”

Of course, there is more than “some” connectivity. Scientists overwhelmingly recognize that humans have dramatically warmed the climate by emitting greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. The atmosphere now traps heat far more efficiently than it did even 50 years ago, quickly outpacing the “normal” rate of planetary climate change.

This worldwide warming trend has made 2016 the hottest year since modern meteorological records began, in 1880. The six warmest years ever measured have all happened in the past decade. The U.S. Department of Defense and a wide range of American medical associations recognize the reality of human-caused global warming.

But Donald Trump once said that global warming was a hoax invented by the Chinese, and he’s frequently wondered how global warming can exist when it’s still sometimes “really cold” in New York. (Here’s how.) So when he told the Times that he was keeping an open mind about global warming, it was taken by many as good news. I wrote about it, as did a slew of other publications. Trump’s new quasi-moderation became a “flip-flop” or a “major U-turn.” Maybe Trump, ever the maverick, would finally allow the Republican Party to recognize the reality of climate change.

But here’s the second part of the two-step. While Trump was saying something almost moderate, his actual transition team was acting like a more extremist version of George W. Bush-era Republicans. A day after Trump talked to the Times, The Guardian reported that the Trump administration plans could cut all of NASA’s Earth science research.

NASA’s scientists do some of the finest climate and weather science in the world, and the agency’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites is peerless. Yet Bob Walker, a Trump campaign advisor, told the paper that all this was “politically-correct environmental monitoring.”

“I believe that climate research is necessary, but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing,” Walker told the Guardian. He said that some projects could be moved to other agencies.

These plans are still up in the air. But the Trump team’s staffing choices should also raise concerns. Myron Ebell, who is leading Trump’s EPA transition team, helped lobby the second Bush administration to barely do anything to stop climate change. He has been involved in professional climate-change denial circles since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Politico reports that the Heritage Foundation senior research fellow, Steven Groves, has been added to Trump’s State Department transition team. Just last week, Groves called for the United States to leave the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the overarching treaty that governs how the world organizes itself to address global warming. Groves also said the U.S. should move to “dismantle” domestic climate regulations.

A staffing choice isn’t a firm policy decision, but there isn’t much ambiguity about the Trump administration’s intentions so far. Trump may be sounding a new tune on the existence of climate change. (Though some journalists read the New York Times comments to mean he hasn’t changed his mind about it at all.) But his policy team seems to want to both squash research about global warming while withdrawing the United States from any diplomatic attempt to do anything about it.

That’s the Trump two-step. The president-elect may look like he’s keeping an open mind, but his transition team is acting like a more extreme version of the Bush-era climate deniers.