Eric Holthaus: Trump’s ‘environmental leadership’ is sending us to a climate disaster

Motorists are stranded on a flooded section of Canal Road in Washington during a heavy rainstorm, Monday, July 8, 2019. (Dave Dildine/WTOP via AP)

On Monday, just hours after one of the heaviest downpours ever recorded in the nation's capital, President Donald Trump gave a speech on "America's environmental leadership."

It was a surreal moment in what is increasingly a surreal era of human history. As unprecedented climate disasters continue to harm us and our neighbors, Trump painted a picture of an alternate reality in which he is not one of the main driving forces on the planet to undermine progress on the most important issue we face.

As Trump was speaking, the atmosphere over the Washington, D.C., area contained a near-record amount of moisture, as shown by data from a weather balloon the National Weather Service launched Monday morning. Earlier in the day, a month’s worth of rain fell in an hour across the D.C. metro area — a 1-in-200-year event, assuming a stable climate. (Last year, a similar 1-in-100-year downpour also hit D.C. in July.) Meandering creeks transformed into raging rivers in minutes. Waterfalls appeared in Metro stations. The White House itself began to flood, with images of a pool of water in the basement widely circulating on social media.

Thanks to decades of willful human neglect of the existential and century-scale consequences of transforming the chemical composition of our atmosphere, our skies are now warmer and hold more water vapor, causing scenes like this around the world. Including Monday, three of the rainiest July days in D.C. history have happened in the past three years.

That did not appear to be bothering the president much. "From day one, my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America is among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet," Trump said, ignoring the fact that U.S. carbon emissions are now higher than when he took office.

If you trust scientists, which is something it's not clear this president does, recent conclusions are stark: The fossil fuel infrastructure the world has already built is enough to commit us to warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the agreed-upon climate point of no return, if it's used for as long as it was originally designed for. Shutting down the fossil fuel industry is the only way to preserve a livable world. To do that, any true environmental leader would have to build a culture that believes a fossil-fuel-free world is not only possible, but essential to ensure a thriving human civilization in the 21st century.

Trump has done the opposite. He didn't even use the word "climate" once in his entire speech, except to refer to his decision to alienate the international community and withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.

During his time in office, Trump has rolled back more than 80 environmental regulations, most recently the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to speed up the transition from coal to cleaner forms of energy.

The climate emergency is clearly a special environmental problem — it poses an existential threat not only to the American way of life, but to all life. The United States is the country with the most historical emissions of any nation on the planet. You would think an American president who professes to be a leader on the environment would recognize the increasingly urgent and obvious reality of climate disasters.

But Trump does not live in our reality.

Instead, his speech touted "pro-growth policies" under his watch that have made America a net exporter of natural gas. "A strong economy is vital to maintaining a healthy environment," Trump said. "We will defend the environment, but we will also defend American sovereignty, American prosperity, and we will defend American jobs."

In the speech, Trump said that U.S. air pollution is now six times lower than the global average. But the Environmental Protection Agency's own data showed that the most important measures of air pollution have actually risen during Trump's time in office, at least partly due to record-setting wildfires in the West.

On the same day Trump diverted millions of dollars from an underfunded National Park Service for his rainy Fourth of July celebration, Anchorage hit 90 degrees for the first time in recorded history. Two days later, a nearby glacier hit 84 degrees, likely the warmest day statewide in Alaskan history. The next day was even hotter. As of Monday, nearly a million acres have already burned in forest fires statewide in Alaska. The waters around Alaska have already been ice-free for weeks. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to move ahead with oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

More than a month into hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still dealing with the aftermath of record-setting flooding across dozens of states. If a hurricane were to hit the Gulf Coast this weekend, which forecasters say is possible, only one-quarter of FEMA personnel would be available to respond.

These are the facts, no matter whether Trump chooses to pretend otherwise. Fortunately, the American people are not fooled: A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just 29 percent of Americans approve of Trump's handling of climate change, the lowest approval rating for any major issue surveyed.

On our current trajectory, with Trump's leadership, the world is on course to warm by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. That would produce unthinkable consequences that threaten civilization as we know it. Avoiding such a fate requires, in the words of climate scientists, "transformational change" in "all aspects of society." This is what true leadership in this moment requires: Admitting that radical change is now inevitable, and it's up to us to turn the course of history.

Eric Holthaus

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and journalist whose work focuses on weather and climate. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.