The National Climate Assessment, reflecting the combined judgment of 13 federal agencies, from NASA to the Pentagon, was due to be released in December. Trump World decided to move up the release date to Nov. 23 – the day after Thanksgiving – to help ensure the smallest possible audience for the information.
Many Americans may have missed, for example, the report’s assessment on “the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South. Going forward, American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by midcentury and fire season could spread to the Southeast, the report finds.”
Donald Trump was asked about the findings yesterday during a brief Q&A with reporters.
Q: Mr. President, have you read the climate report yet?
TRUMP: I’ve seen it, I’ve read some of it, and it’s fine.
Q: They say economic impact could be devastating – of climate change.
TRUMP: Yeah. I don’t believe it.
Q: You don’t believe it?
TRUMP: No. No. I don’t believe it. And here’s the other thing – you’re going to have to have China, and Japan, and all of Asia, and all of these other countries – you know, it – it addresses our country. Right now, we’re at the cleanest we’ve ever been, and that’s very important to me. But if we’re clean but every other place on Earth on is dirty, that’s not so good.
The president’s answer was, of course, nonsense. There is no way, for example, that he’s read any of 1,656-page document. What’s more, if Trump thinks the environment has never been cleaner, and that the United States has the cleanest and water in the world, he’s spectacularly misinformed.
But this wasn’t just an informative moment on Trump’s ignorance about a global environmental catastrophe, it was also a peek into the president’s perspective on epistemology.
One of the most important jobs of any American president is applying sound judgment while processing an enormous amount of information. To a very real extent, it’s how a president spends most of his or her day: people come to the president with challenging issues, and he or she makes the best decision possible based on the available information.
A president has to make snap judgments all the time about what information to value, what to discard, and what to remember for future reference. Given the panoramic nature of a president’s responsibilities, it’s profoundly difficult.
Trump is tragically bad at this part of his job. It’s evident in his embrace of ridiculous conspiracy theories, and it’s equally clear in his rejection of facts bolstered by evidence.
His own administration is warning about the effects of climate change? Trump chooses not to believe it. The CIA is telling him about Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder of an American journalist? He doesn’t want to think that’s true, so he decides it’s false.
At the same time, Trump made claims yesterday about Central American migrants at the southern border – claims that were directly contradicted by evidence – and he presented them as facts because he chose to believe them.
Asked recently about some of his more absurd conspiracy theories, the president said, “There’s no proof of anything.” At face value, that may have seemed like a damaging admission, but Trump didn’t mean it that way. On the contrary, he was effectively making the opposite point: the president meant that proof is of no real interest or practical value.
Trump believes what he wants to believe. He starts with the answer that satisfies him and works backwards to rationalize the version of “reality” that satisfies him.
The National Climate Assessment is an impressive piece of work, but it doesn’t stand a chance against this president’s impenetrable shield of ignorance.