Trump’s Existential Threat: Climate Change

Yves here. This Real News Network program discusses how Trump’s climate change denialism, which he has admittedly moderated a tad, puts him in conflict with the Pentagon, which has depicted it as a looming source of international conflict and political instability since the early 2000s.

Please note that the rush transcript had typos, mainly the absence of apostrophes. I did a quick pass of cleaning that up but the odds are high that some glitches remain. Sincere apologies.

PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’’m Paul Jay.

This is the Wilkerson Report and now joining us is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff for US Secretary of State Colin Powell. Currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary and a regular contributor to the Real News Network.

Thanks for joining us again Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me Paul.

JAY: The Trump administration is reason for great concern on a lot of accounts. Whether it’’s the potential attack or aggression against Iran. Whether it’’s who knows what in Syria, oppression of political rights in the United States, targeting of Hispanics, Latinos. All of these things are potentially horrendous but perhaps the most threatening is virtually an existential threat is the attitude towards climate change and climate change denial and the idea that any attempt even though it was pretty modest to begin with by the United States to deal and to live up to the Paris Accords and really it was necessary to go further, 7 of the leading climate scientists prior to the Trump victory said that by 2050 we would already reach 2 degrees of warming from preindustrial rates which is a rather critical threshold. What’s your take on where this White House is on the issue of climate change and where the republican party is because so far, certainly all I’ve heard from almost all the republican party is more climate denial.

WILKERSON: I think we’’re making some progress in that regard Paul. I think a president having signed the national security memorandum connecting national security with climate change was a major move forward, as was Paris. I agree with you that we are playing with a loaded deck here because these temperatures have been set and so forth, even if we we’re to meet them, might not be sufficient in the long run. But I think we’’re making progress. We’’re going to make more progress at Marrakech, I think. The Paris Accord is coming to being a lot faster than people thought. So, Marrakech is really going to be a rush.

JAY: But the Paris Accord itself was certainly not sufficient. This number I said about 2% by 2050, if all governments had pledged –

WILKERSON: A lot more sufficient than what we had in the past though. Copenhagen was a joke. Paris was at least a step forward.

JAY: No, I agree. I’’m not saying it was nothing. I’’m saying the report led by the scientists by Robert Watson, the former chair of the IPCC, was that if all the governments that pledged in Paris, lived up to all the pledges, we’’re still hitting 2% by 2050. Like 30-40 years from now.

WILKERSON: 2 degrees.

JAY: 2 degrees I’’m sorry. Yea. How does one see, certainly that’’s not happening now with the Trump victory. You’ve been on the hill talking to some republicans and others about climate change. What are you hearing?
WILKERSON: I’’m hearing that the republican party has some people who are [inaud.] of this issue, particularly on the national security front, understand that it has ramifications like for example, the largest shipyards on the east coast, the ones that host Ford class aircraft carriers and so forth, are going underwater. They understand that in the recent North Carolina flooding, there we’re US army units who couldn’’ deploy, who couldn’t move because the roads were flooded. They understand that Langley Airforce Base couldn’t take off it’s fighter aircraft for periods of time when it’s runways were underwater. So these national security ramifications of climate change particularly sea rise, are putting these people in the know, if you will, about what climate change pretends from a national security point of view.

From that point of view, I think we’ve been able to make some progress in changing some minds about what’s happening. What we have not been successful in with all of them so far is to convince them that humans are actually by their actions, CO2 emissions and so forth, contributing to this change and therefore we have an ability to mitigate as well as to just adapt to what’s happening naturally. But that’’s coming. I’’m somewhat optimistic about the fact that I’ve been across the country and seen what we’’re doing in the states regardless of Washington. Regardless of what Trump might say or what Pence might say or James Inhofe from Oklahoma who’s a Luddite on this issue because he gets money from Exxon Mobile.

We’’re not really caring out there in the inner land, what Washington says or does. They’’re actually doing it. I was for wind power and solar power right now and in another few years they’ll be completely off the grid. Other states are doing other things. Particularly coastal states where a majority of the population is and where a lot of the military instillations are. Take New Orleans. New Orleans should’ve moved. It should’ve picked up and moved after Katrina. If we have another category 4 or god forbid a 5, New Orleans will have to move.

