The buzz surrounding the HBO docu-drama “Chernobyl” is largely a reflection of its clever cloaking in a riveting historical context an evergreen lesson that is especially resonant today: Suppression of the truth can lead to disastrous consequences. It takes on the same elements of the Soviet system that feature prominently in President Donald Trump’s America — an assault on objective facts and a disregard for threats that are as politically inconvenient as they are lethal.
With Chernobyl, that threat was radioactive fallout. In Trump’s America, it is climate change. Indeed, the president willfully denies objective facts and sound analysis pointing to climate change as a pressing national and homeland security issue and refuses to take action to protect Americans from the consequences.
Aiming to please his base rather than protect the country from the looming specter of rising temperatures and sea levels, Trump has fully embraced the role of climate denier in chief. He has ignored repeated warnings from his advisors to treat the climate threat as a serious security threat. His first defense secretary, James Mattis, warned that not discussing climate change “represents a significant step backward on this issue and discredits those who deal in scientific fact.” Mattis’ voice was but one of a chorus that includes other generals, intelligence officials, scientists and scholars.
Nevertheless, they haven’t been able to reach Trump, who last month delivered a speech touting his record on the environment without a single mention of climate change. Worse still, his administration has sabotaged objective analysis from our intelligence community. Reports emerged that White House officials attempted to make politically motivated changes to the prepared testimony of Rod Schoonover, a senior researcher from the State Department’s intelligence arm. Schoonover resigned over the exclusion of the warning he intended to issue to a House committee that human-caused climate change is “possibly catastrophic” for the United States and the world, rightly concluding that “when we weaken our foundational scientific base, we weaken our nation.”
This head-in-the-sand approach extends well beyond just Trump, however. Vice President Mike Pence pointedly refused to endorse the public testimony of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats regarding the national security implications of climate change. Kelly Craft, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, would not acknowledge the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. (It just so happens that her husband is a coal executive.) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who maintains that “the science needs to continue to develop” before the government should take action, single-handedly blocked the Arctic Council from acknowledging the threat of climate change and setting a course for action. Adding insult to injury, the administration proposed creating a committee led by a staunch climate change denier. His charge? To determine if climate change is a security threat.
To be sure, although Trump might aspire to have Soviet-level control over the debate, he can do only so much to suppress the truth. The Democratic presidential primary candidates have made it clear that climate change is an imminent geopolitical threat that must be addressed. Congressional Democrats are so concerned about the implications of the Trump administration’s denialism that they have taken steps to force meaningful action. Recently, the House passed the annual Intelligence Authorization Act with a measure that would create a climate security advisory council that would act as a central climate intelligence hub for agencies across the intelligence community to develop a coordinated response to address the growing climate threat.
It is alarming to consider that we’ve reached the point of attempting to legislate an embrace of objective facts, but it is a step we must be willing to take to ensure that our leaders are forced to confront the truth.
None of this is to say that Trump’s approach to climate change is unique to his style of governance. He has repeatedly bent the truth to fit his preferred narrative, whether publicly siding against intelligence officials on Russia’s assault on our elections in 2016 or rejecting the consensus that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear program. Underscoring the point, 58 former military and national security leaders recently wrote to the president, cautioning him against making “national security analysis conform to politics.”
What is unique, nevertheless, are the stakes. The response to climate-related extreme weather events cost the U.S. $91 billion in 2018, and annual economic losses are expected to climb to the hundreds of billions by the end of the century. Even a half-degree change in global warming could result in sea level rise that would submerge entire cities underwater, displacing more than 13 million Americans. Climate is also a key driver of migration flows around the world that can have destabilizing economic and security implications for our interests. Scientists caution that these catastrophic effects will become the new normal if we don’t act now.
The aftermath of Chernobyl shows us that suppressing the truth is a dangerous gambit with life-threatening consequences. As Trump continues to ignore warnings and attempts to manipulate facts, he is putting not just the United States, but the entire planet on the brink of meltdown.
Kansas native Jeffrey Prescott is executive director of the 501(c)(4) nonprofit National Security Action. He co-authored this with Kelly Magsamen, head of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Center for American Progress’ national security program.