All this doesn’t add up to an epistemology: It’s pure trolling, and, as with most trolling, you almost have to admire the chutzpah. In this late hour—well into the fourth decade of modern climate politics—it’s hard to believe that belief in climate change is the main obstacle to battling it. A supermajority of Americans now say that global warming is real, and a majority say that people are making it happen. Yet a federal climate bill is not exactly steaming through Congress.
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No, when Trump pulls America out of the Paris Agreement, he is responding to a different ideology: carbonism. For Trump, carbonism is a powerfully economic and cultural idea. Think of the carbon in carbonism as akin to the nation in nationalism: It implies a founding myth, a powerful worldview, a theory of value, and a prophecy. But it is, at heart, a simple idea. Carbonism is a belief that fossil fuels—which send carbon pollution spewing into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and ocean acidification—have inherent virtue. That they are better, in fact, than other energy sources.
When the Trump administration replaces the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with a new rule that may actually increase pollution, that’s carbonism. When Perry tried to get Americans to subsidize failing coal plants through their power bills, that’s carbonism. When the EPA fights to allow the free venting of methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that’s carbonism. When the EPA fights to let coal plants have an easier time spewing heavy metals and other neurotoxins into the atmosphere, that’s carbonism.
For the Trump administration, carbonism is more powerful than neoliberalism or any theory of free markets. How else to explain the White House’s proposed rollback of fuel-efficiency rules, which—in its hurry to freeze every possible legal restriction on carbon—actually mixed up the idea of supply and demand? And for Trump, too, carbonism is more powerful than any belief in federalism or states’ rights. How else to explain his years-long war on California’s statewide climate policy?
For the president, carbonism is visceral. At home, Trump’s carbonist politics are prosperity-focused, locked in the postwar decades, and permeated with nostalgia for old-fashioned race and gender relations. Just as President Ronald Reagan linked black women to government through the epithet welfare queens, Trump has bound carbon pollution to heavy industry and white men. Abroad, Trump’s carbonism is vulgar. Hence his repeated promise that the United States had “the oil” in Syria, even as it betrayed its Kurdish allies.
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But carbonism does not need to be so blunt. Consider Pompeo’s statement yesterday on American withdrawal. It is elegant carbonism, citing “the reality of the global energy mix” instead of that other reality (the warming one). It cites the importance of using “all” energy sources “cleanly and efficiently, including fossils fuels.” And when it mentions climate change, it is only to “enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change.”