Trump's calculated climate of fear

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

This column was originally published at on July 21, 2019

The climate change movement is surging to newfound political power, thanks to an influx of new leaders of diverse ages, backgrounds and viewpoints. 

President Trump apparently sees weakness in this diversity, just as he sees political opportunism in racist tweets aimed at four American congresswomen.

His calculus: The politics of fear will overcome his weaknesses with voters.

Whenever Trump feels voters slipping away, he goes back to what he knows best: personal attacks.

Few issues have shifted more sharply against Trump than climate change over the past year. Among voters, 62 percent disapprove of Trump’s handling of climate change, higher than any other issue, according to a July Washington Post poll

Floundering to connect with voters on the environment, Trump seized on the Green New Deal because he saw an easy win in stoking fears by attacking the plan’s champion, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y).

As he mocked the Green New Deal and Ocasio-Cortez in April, Trump spelled out the particular recipe of fear he was brewing stating, "You have senators who are professionals that you guys know that have been there for a long time, white hair, everything perfect, and they’re standing behind her and they’re shaking, they’re petrified of her.”

Trump’s strategy probably resonates with some subset of older, white voters. However, it has only deepened the generational divide on climate change within GOP voter ranks.  

According to June polling by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, 58 percent of GOP voters under 40 are more concerned about climate change now than they were only one year ago, and 54 percent are very concerned about their party’s position on climate change. Even older GOP voters are worried that the GOP is hurting itself with younger voters on climate change.

GOP strategists are scrambling. Trump held a White House event on July 8 to attempt to spit-shine his soot-encrusted environmental record.

It was a debacle. Flanked by the former coal and oil lobbyists who lead his environmental agencies, Trump made preposterous claims that he had made the environment his top priority “from day one.”

Lightning didn’t strike the White House, but it struck quickly in the media. Even Fox News abandoned the president. Anchor Shepard Smith cut in on Trump’s remarks to fact-check the president, listing 80 environmental rules that Trump has rolled back, complete with prepared graphics. 

Smith got it right. The worst impacts of Trump’s polluter-friendly rollbacks are yet to come, but what we have seen already is scary.

Seven million Americans live in counties that had clean air from 2014-2016 but now have unhealthy levels of smog or soot under Trump, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2019 report.

And U.S. carbon emissions have surged upward in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years.

Which is why it is more important than ever to fight for change and do the preparatory work needed to unstick the corroded gears of government and make rapid progress on climate action.

The past months have seen many positive developments. Labor and environmental groups have recently committed to a common vision and principles for climate action. A dialogue between leading U.S. environmental justice and national environmental groups has produced a shared platform and vision for national climate action. And more than 3,500 economists have now signed the Climate Leadership Council’s Economist’s Statement on Climate Dividends.

There are other policy ideas being advanced, and there are differences in strategy and policy among them all. In the face of Trump, however, these initiatives have much in common, starting with compelling visions of America rising to lead with the urgency the climate emergency demands, and with the dignity and economic opportunity that every American deserves.

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