Trump's magical mystery climate solutions
In Davos, the president promised secret "scientific breakthroughs" to fight climate change. Here's why, and what they might be.
Briefly, before today’s main item, I want to point you to The New Republic’s new podcast, The Politics of Everything. Their first episode is out today—and it’s about the deeply personal choice of having kids during a climate emergency.
I’m featured in the episode, as are some clips of interviews I did with climate activists and writers, including New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells. It was reported and recorded before I left the magazine to start this newsletter, and in retrospect, there’s so much more I wish I would have talked about. But ultimately, I came to the same conclusion I would have come to today, which is that if you want to have kids, you should have kids. The best thing you can do for the climate is press for systemic change—and take care of yourself.
Trump's magic mystery climate solution
Unstoppable wildfires; biblical floods; disintegrating ice sheets. The physical realities of climate change are becoming more and more alarming by the day.
The political realities of climate change are becoming pretty alarming, too—at least if you’re a Republican. As POLITICO reported on Sunday, House Republicans are increasingly stressing out about the fact that they can’t just deny climate change anymore.
“The GOP needs to have a Republican position on climate change,” an unnamed aide for the House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans told the paper. This is because young voters are demanding politicians accept the climate crisis. They also want climate policy plans.
But Republicans, for the most part, don’t have any climate policy plans—and part of the reason is because President Trump hasn’t expressed support for any climate policy. Republicans don’t want to look like they’re out of step with the president, who has repeatedly called climate change a hoax.
Fortunately for them, it looks like Trump has settled on a new approach: magic mystery climate technology that he will totally tell you about later.
Trump touts super secret climate “breakthroughs” at Davos
Last week, some of the world’s richest and most powerful business and government leaders convened in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum—an annual conference meant “to shape the future and solve planet-sized problems.”
Climate change being the most planet-sized problem in existence, the subject dominated the week-long discussion. But “discussion” was all it was. As the New York Times reported, business and financial leaders were willing to talk boldly about the need to address climate change, but unwilling to commit to plans or timelines for reducing emissions.
That trend extended to government leaders, too—including Trump. In his keynote address at the conference, Trump proudly announced that the U.S. would join the Trillion Trees Initiative, which is a climate initiative. The basic idea is to “address the climate problem through large-scale reforestation,” since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Trump did not commit, however, to reducing carbon emissions. Instead, he touted fossil fuels as a driver of environmental progress, knocked climate activists for being “perennial prophets of doom,” and said all big challenges could be solved by capitalism.
“In America, we understand what the pessimists refuse to see: that a growing and vibrant market economy focused on the future lifts the human spirit and excites creativity strong enough to overcome any challenge—any challenge by far,” he said.
Then came the kicker, the secret magic climate solution:
We’re continuing to work on things that you’ll be hearing about in the near future that, even today, sitting here right now, you wouldn’t believe it’s possible that we have found the answers. You’ll be hearing about it. But we have found answers to things that people said would not be possible—certainly not in a very short period of time.
But the wonders of the last century will pale in comparison to what today’s young innovators will achieve because they are doing things that nobody thought even feasible to begin. We continue to embrace technology, not to shun it. When people are free to innovate, millions will live longer, happier, healthier lives.
Trump may actually talking about a real thing: climate restoration
It’s tempting, and perhaps wise, to think that Trump was just making stuff up—that actually, we won’t “be hearing about” any unbelievable “answer” or technology to address the climate crisis from the Trump administration any time soon.
The “things” Zeitz thinks Trump is specifically talking about are climate restoration technologies—that is, technologies to restore the climate to the way it was before humans started pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Climate restoration technologies include things as simple as planting trees, and as complicated as using sand-like sprays to thicken rapidly melting ice sheets. The latter is a technology already used by the oil industry.
“Our analysis of [Trump’s] statements … confirmed by other contacts, and our interpretation of the political moment we are in, indicate that there is strong likelihood that new [climate restoration] commitments will be made by President Trump during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 4, 2020,” Zeitz said in an email.
I don’t have any further confirmation of this. I’ve put out a request to the White House and will update you if I hear back.
But it would make some sense for Trump to tout climate restoration technologies. After all, House Republicans are desperately looking for some kind of climate policy to latch onto to say they’re serious about addressing this crisis. But they can’t advocate for reducing fossil fuel use, because that would mean going against the interests of fossil fuel companies. They also can’t advocate for climate adaptation policy, because that gives too much credence to the fact that climate change is already royally screwing everything up.
Climate restoration, however, is a fairly safe bet for Republicans. It allows them to avoid the less savory but objective necessary policies of mitigation and adaptation, and also say they’re driving economic activity. As Zeitz noted, a recent report projected that “the world can realize at least $1 trillion to $3 trillion in market opportunities and $3 trillion to $5 trillion in broader economic, social and environmental benefits per year by 2030” through restoration technologies.
That might explain why House Republicans have already enthusiastically signed on to support the One Trillion Trees Initiative. Coincidentally, on Friday, the Washington Examiner reported that Republicans’ “forthcoming agenda to tackle climate change includes a proposal to help plant a trillion trees to absorb carbon dioxide.”
Gearing up for another fight
Zeitz is adamant that any effective climate plan has to include all three types of climate policy: mitigation policy to rapidly reduce emissions, adaptation policy to prepare for current and future climate impacts, and restoration technologies to restore the climate back to its original state. “Anything less than that would be completely unacceptable and making things worse than they already are,” he said.
At the same time, he added, if Trump wants the U.S. government to support restoration technologies while not supporting adaptation or mitigation, he wouldn’t stand in the way. “Our view is that there are no enemies on this path. It's all hands on deck,” he said.
Zeitz’s top priority is restoring ice to the Arctic. “There are early signs that methane frozen under the Siberian permafrost is starting to leak,” he said. “And the scientists I'm talking to think there’s a human-level extinction threat from it. So we need to deploy a robust intervention this winter. So my idea is, if President Trump is willing to bring in Putin, Trudeau, and others for a global arctic methane emergency, we would work with the administration on that.”
If that happened though, it’s likely other climate activists wouldn’t be pleased—and that a new rift in the climate policy world would be exposed.
“[Restoration] is the preeminent playbook of greenwashing. That’s why you see industrial carbon capture pushed so hard by the fossil fuel industry,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator for the Climate Justice Alliance. “It’s just another excuse to keep emitting, and insist we're going to store what we emit under the ground, or keep the ice artificially frozen.”
But, even Rogers-Wright had to admit, a climate strategy focused on restoration would make sense for the Trump administration.
“It wouldn't be shocking to see a fascist president pushing market-based solutions to a problem we can not capitalism our way out of,” he said. “We’ve commodified the land. We’ve commodified the water. And I guess the next thing to commodify is the air and ice.”
What do you think about climate restoration, and Trump’s speech in Davos? Subscribers, let me know in the comments.
Also, if you have time, remember to listen to The New Republic’s new podcast, The Politics of Everything. The first episode features me, and is about the personal choice of having children during a climate emergency.
OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!
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