These sorts of things are going to be profound and they’’re going to take the James Inhofes of the world and rub their face in climate change. So I’m not saying we’’re going to do it fast enough, but I am saying we’ve got some momentum going now and I do hope that momentum continues. I don’’t see Donald Trump being stupid enough to ignore this completely. Not when Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has made billion dollar decisions based on it’s understandings of where we’’re going with climate change and other private concerns like Shell.

So I know there’’s a lot of opposition. I know the Mercers and the Koch brothers and others are funding that opposition. But I think the scientists and the facts are winning ultimately, I just hope it’’s in time.
JAY: Yea I mean Robert Mercer who’se daughter Rebecca is on the Trump transition team and was the guy who installed Bannon and Kellyanne Conway in the Trump campaign that essentially saved the campaign and made Trump president. Mercer’’s a major funder of climate denial institutes. As far as I know, he’s about second to the Koch brothers in terms of the amount of money spent on climate denial. They’’ve had some effect.

In a recent Yale study, when people were asked do they think there’’s global warming, 70% said yea but only 53% of those thought it was caused by humans. When asked how urgent it was, only 16% thought it was urgent and would effect them and their family directly.

I think this also explains why this wasn’’t so much of a priority for the Obama administration even though they did something. It was far from what the scientists said needed to be done. And they just didn’t think it was politically expedient to make such an issue out of climate change and then Hillary Clinton mentioned it but that’’s all it ever was, a mere mention. Never with any seriousness. It seems to me that if there’’s some forces out there that are getting it, they better speak up. There’’s not a lot of time left here.

WILKERSON: Well I think there’’s quite a bit of time left. I’’m not as pessimistic as you are. I was until I saw what was going on all across the country and what we’’re doing already and I understand what other countries are doing in that regard too. I’m not as cynical and as pessimistic as I was. We do have time and we have time to do this in a better way right now. In other 10 or 15 years, we’ll probably be up and against the gun. What does that mean? It means in essence that the anecdote I’ll describe to you that happened over in Norfolk recently is going to be the profound waker upper. It’’s the women who when I was talking about this, rose in the back of the theater in Norfolk and said, ‘Tell me about it. I know about it. The water’s in my backyard.’
Well when the water’s in everybody’s backyard as it was in Cedar Raids recently, as it was in North Carolina recently, then we’ll be seized of the issue. The question is, will it be too late?

JAY: Well why are you saying we’ve got a lot of time when scientists are saying prior to the Trump administration the models they were getting and this is two different scientific institutes, not just this one of 7 leading scientists, I’’m talking about another climate science institute in of North Carolina, these first group came up with 2050, the other came up with 2051, hitting 2 degrees. The 2 degree threshold is pretty critical because it’’s not just the effects of how serious climate change effects droughts, flooding, severe weather and such. Crossing the 2 degree threshold means it’s very much more difficult not to get to the 3 and 4 degree threshold. The warmer it gets, the more difficult it is to pull back.

Now there’’s predictions of 4-6 degrees by the end of the century and some even higher than that. Those are catastrophic if the scientific predictions of what happens there. The recent report that I’’m citing here which is called The Truth About Climate Change, if people want to look it up and look up Robert Watson is connected with it. They’’re saying there’’s no time and this is prior to Trunp. They’’re already talking about the need to havfe a serious look at geo-engineering which they themselves acknowledged is very untested and untried. But still the situation is so dire, so grave, so threatening, they’’re saying we’’re going to have to have a very serious look at geoengineering, plus they’’re saying if we want to stop getting to 4 and 6 degrees by the end of the century, we by 2065 have to be 0 fossil fuel and we’’re nowhere near on that route. With this administration we’’re going backwards not forward.

Geoengineering in the situations that we’ve run proved rather catastrophic whether you’re doing the aerosols in the atmosphere or you’re doing the giant [inaud.] or whatever. We don’’t want to get to the point where we’’re so desperate as we did in one simulation that Center for Naval Analyses ran where we’re 2050-2060 and we’re actually so desperate that we’’re doing these things that rebound on themselves and actually create more problems than we’’re solving.

