Monday, September 14, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said exploding trees, and not climate change, were the cause of the unprecedented fires burning on the West Coast.

Trump has spent the last few days on a campaign tour of Arizona and Nevada, Western states where he is trailing Joe Biden. This afternoon, he spared two hours in non-competitive California for a "briefing" on the devastating wildfires that are causing apocalyptic damage and no small amount of death on the West Coast. 

Upon arrival, he was asked by a reporter about his forest management plans. He responded:

TRUMP: When trees fall down, after a short period of time — about 18 months — they become very dry.  They become, really, like a matchstick.  And they get up — you know, there’s no more water pouring through, and they become very, very — well, they just explode.  They can explode.

...If you go to other countries — you go to Austria, you go to Finland, you go to many different countries, and they don’t have — I was talking to a head of a major country, and he said, “We’re a forest nation.  We consider ourself a forest nation.”  This was in Europe.  I said, “That’s a beautiful term.”  He said, “We have trees that are far more explosive…” — he meant “explosive” in terms of fire — “…but we have trees that are more explosive they have in California, and we don’t have any problem because we manage our forests.”  So we have to do that in California, too.

Trump appears to be half-remembering his much-mocked claim in 2018 that the President of Finland, Sauli Niinist√∂, told him that the "forest nation" of Finland had no problem with fires because they "raked" their forests. (Niinist√∂ denied saying any such thing.) At the time, there was no mention of "explosive" trees.

Most of the land at risk by the ever-more intense Western fires is privately owned, and virtually all of the public land involved is federal land, meaning that if raking or other forms of vegetation management are to blame, they're happening on Trump's watch. But the real driving force is the rapidly changing climate in the region: drier and hotter. 

One of the people at the briefing Trump attended tried to make that point. California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot had this exchange with him:

CROWFOOT:  As the governor said, we’ve had temperatures explode this summer.  You may have learned that we broke a world record in the Death Valley: 130 degrees.  But even in Greater LA: 120-plus degrees.  And we’re seeing this warming trend make our summers warmer but also our winters warmer as well.

So I think one area of mutual agreement and priority is vegetation management, but I think we want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forests, and actually work together with that science; that science is going to be key.  Because if we — if we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians.

TRUMP:  Okay.  It’ll start getting cooler.

CROWFOOT:  I wish —

TRUMP:  You just watch. 

CROWFOOT:  I wish science agreed with you.

TRUMP:  Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.

There was startled laughter at Trump's claim that "it'll start getting cooler." Even most people who oppose attempts to reduce human-caused climate change do not think the two-century-long temperature spike is going to abate anytime soon.

Trump sometimes claims not to believe in climate change, although he's taken pretty much every stance possible on the subject at various times in recent years. (In 2009, when President Obama was in office, for example, he demanded that action be taken to fight climate change.) His own staff doesn't seem to know what his actual position, if any, is. 

Climate denialism is genuinely unpopular with Americans now, so it's not clear whether Trump is honestly confused about the subject, or simply feels he's politically locked into the stance that climate science is a "Chinese hoax." 

Why does this matter?

  • Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away.
  • Presidents are supposed to take all natural disasters seriously, even if they're happening in states that won't vote for him.
  • It's wrong to blame other people for not fixing your own problems.