What Does Trump Think About Climate Change? He Doesn’t Know Either

The president-elect appeared to consider its existence while speaking to The New York Times on Tuesday.

President-elect Donald Trump ascends the lobby stairs at the headquarters of The New York Times on Tuesday (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

What does the president-elect think about climate change?

Who even knows anymore?

Speaking at the offices of The New York Times on Tuesday, Donald J. Trump appeared to vacillate on, and sometimes even disagree with, previous statements about climate change made by Donald J. Trump. He even seemed ready to grant that climate change exists.

“I think there is some connectivity” between humans and the changing climate, he told the Times reporters and editors, according to Maggie Haberman.

Clean air is not quite the issue with climate change—unlike airborne lead or particulate matter, carbon dioxide only threatens human health when it escapes into the atmosphere and screws up planetary weather patterns—but even the willingness to accept global warming’s existence would be a revision of Trump’s views.

He also told Tom Friedman, the Times columnist, that he was keeping “an open mind” about the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to combat climate change.

Maybe he’s just been reading the news. More than 70 percent of Americans, and a majority of Republicans, want the United States to remain in the Paris Agreement, according to a poll from the University of Chicago. Hundreds of U.S. companies have also asked the Trump administration to stay in the treaty. They aren’t just liberal-aligned firms, either: Many of them, including Kellogg and General Mills, have given tens of thousands to Republicans in the recent past.

Even the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is coming around to the agreement. “‘President-elect Trump should accept the Paris treaty on climate to buy some goodwill overseas,” he said on-air last week. “It doesn't really amount to much anyway, let it go.”

But if Trump opted to let the United States stay in the Paris Agreement, it would represent a major shift of his views from the campaign. “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement,” he told a crowd in North Dakota in May. He frequently repeated that promise. Later, he said the agreement “gives foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use right here in America.” (It doesn’t.)

Trump’s views on climate change are famously more shaky. During the first presidential debate, he claimed that he had never said climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese to depress American manufacturing. This was a tricky claim to make—since he had tweeted exactly that statement in 2012.

It became the most retweeted tweet of the night. He later said it was a joke, but he has many other on-the-record statements (and tweets) doubting the existence of climate change. The statement continues to circulate, too: Last week, the Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs assured Trump that his country really had not made up the idea of climate change.

Yet four years prior to that tweet, in December 2009, Trump and his adult three children signed an open letter in The New York Times calling on President Obama and the then-Democratic-controlled Congress to “strengthen and pass United States legislation” and “ensure meaningful and effective measures” worldwide to fight climate change.

“If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet,” said the letter.

Climate change: “Scientifically irrefutable” or a malignant foreign hoax? We basically have no idea what Trump thinks about climate change. These new views aren’t necessarily any more binding or authentic than claims he made last month, or last spring, or last decade. What’s clear instead is that Trump changes his tune depending on his audience. Maybe he figured that the Times sophisticates would want to hear him cogitate deeply on climate change, while rally goers in fracking-dependent North Dakota would yearn for angry denialism.

Most importantly, the actual plans of his transition team don’t reflect a newfound climate moderation. Trump’s team chose Myron Ebell to lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition. Ebell, who has professionally rejected the existence of climate change since the mid-1990s, is one of the architects of Republican climate-change denial. It was Ebell who helped push the EPA not to regulate climate change during George W. Bush’s presidency. Last year, he called Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change “scientifically ill informed, economically illiterate, intellectually incoherent and morally obtuse.”

Ebell is, needless to say, quite an appointment to make during the hottest year ever recorded. If Trump keeps him on the team, there should be little question about the direction of his environmental policy—even if the president comes around to admitting that climate change exists.

Still, consider how a certain type of old-school Republican might be feeling about the incoming administration. It seems eminently plausible that in his first year in office, President Trump could permanently commit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change—and also fatally destabilize NATO. The planet really is changing.