Tomgram: Engelhardt, Extremely Extreme

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Me First
America 19th, the Planet Last

Hey, who knows? It could be the Gulf Stream collapsing or the planet eternally breaking heat records. But whatever the specifics, we’re living it right now, not in the next century, the next decade, or even next year. You couldn’t miss it — at least so you might think — if you were living in the sweltering Southwest; especially in broiling, record-setting Phoenix with 30 straight days of temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit; or in flaming Greece or western China on the day the temperature hit 126 degrees Fahrenheit or sweltering, blazing Algeria when the temperature reached an almost unimaginable 135 (yes, 135!) degrees Fahrenheit; not to speak of broiling Canada with its more than 1,000 fires now burning (a figure that still seems to be rising by the week) and its 29 million acres already flamed out; and don’t forget Italy’s 1,400 fires; or Florida’s hot-tub-style seawater, which recently hit an unheard-of 101-plus degrees Fahrenheit. And though I’m still writing this as the month is ending, July is more or less guaranteed to set the record for the hottest month in history. And don’t assume that “record” will stand for long, either.

Who even remembers that this June was the hottest since records have been kept or that July 6th was the hottest day in recorded history (and July 3rd through 6th, the hottest four days ever)? And don’t be surprised if 2023 ends up setting a record for the hottest year or assume that such a record will last long on a planet where the previous eight years were the warmest ever. And if I’m already boring you, then one thing is guaranteed: you’re going to be bored out of your mind in the years to come.

And with all that’s burning across significant parts of southern Europe, northern Africa, Canada, and elsewhere, yet more carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere, preparing the way for a truly scorching world to come. Just keep in mind, in fact, that, by the time this piece is published, I could undoubtedly produce a startling new paragraph or two of updated, overheated horrors to send your way.

Yes, as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently put it, the era of “global warming” should be considered over, since we’re now clearly living at the beginning of a time of “global boiling.” And as you sit there sweating and reading this, if that doesn’t strike you as extreme, consider something else: fossil-fuel companies are still bringing in staggering profits (even if poor Shell’s second-quarter profits in 2023 were down to a mere $5.1 billion) as they — yes! — continue to expand their oil and natural gas operations globally. And can you blame them? After all, the companies whose executives have long known what their products would do to this planet and even sometimes responded by funding think tanks that promoted climate change denial, have little choice but (if you’ll excuse the phrase) to cover their assets. Meanwhile, last year, China, at the forefront of the alternative energy boom now underway, also granted permits to build, on average, two new coal plants a week (while burning more coal than the rest of the planet combined).

Environmental Extremism

Now, tell me that you’re not sweating at least a little and that we don’t live on an increasingly extreme planet. And just to add a cheery note to that, check out blistering Texas. El Paso has had more than 41 days in a row of temperatures at or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (just short of — yes, Ron! — Miami at 45 while I was writing this). However, Texas’s Republican-controlled legislature is now striving to dramatically curb that state’s remarkable advances in solar and wind power while raising their cost, even as many of its members push for public investment in the construction of new natural gas plants (which, as a recent study indicates, could prove as greenhouse-gas dirty as coal).

Just remind me: What planet are they living on?

If, however, you truly want to see American extremism up close and personal, don’t even bother to check out Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who charmingly enough launched his now-faltering presidential campaign by forswearing the “politicization of the weather.” Under the circumstances, I know you won’t be faintly surprised to learn that he had previously rejected the very idea of climate change as “leftwing stuff.” (Of course, if the left turns out to be our future, then maybe he’ll prove to be… oh, my gosh, so sorry, but what other word can I use than “right”?)

No, skip Ron. After all, if you don’t happen to live in Florida, he couldn’t be more skippable. Look instead at Donald Trump. Yes, our much-indicted (or soon to-be-indicted-again) former president and (“Be there, will be wild!”) aspiring autocrat, who shows every sign of once again becoming the “Republican” candidate for president.

Were he indeed to become that and then — also anything but unimaginable — win the 2024 election and end up back in the White House, the extremity of the world we could find ourselves in might be almost beyond imagining. We’re talking about the guy who claimed that, when it comes to climate change, its full effect could be — uh-oh! — that “the ocean will rise by 1/100th of an inch over the next 350 years.” (Actually, if global temperature rise is kept to 2 degrees Celsius, the sea level near Mar-a-Lago would be expected to rise three feet by 2150, a mere 3,500 times the former president’s estimate in half the time — and that’s if we don’t truly turn out to be on a climate-boiling planet.)

