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The Tragedy of Trump's Climate Attitude

Opinion piece originally published in The Denver Post November 20,2016 with permission of Author Auden Schendler, VP Aspen Skiing Company and board chair of Protect Our Winters 

On the day after Trump won, I walked with my family to a melting glacier in New Zealand. A waterfall several hundred feet tall poured runoff into the valley, and seracs glistened as if sweating in the beating sun. We ate lunch at a grassy spot that would have been under ice in 1912, and watched the world melt away.

Trump’s election almost certainly dooms us to warming beyond the 2 degrees C threshold identified by scientists, because many of the rules put into place by Obama —the Clean Power Plan, the Paris treaty, even mileage standards on cars—can be undermined by a new president. Beyond two degrees, feedback loops like forest die-off, ice-melt and methane- release take us to an ever warmer world. Every indication is that Trump will ensure the U.S. stands alone among almost two hundred nations in denying climate science.

It didn’t need to be this way. The popular surge that Trump rode into office was based in deep dissatisfaction with American government. Our elected officials, many Trump supporters felt, enriched themselves on the public dime (and then later as lobbyists) while pretending to care about the common people. Veterans were treated terribly despite fighting the wars the leaders created. Wages stagnated for decades. And more and more of the wealth went to fewer and fewer of the richest people in the land.

Climate action got tossed in with these and other gripes ( in large part thanks to corporate funding of wily media campaigns and political contributions by fossil interests), seen as more job-killing red tape, and even deception, an excuse for more big government. Even though coal died a death of market forces and cheap gas, many saw its demise as a result of elitist regulation.

Beyond climate, not all of Trump’s agenda is problematic.  His interest in limiting the ability of politicians to become lobbyists is admirable and needed.  His desire to invest in infrastructure is precisely what the country needs, both from a jobs and a “greatness” perspective; and it makes complete sense at a time of low interest rates. Breaking up big banks so they can’t gamble with other people’s money would protect us from another banking fiasco. Like these policies, climate could just as easily have crossed the partisan divide.

Infrastructure improvement, for example, could include the energy grid, so that it could more efficiently transmit power—both clean and dirty—to Americans, setting up utilities for success and enabling clean energy, now often cheaper than fossil fuels, to blossom, along with the jobs and clean air they’d provide. A progressive climate agenda protects much of what Trump cares about, both physically and ideologically. Mar a Lago, his Florida resort, is threatened by sea level rise along with Miami, which now floods on warm days. And the biggest-picture fix—a carbon tax—has long been discussed by the right as part of tax reform. A bipartisan tax swap would place a fee on carbon emissions while reducing income tax commensurately, a free marketeer’s dream.

But alas, this is not how things have come to pass. And New Zealand, at the foot of a melting glacier, is a good place to come to this revelation. This is, after all, the country where Peter Jackson filmed the Lord of the Rings, where soaring valleys and rugged peaks backdropped J.R.R. Tolkein’s tale of what he called “the long defeat,” a struggle in which evil constantly encroaches, is never quite defeated, and may ultimately triumph.

So too with the climate battle, where despite overwhelming science, progress to protect civilization from floods, fire, famine, drought and heat has been characterized by steps forward and then back, progressive and regressive presidents, clean power plans and subsequent supreme court stays. Elrond, Tolkein’s Elf  Lord, can relate: “I have seen three ages in the west of the world, and many defeats and many fruitless victories.” Sadly, today, the stakes are just as high as they were for him in Middle Earth.



Auden Schendler is a Vice President at Aspen Skiing Company and board chair of Protect Our Winters.



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