Here’s why Donald Trump might not be the worst possible candidate on climate change
As Donald Trump keeps piling up primary victories, and the only other candidate with a non-trivial number of wins is Ted Cruz, it’s time to call the Republican presidential primary a two-person race. On Tuesday, Cruz won Idaho, while Trump took Michigan, Mississippi, and Hawaii. Cruz came in second in all of those states and he has more delegates than John Kasich and Marco Rubio combined. Within a week, Kasich and Rubio may both be out of the race: Next Tuesday, primaries will be held in their home states of Ohio and Florida — Trump leads the polls in both — and they are expected to drop out if they can’t win them.
In response to Trump’s rise, liberals, moderates, and even many conservatives have freaked out. Words like “menace” and comparisons to Hitler get thrown around. Trump, they worry, is a unique threat to American democracy because of his authoritarian impulses, bigoted demagoguery, and total lack of relevant knowledge, experience, or serious policy proposals.
But any effort to derail Trump is at this point a boost to Cruz. And on the biggest issue facing humanity, climate change, Trump is no worse than Cruz. While Trump probably won’t be any better than Cruz either, there is at least the potential for him to pivot toward the center.
In short: Whereas Cruz is a guaranteed disaster for the climate, Trump is merely a very likely one.
To be clear, this is more a warning about Cruz’s extremism than a reassuring observation about Trump. By any objective measure, Trump is such an ignoramus on climate science that it would be hilarious if it weren’t so alarming. His view is that when it is cold wherever he is, that proves there is no climate change. Here’s a typical tweet from the candidate:
And one more:
That last one is not only a bizarre conspiracy theory; it also goes contrary to the usual Republican talking point that the U.S. shouldn’t do anything about climate change because China isn’t doing anything.
On environmental policy more broadly, Trump has pledged to abolish or dramatically reduce in size the Environmental Protection Agency and to roll back environmental regulations. His proposal for astronomically large tax cuts, overwhelmingly favoring the wealthy, would require nothing less.
But Cruz’s policy plans are just as extreme. His proposed tax cuts are almost as huge. He called the EPA’s Clean Power Plan “lawless and radical” and “flatly unconstitutional.” He has sponsored a bill that would forbid any federal agency from fighting climate change under the Clean Air Act and other major environmental laws.
Even by the debased standards of a Republican candidate for president, Cruz espouses an extremism verging on paranoid delusion regarding climate science. In August, he alleged that scientists are engaged in a massive global conspiracy to alter temperature data, saying, “They’re cooking the books. They’re actually adjusting the numbers.” Cruz also implies that liberals invented climate change as a regulatory power grab. “If you’re a big-government politician, if you want more power, climate change is the perfect pseudo-scientific theory,” Cruz said in January, “because it can never, ever, ever be disproven.”
So both Trump and Cruz are as backward as one can get on climate science. The only possible remaining difference between them is whether either might shift views once in office. Cruz almost certainly would not, but maybe Trump would.
Cruz is an intensely right-wing ideologue. He was raised by his evangelical preacher father to be zealously religious and a rabid anti-communist. His whole adult life has been embedded in the conservative movement, from the Federalist Society in law school onward. Politically, Cruz has followed one path in his career: to relentlessly run as far to the right as possible. As the website Religion News Service puts it, “Cruz resonates with the evangelical culture warriors.” He also comes from Texas, an environment that discourages moderation among Republicans. In 2014, the Texas GOP’s platform called for repealing the Voting Rights Act, subjecting gays to “conversion therapy,” and denying in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant children.
Texas Republicans are especially conservative on energy and the environment. Texas is by far the leading state in production of crude oil and natural gas. The oil and gas companies are largely headquartered in Houston and Dallas. Affluent Texans, the kind who dominate the state GOP’s elite, also live a very energy-intensive lifestyle. This is the land of big SUVs and big houses with year-round air-conditioning. Texas has the sixth-highest energy usage per capita. Winning the primaries in Texas, and its neighboring right-wing petrostate Oklahoma, on Super Tuesday was a crucial boon to Cruz’s campaign.
It’s very, very hard to imagine Ted Cruz threatening his standing with his base to win over moderates by accepting climate science or embracing climate action.
With Trump, a wholesale shift is unlikely, but at least it’s conceivable. Trump never talks about climate or energy policy on the campaign trail — it’s not an animating issue for him. And he is occasionally willing to defy conservative orthodoxy. He admits that Planned Parenthood provides important health care for women and he complains about the effects of free-trade deals on blue-collar workers.
More notably, there is little evidence that Trump actually believes in much of anything or cares about holding fast to any views. He used to support abortion and gay rights, but now he opposes them. He was for the Iraq War, now he says it was a huge mistake, but he still calls for a more belligerent foreign policy going forward. He says offensively stereotypical things about Jews, even though his daughter — who he so adores that he says creepy things about how hot she is — converted to Judaism. Precisely the attribute that makes Trump’s stubby finger on the nuclear button such a terrifying prospect, his irascible unpredictability, makes Trump a marginally more promising figure than Cruz on climate change.
Maybe Trump will wake up one day in the White House, look outside, and wonder why it is unseasonably warm. Or maybe he will sense this fall that some subset of suburban white voters he needs — “office park dads” or “security moms,” say — wants him to show some connection to the reality-based community.
Probably not. But if Trump thought there were an extra vote or dollar in it for him, he could completely reverse course on climate. As Ezra Klein has observed, one of Trump’s greatest attributes as a politician is a total lack of shame. When other candidates flip-flop, they go to great lengths to explain why they’ve really held the same stance all along. Trump doesn’t. He just shrugs it off or lies about his former stance. He has no compunction about completely changing his views.
There are still plenty of other reasons that a climate hawk might prefer a President Cruz to Trump. Cruz is better-informed and less racist. Although Cruz is as foolish as Trump in his comments regarding nuclear proliferation, Trump seems more likely to nuke Iran in a fit of pique and thus trigger a whole different kind of environmental calamity.
But before you get too apoplectic about the prospect of a Trump presidency, it’s worth pausing to remember what the Republican alternative would actually be like.