The Republican Party’s approach to climate change used to be wholesale denial. Global warming was a hoax perpetrated either by greedy climate scientists or foreign countries that wanted control over America’s energy resources. Over time, Republicans began to admit that the climate was changing. But humans weren’t causing it, they insisted. The planet was warming naturally, so nothing needed to be done about it.
Americans largely reject these lies today, and most people believe the government should be doing more to address the climate crisis. So many on the political right are taking a new rhetorical approach. They admit that climate change is real, and even that humans are responsible—just not humans in America.
President Donald Trump gave a speech on Monday touting his administration’s “environmental leadership.” He didn’t utter the words “climate change” once; he’s one of the few Republicans still committed to outright denialism. But he did brag that America was doing better than the rest of the world in fighting the root cause of climate change.
“Since 2000, energy-related carbon emissions have declined [here] more than any other country on earth,” Trump said. “Emissions are projected to drop in 2019 and 2020.” Trump also said that the United States had cut its greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country that has signed the Paris climate accord. “We’re doing a tough job, and not everybody knows it,” he said. “And that’s the reason we’re here to speak.”
Trump’s speech wasn’t the first time his administration has made this case. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a statement defending its recent repeal of Obama-era greenhouse gas regulations and its commitment to global warming: “The science is clear, under President Trump greenhouse gas emissions are down.” And Republicans like Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander have argued that America is a climate savior, not villain. “When it comes to climate change, China, India, and developing countries are the problem,” he said in a recent floor speech. “American innovation is the answer.”
Per usual, Trump is mangling the truth. As Politifact reported last year, the decline in carbon emissions cited by Trump and the EPA “occurred during President Barack Obama’s final year in office, 2016.” Carbon emissions did decrease slightly during Trump’s first year in office, but that was mostly because 2017 was a mild year, and we didn’t need as much heating as we normally do. Carbon emissions also increased “in every sector other than electric power generation” that year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The EPA doesn’t have official carbon emissions data for 2018. But an estimate by the Rhodium Group shows that U.S. carbon emissions increased by 3.4 percent, largely due to an increase in emissions from the transportation sector.
Even if emissions were down slightly under the Trump administration, that wouldn’t grant the U.S. the right to shift blame toward other countries. As Vox reported earlier this year, the U.S. “is the all-time biggest, baddest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.” Compared to every other country, we hold the most responsibility for the ongoing crisis, and thus “bear a greater imperative for curbing [our] carbon dioxide output.”
If America is to be a leader in solving the climate crisis, it would have to cut far more than just 1 or 2 or even 5 percent of its emissions. Under the Paris accord, the U.S. was supposed to cut its emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025—and some scientists believe this still wouldn’t be enough to avoid catastrophe. Instead, Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the accord, and has dismantled several greenhouse gas regulations and refused to sign an international treaty tackling warming in the Arctic.
The goal of Trump’s speech, according to White House spokesperson Judd Deere, was “to put the facts out on the president’s record” on clean air, clean water, and climate change. But facts were hard to come by. At one point, Trump passed the microphone to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who bragged that the agency has cleaned up the most toxic Superfund sites since 2005. But the work Wheeler touted was actually completed years ago, during the Obama administration. Trump also brought up Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who said the Trump administration is “enhancing conversation” and “ensuring Americans achieve the benefits of the enduring wilderness.” This is plainly false.
Trump also predictably bashed the Green New Deal, calling it an “unthinkable,” “not affordable” approach. He even claimed that the plan would “kill millions of jobs, crush the dreams of the poorest Americans, and disproportionately harm minority communities”—even though job creation and a livable-wage guarantee are among the core goals in Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution.
The speech was thus in character for Trump, who has spent much of his presidency patting himself on the back, lying about his political opponents, and refusing to acknowledge the crises unfolding around him. The tragedy is that he has convinced so many Americans to do likewise. They’ll watch the world burn and believe they had nothing to do it.