So geoengineering I don’’t the not right now the technology I’ve seen is the answer. But again I don’’t mind a 2 degrees 4 degrees and so forth as being inevitable. If we begin to work and we begin to work at least somewhat in accord of what was decided in Paris and I assume will be furthered in Marrakech.

We do have a chance. This science is not perfect. The models are not perfect. The scary thing about the models is when they show their imperfections, they generally show them in a negative way, not a positive way. That is to say, the ice melt or the sea rise is faster, not slower than the model predicted which is somewhat frightening. But basically I think we still have an opportunity to do something about what’s happening to us.
We’’re going to have a period year poll where North America is in fine shape. We’’re going to have longer growing periods, we’re going to have higher yields we’re going have more food, more profits, we’re also going to have a lot more water and the flooding’s to be difficult to deal with, challenging. But we’’re going to raising crops year round in the southern parts of the providences of Canada. Crops year round probably as far as midway in places like Saskatoon and British Colombia, and Manitoba and so forth.

What’’s going to be the problem there our models tell us is that in the south particularly in western Asia where you’’re seeing right now with the 200 thousand Syria farms who had no water for 2 years in and contribute to this conflict that’’s so bloody in Syria today. What you’’re going to see there is these massive migrations. So what we see in our models is that the peer power is along the northern hemisphere. The United States being prominent amongst them. We’’re meeting our boarders with machine guns and walls, Donald Trump come true. Because these millions of people who have no food or water are on the move looking for food and water and we’ve got it.

So, there are plenty of dire scenarios in this and they again as you said take shape around midcentury, that’’s in my grandchildren’’s lifetime so it’’s not out there where I don’’t have to worry about it. Everybody has to worry about it. But I come back to my original point. When the water’’s up to your knees, everybody will be seized to the issue. I just hope that’’s not too late.

JAY: Alright thanks for joining us Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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  1. Disturbed Voter

    Things are getting hotter on average. Shutting down civilization may, more or less, reduce the rate of increase in the short term, or longer term reverse the increase as CO2 is absorbed by natural processes. Using technical means to accelerate the absorption of CO2 will increase energy consumption. Civilization is based on the total population times the amount of energy consumption per human. There is a minimum level of per capita energy consumption for subsistence (we shut down cities and only allow farmers). We are at a End of Rome stage with no clean resolution. Rearranging the deck chairs, particularly in political form, won’t change a thing. That is why nothing effective has been done. The Cross of Gold speech of William Jennings Bryant is prescient here … we set this in motion over 100 years ago. Renewable transportation is walking and horses.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Of course, Trumps golf course consultants believe in climate change.

    I doubt Trump himself has strong beliefs on this one way or another. He just hangs around with lots of deniers so repeats what he hears. It may be significant that his personal business interests (not just the golf course, all those coastal hotels too) are vulnerable to climate change, whereas so far as I know he does not have strong oil/coal interests.

    The problem with having the Pentagon lecture him on this is that he may see it as part of their attempt to make him more activist internationally than he wants. I can see one of his ‘advisors’ whisper in his hears that ‘this is just the Pentagon trying to justify more expensive wars’. So far as I can work out, nobody in his current ring of confidants has the knowledge or inclination to contradict the deniers. Even Putin seems a bit contradictory and ambiguous – there is a line of thought in Russia that rising temperatures will benefit that nation, although the forest fires around Moscow a few years ago might have caused second thoughts about that.

    So I’m something of a pessimist on this. I think international and domestic pressure (Trump does want to be loved and admired) might mitigate the worst aspects of his proposed policies, but I don’t see him becoming a convert. At best, he will quietly shelve some of the more controversial things the deniers want to do, and might even be willing to make a few token motions towards solar energy, etc.

    1. Katharine

      But look how quickly he changed his tune when a general told him torture was ineffective in producing useful information, a point which has been made many times before by many people but which he ignored until it was put to him in person by a senior officer. For better or worse, he seems to be extremely suggestible in those circumstances.

