The internet is abuzz with a shocking revelation the Washington Post shared this morning: The Trump administration used climate science in policymaking. There’s just one issue. It used it to justify a proposed rollback of fuel economy standards.
The find is buried deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement released when the administration announced its intent to water down an Obama-era clean car rule. There, 100 pages into the report, is a table showing a planet on track to warm nearly 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 if we continue on our current carbon emissions path. Obama’s clean car rule would shave a few hundredths of a degree off that, meaning we would go from super fucked to pretty fucked.
Controversy has already bubbled up over how much of this is really news. E&E News covered the same finding in August, and the models the Trump administration used to show how much the planet could warm are no secret. But there’s a more important point to unpack, which is that the Trump administration is offering an insanely disingenuous interpretation of what we know about climate change.
The entire fifth chapter of the environmental impact statement is about climate change, citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a slew of mainstream studies showing all the ways the planet is projected to change if we keep emitting carbon dioxide. It points out that CO2 levels could reach a little more than 789 parts per million by 2100 if Obama’s clean car rule were in place, with slight adjustments upward under alternative scenarios where the rule is weakened.
The results roughly correspond between two scenarios climate scientists have gamed out, RCP6.0 and RCP8.5. The former is when we start to whittle away at carbon emissions but they keep rising until 2100, and the latter is where we just continue letting carbon spew in the atmosphere unabated.
This is all fine. But the Trump administration is using a datapoint from these models to argue that efforts to cut back on auto emissions are useless and that we should let the world burn.
The trouble here is that carbon pollution is a global problem that touches every aspect of the economy. Slaying the carbon pollution beast is going to take more than one arrow. The clean car rule was one of the myriad ways to do that. And really, it was barely one arrow.
A more honest reading of the environmental impact statement is that incrementalism is worthless in the face of climate change. We need to be doing a lot more if we want a planet with a climate remotely resembling the one humanity has thrived in. Yet this argument—that no single action will make a meaningful dent in the problem so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯— is one that conservatives seem to be leaning into as climate denial becomes passé.
RCP6.0 and RCP8.5 are both potentially catastrophic scenarios scientists have been discussing for years. Maybe people’s ears will finally perk up now that the climate-denying Trump administration is using them.