Of course, should Donald Trump win not just the Republican nomination but the 2024 election, this sweltering country will have put someone back in the White House who has spent his political career mocking the very idea of global warming and supporting to the hilt the production of fossil fuels. His administration reversed, rolled back, or wiped out nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations, many related to climate change, including “Obama-era limits on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and from cars and trucks.” Meanwhile, he appointed cabinet members who openly dismissed the very idea of global warming.

And, by the way, if you want to measure the mad extremism of Republicans today, try to recall a once-upon-a-time era when they held a hardly less environmental outlook than Democrats. (It’s easy to forget that it was the otherwise lamentable Republican President Richard Nixon whose administration established the Environmental Protection Agency.) If you want to measure the extremism of what can hardly be called the Republican — as opposed to Trumpublican — Party of 2023, check out the positions on climate change of most of its possible presidential candidates.

If, in fact, you want a gauge of how extreme this country has already become in this century, just stop and think for a moment about the fact that, as of now, few polling professionals believe a 2024 Biden-Trump election wouldn’t prove a total nail-biter. That should make you sweat a little more.

Be There, Will Be Wild!

On this sweltering planet of ours, Donald Trump and his Trumpublicans should indeed be considered up-close-and-personal versions of American extremism. Yes, in 2016, Trump won the election by catching the mood of all too many voters with the slogan “make America great again!” or MAGA! (exclamation point included). As I wrote at the time, “With that ‘again,’ Donald Trump crossed a line in American politics that, until his escalator moment, represented a kind of psychological taboo for politicians of any stripe, of either party.” And with his inaugural address, he added another unforgettable slogan: “America First.” (“From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” he insisted.)

But America first? Today, don’t make me laugh. Donald Trump is, of course, running for president as the potential leader of a party that now bears next to no relation to the Republican Party of the not-so-distant past and he’s doing so not on an America First but on a Me-First ticket against a crew of other candidates, most of whom have either rejected outright or simply ignored the very idea that there might be a climate crisis on planet Earth.

In such a state, Trump could become the Me-First candidate of all time and, for him, especially in climate terms, it’s undoubtedly America 19th. Or do I mean 29th or 129th or 1,029th?

Now, I hardly want to claim that President Joe Biden is the perfect anti-climate-broiling candidate. Still, give him credit. He and a Democratic Congress did pass the Inflation Reduction Act, which represented significant climate legislation that, in the years to come, will put hundreds of billions of dollars into reducing American fossil-fuel use and so help cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in significant ways. In addition, unlike the Trumpublicans, he at least seems to worry about Americans living through a heat emergency (though the present Congress will let him do all too little about it).

Still, being the politician he is, despite pledging “no more drilling on federal lands, period, period, period” in his 2020 election campaign, he couldn’t bring himself to say no when it came to the new ConocoPhillips Willow Project on federal land in Arctic Alaska (already among the fastest warming places on Earth). It’s slated to produce — hold your hats! — almost 600 million barrels of oil over the next three decades. Nor could he do so when it came to the completion of Senator Joe Manchin’s baby, the West Virginia Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline that his administration (and only recently the Supreme Court as well) approved in what’s distinctly too much of a Me-First (or at least fossil-fuel-producing companies first) world even without Donald Trump.

But count on one thing, the Donald himself is no longer living on this planet of ours — you know, the one where only recently more than 190 million Americans were under heat advisory alerts and 250 million to 275 million of us faced heat indexes of at least (and do put the emphasis on that “at least”) 90 degrees Fahrenheit. He now exists on one that’s sprung directly from what passes for his imagination. Forget the extremist positions he and so many of his followers (not to speak of his Republican presidential opponents) hold on everything from abortion and what books school libraries can contain to what’s gender acceptable (not much) in this all-American world of ours.

The crucial thing here is that, in the Me-First world that’s him all the way — even one that could, in the end, leave this country in the dust of climate and history — one thing is guaranteed: were he to make it back into the White House, the future would be Me-First all the way to… well, either the bank or the outhouse. And he and his advisors are making no secret of that fact. Thanks to fine reporting by Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage, and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, we already know that, were they to make it back into the White House, they would be intent on instantly enhancing the powers of his presidency by concentrating “far greater authority in his hands,” and altering “the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.” And all of this, they are already openly discussing more than a year before the 2024 election.

In other words, Donald Trump is intent on winning the power to create, at best, a Hungarian version of “democracy” here in America and that, make no mistake, would help add more than three feet of sea-level rise to the area of Florida near Mar-a-Lago. As for the rest of us, if you’re hot now, just wait for the return of the Donald’s Me-First World. Believe me, you don’t know nothin’ yet when it comes to heat. Be there, will be wild!

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