        1. Katharine

          Surely, but it may still be better than if he were too stubborn to change a false belief under any circumstances.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Yes, thats the small hope I have. I do think foreign governments could be influential on this. I don’t think this is a big issue for him, so I’d hope he switches if it becomes an issue in his various foreign deal making (public and private).

        2. susan the other

          Somehow it does not get discussed that when the ice starts melting it all ends up melting. Not just the western Antarctic ice sheet, not just the glaciers in the Andes, but all of it everywhere. The Earth does not decide to just melt a patch of isolated ice. So that’s not going to be a mere 10 feet of sea level rise – it’s many many times deeper than 10 feet. When Wilkerson nonchalantly says that we could be better off with our agriculture blablablah, he’s just whistling past the graveyard because it (sea level rise) could wipe out every coastline and delta on the planet. The melt has to be stopped to prevent that, if possible. And if it is not possible we all need to admit it and, as he says about New Orleans, move inland. It is really just that simple and miserable.

          1. Sarah

            When the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt, sea levels will rise ~225 feet. And that’s only the beginning of the destruction.

      1. Waking Up

        But look how quickly he changed his tune when a general told him torture was ineffective in producing useful information…”

        That may be a result of his time at the New York Military Academy from 1959 to 1964.

        1. Observer

          HotFlash, look up any biography of Trump.
          To Waking Up, that was a quick & fabulous association. Nice work!

    2. different clue

      It would sure help the evolution of Trump’s awareness if Ireland were to deny TrumpCo Incorporated the license they requested to build a seawall around their Ireland golf course. On the grounds that global warming does not exist because Trump said so in the campaign. And therefore TrumpCo Incorporated does not need a seawall around its Irish golf course.

  3. divadab

    It seems to me that sea level rise is a reality that can focus the nations’ efforts, progressive and reactionary both – why? Because the reactionary brain is motivated by fear and “How high’s the water, Papa?” can motivate the denialists to unite with the progressives to deal with rising sea levels. Mitigating sea level rise is a project which will put everyone to work, all over the world. The WPA raised several powers.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The problem is that the deniers are, to a significant extent, not denying that sea level is rising (even they are not that stupid). They are saying its all part of natural cycles, or whatever. So if you focus on sea level rises, all that will happen is they start demanding lots of cash for Florida to protect stupid investments, not actual action to stop CO2 levels rising.

      1. divadab

        Better than nothing. Common cause is important. Anyway, the children of the reactionaries will be wiser and the reactionaries will die off soon enough.

        I doubt public funds will continue to be used for extraordinary losing efforts like rescuing New Orleans or south Florida. Too expensive and one thing about reactionaries, they are money conscious.

        1. Eric mcKenzie

          Let’s hope you are right. We better do more to persuade reasonable people that climate change is a human generated phenomenon. Corresponding with policy makers and elected officials can help also. Speaking at public forums, like county and city counsels meetings, could produce some limited ripple effects.

    2. John Wright

      South Florida may be the USA’s canary in the mine shaft for climate change.

      From my limited reading, the underground porous limestone under Florida makes sea walls completely useless as rising sea waters will simple percolate underneath and seek their new level.


      “The Florida peninsula is a porous plateau of karst limestone sitting atop bedrock known as the Florida Platform.”

      If this is true, mitigating sea level rise in Florida should be a terrible WPA program to consider attempting as much infrastructure would be swamped (roads, sewage treatment, buildings…).

      But I remember reading that some Florida residents believe the Federal Government will protect their real estate investments, so one can be a “hedged” denier if one is also a believer in Uncle Sam’s largess.

      I am a pessimist on climate change and suspect that the various solutions proposed (biochar, renewable energy, carbon capture or eventual nuclear fusion) will not scale up adequately or arrive in time to provide the developed lifestyle desired by much of the world.

      There is only one carbon dioxide negative country, tiny Bhutan with a population of less than 800K.


      “It currently has net zero greenhouse gas emissions because the small amount of pollution it creates is absorbed by the forests that cover most of the country. The entire country collectively produces 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. Yet the immense forest covering 72% of the country acts as a carbon sink, absorbing more than four million tons of carbon dioxide every year.”

