Last night’s presidential debate was an abomination by just about any standard. The sitting president told white supremacists to “stand by,” took no responsibility for the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans killed by covid-19, refused to back a peaceful transfer of power, and generally lied with reckless abandon while moderator Chris Wallace essentially took a nap in the green room for most of it then laughed off the whole proceeding at the end.
As a climate reporter, the one “bright” spot was actually hearing Wallace wake from his slumber to ask a series of climate questions in the waning minutes of the debate. It broke 12 years of climate silence at presidential debates (and proved Chris Wallace clearly reads Earther). I have quibbles with the questions themselves, but President Donald Trump’s responses, in particular, showed that outright climate denial is basically done for, at least at the policymaking level. The only problem is, the toxic stew replacing it is much, much worse.
Without outright denial of human-caused climate change to lean on, Trump and the rest of the far-right are reverting to anti-democratic, potentially violent tactics to maintain their hold on power despite the mutual destruction their goals will mean for us all.
Wallace’s first question to Trump on climate was about his beliefs. In 2018, I said they were no longer worth asking him about because his brain makes lace look like a wall of steel. The incoherence was present again, but this time Trump copped to greenhouse gas emissions “to an extent” causing the climate crisis. (They are the primary cause.) He then segued to talking about California and also needing “better management of our forest” while implying climate change played a role in the state’s devastating wildfires. The section of the debate discussing science was also basically the only time during the 90 minutes of hell that Trump actually shut up—and he even hedged in favor of electric cars!
It shows that the flat out climate denial that dominated conservative politics for most of this century has lost its grip. The reasons are simple: Looking at the state of the world in 2020, it is impossible to deny what’s happening right outside our windows. Raging fires, wild hurricanes, intense rainstorms, coastal cities flooding under sunny skies due to rising seas.
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But what’s replacing denial is a darker evolution of conservatism in a climate-constrained era. Trump has, first and foremost, served industries actively making climate change worse by deregulating everything from power plants to cars to endangered species and water protections. That will accelerate the crisis that Trump begrudgingly acknowledged. But you can’t acknowledge a crisis then defend policies that clearly make it worse.
Sure, he hand waved about the Green New Deal (which Democratic nominee Joe Biden does not support, though his climate plan incorporates some of its elements), lied about the cost of addressing climate change, and said: “they want to take out the cows.” They’re predictable, tired-ass Republican talking points stuff. All that is bad and unforgivable given that repeating these talking points is designed to delay climate policy that will, in turn, conscript millions around the world to suffering, displacement, and death. But it’s the policies and tactics Trump said outside the climate portion of the debate that will have a truly chilling impact on our ability to slow Earth’s warming.
First up is the foundation of democracy itself: voting. Trump’s refusal to accept losing the election and wild lies about voter fraud are part of a greater Republican push to disenfranchise voters. The goal is to keep as many Americans from voting as possible. And for those who can cast a ballot, Republicans are looking to invalidate them. It’s a way of maintaining minority rule, with a president who lost the popular vote and a Senate that Republican control despite representing 15 million fewer Americans. That perversion of democracy is step one to ensuring climate policy remains a pipe dream, despite a majority of Americans actually wanting the government to address the crisis.
Likewise, Trump’s race to appoint Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett—who he said during the debates was “good in every way” despite much evidence to the contrary—will ensure the court represents business interests for decades to come. Even if Democrats win the White House and Senate, hold the House, and pass meaningful climate legislation (dare to dream, right?), any challenge to it would appear before a court that has six conservatives that could shoot down any new laws—not to mention regulations put forward by executive order. A court with Coney Barrett—whose entire judicial philosophy justifies reversing precedents—could even overturn previous rulings, including a landmark case that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases.
The most putrid part of the debate, though, was Trump’s call to the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group, to “stand back and stand by.” That poses an immediate threat as the election approaches where the Republican approach is disenfranchisement by any means necessary. In the context of the climate crisis, it could lead to violent outcomes targeting the most vulnerable among us.
In recent years, the rise of ecofascism has also put a new twist on a hateful ideology. It left a horrific imprint on El Paso last year, when a gunman killed 22 people. He wrote a manifesto decrying corporate pollution and arguing the U.S. needed to “get rid of enough people” as justification for cold-blooded murder.
Just this month, we’ve also seen the far-right embrace wildfire conspiracy theories as a way to test boundaries and usurp power in Oregon. While it’s not textbook ecofascism, it’s a sign of the growing ways the far-right is using the climate crisis—which Republican policies are making worse—to further its goals of white supremacy.
The coming decades will be a time of great upheaval. Activists will be in the streets clamoring for just policies that meet the moment to deal with climate change and the intertwined issues of racism and inequality at the same time as Republicans are courting violent forces to repress the popular will. Climate denial was a form of slow violence. Now, Trump and Republicans appear to be embracing an accelerationist view while propping up polluters at all costs.