      It is difficult to see how this can be replicated elsewhere as the ROW is experiencing deforestation.


      “An estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization”

      1. hemeantwell

        South Florida may be the USA’s canary in the mine shaft for climate change.

        And the real estate insurance industry may be the canary’s vocal chords. The NYTimes had a long article last week on the fraying of denialism among homeowners in the Miami area. People living in Coral Gables we know report, as in the Times article, acquaintances selling and getting out before a feared market collapse. They joked about condo owners telling them that they are high up enough in their building so they needn’t worry. etc. Watching the gradual erosion of the area’s cheery real estate boosterism will be be a world class schadenfreude opportunity.

        1. Eric McKenzie

          I keep on saying to myself that our foolish persistence on market reliance will be the end of us. We will keep shifting the burden of catastrophes onto others. We will simply run out of tether.
          The social consequences will be such that no market will be capable of sustaining the weight of the increasing crescendo of climatic changes. Even prescient political commentators and practicing politicians seem to be several steps behind the curve when they talk about what it will really take to create a workable set of solutions for the country and the world as a whole.

  4. Ignacio

    Unfortunately there are only bad political choices. Almost all candidates, and everywhere, are politically stupid. How have we arrived to this situation is something that should be addressed in political sciences.

    Yet, we, the people in general, should do whatever we can on our side. Wrong political leaders should not be an excuse to do our best.

  5. johnnygl

    I find myself wincing when i hear, bright, well-meaning people like wilkerson mention loony stuff like geo-engineering as a possible solution. Our society has a serious blind spot when it comes to putting nature to work as a possible solution.

    Alan savory’s ideas need to be put into practice and eric toensmeier’s carbon farming needs to get in front of policy makers.

    Putting carbon into the soil via grass and trees with properly managed livestock speeding up the cycle and boosting productivity is the only PROVEN method of sequestering carbon!!!

    1. johnnygl

      Can someone seriously sit down with staffers in DC and make them watch a couple of those TED talks? I know it seems crazy that farmers might hold the keys to saving civilization here, but they’ve got good ideas.

    2. divadab

      I agree that the best way to sequester carbon is to grow trees (or hemp!) and incorporate it into building materials or just let it enter the biome via biological processes. But why discount geo-engineering? Should the Dutch just stop building dikes and drown or move? Geo-engineering is not just about carbon sequestration. It’s about managing the living processes – just as beavers do, so should we.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      The problem is that everything now is geoengineering. We are geoengineering when we turn on our pc or drive our cars or switch on the heating. Possible bioengineering approaches go from the lunatic (injecting aerosols or space mirrors), to potentially quite useful, such as adding in olivine to fertiliser or developing a biochar industry.

  6. Rich

    Are you serious? I think most people in the military want to be out there kicking ass and blowing shit up, not attending global warming conferences in Bali

  7. Steve H.

    I graduated SPEA 1993 with an M.S. in Environmental Science. Dean Barnes had been a Deputy Administrator the EPA. We knew then climate change was the most important environmental issue, period.

    Bill Clinton came into office and corporatized the EPA. Instead of providing leadership, he sold us out. Him specifically. Just to be clear.

    Now no one trusts the U.S. Whether a global political change could’ve happened is arguable but doesn’t matter. It’s too late now. Now it’s about sequestering productivity for competitive advantage. And in that scenario, denial, even if delusional, is a viable strategy. Odum might say, the power function is out-competing the efficiency function, at least in the short and medium term.

  8. James McFadden

    Climate may be changing much faster than all the models predict – and certainly much faster than the median of the models. Climate modelers are conservative in their estimates – stay with the herd – otherwise they might be called alarmist or not get that next grant. But the observations don’t lie and 2016 was a spike – big increase in temperature well outside the trends. If this continues, the 2 deg C rise might happen in a decade and 6 deg C locked in for the century. Much of this depends on methane releases from the tundra – not well understood – but showing signs of growing rapidly. Check out NASA’s measurement for the first 6 mo of 2016.

    1. Jabawocky

      This I see the same NASA that Trump has just promised to disband their entire climate change department. Presimably this is what Yves meant by Trump moderating his views a little. Judge him by actions, not by words.

  9. UserFriendly

    For the life of me I can’t understand the logic of the oil barons. When the planet starts really going to hell do they think that the people left here won’t figure out some way to make sure that them and their heirs are thoroughly stripped of all their wealth and dignity?

    1. James McFadden

      Your assumption is that individuals like yourself are making these decisions, i.e. people with a restraining conscience. The better way to understand this is that the decisions are made by the machine-mind, the corporate-mind, those whose only interest is short term profit. As C. Wright Mills pointed out in the 50s, the corporate structure self-selects those for promotion — selects those who mimic and share the corporate mindset. Those who don’t make decisions that maximize short term profits fall to the side. Those who rise to the top are not the knowledgeable or informed — they are just those who only act in the corporation’s interest to maximize short term profits.

      “to the top executives, one simple set of questions is foremost: did we make money? … On the top levels this judgment usually has to do with the spending of money to make more money and the getting of others to do the work involved. … The ‘broadened’ man is the man who, no matter what he may be doing, is able clearly to see the way to maximize the profits for the corporation … Financial expediency is the chief element of corporate decision … chief executives feel that they must perpetuate themselves, … future men not only trained but also indoctrinated … they must fit into the business team and the social clique … one advances by serving the corporation … serving those who are in charge of it and who judge what its interests are …” C. Wright Mills “The Power Elite”

  10. Adam Reilly

    “When asked how urgent it was, only 16% thought it was urgent and would effect them and their family directly.”

    This line especially jumped out at me. No wonder even Democrats on the whole are so useless on this issue. Most of them just haven’t figured out yet that everyone at this point has been directed effectively and soon enough the effects will be far more severe than they already are.

    1. jgordon

      Well, when most people–even the “environmentalists”–figure out that they have to give up both cars and air conditioning, at a minimum, to be carbon neutral they go into denial. Instead of admitting that, from them you’ll hear delusional stories about electric cars, solar electricity and biodiesel. Yep, there is almost no one at all willing to do a single useful thing about climate change, even if they claim that they’re concerned about it. Just pray that peak oil and the rickety financial system wipes out industrial civilization ASAP, because that’s our one hope.

      Also, we have to figure out a way to decommission all the nuclear plants before that happens, FYI, to avoid ionizing the biosphere and wiping out all life on earth. It takes several years of supplying power to a nuclear plant after it’s been turned off before it’s no longer at risk of a meltdown. Now think of all those coastal nuclear plants that are going to be underwater soon…

  11. Fco

    From my point of view , albeit a simple one, the goal is to minimize or pretty much prohibit burning fossil fuels, correct?

    Then why take the time to continue the debate on global warming. For whatever reason, it looks like there is no end to that one. Why not address it as an extreme pollution problem. One doesn’t need volumes of scientific papers to warn you about that.

    Smog is visible and living in it is hazardous. One can feel the choking effects of pollution in real time, not 50 years or a century from now.

    Do I really care about national security concerns? Do I really care if New Orleans has to move? Do I really care if all of a sudden you’ve got beach front property? Yes, maybe…because I’m being scared into it.

    But if the questions posed were, “do you want clean water to drink” or “do you want clean air to breathe”, the answer would be a resounding “yes!” ( what’s worse, gas masks don’t go well with anything in my wardrobe)

    There are no pollution deniers that I know of.

  12. pslebow

    Trump will just accelerate the inevitable. The cost to reverse climate change is estimated to be $53 trillion. Even with Sanders as president this would never be reached by the projected “tipping point” of 2026. The only solution will never be implemented due to the human trait of placing pleasure over all other priorities, even survival. Conservative estimates by the animal agriculture promotional organization, the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Org) estimated that animal agriculture produces approx 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire transportation sector combined (sorry Prius owners). More in-depth analyses by the World Bank conclude that this figure is closer to 51%. Sound far-fetched? Consider that 30-45%% of the earth’s land area is used for grazing and feed crops.

    The understanding now is that only by drastically reducing consumption of animal products can climate change be reversed.

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