Donald Trump’s Greenwashing of the Climate Crisis

The president's propaganda on climate doesn’t square with the science

By Chad Hanson

February 18, 2020


Photo by Jonas Rönnbro/iStock

Donald Trump would like the American public to believe that he now thinks climate change is real. That should come as no surprise: Republican leaders have recently changed their messaging given recent polls showing that an increasing number of millennial Republicans want their party to take real action to address the climate crisis. Just after the New Year, Trump told reporters that he now believes climate change is “not a hoax,” and that it is a “very serious” issue, going so far as to call himself an “environmentalist.” Not long before, Americans got a sense of what a Trump administration climate policy might look like. 

In late January, it was revealed that the Trump administration’s Interior Department has been leaning on US Geological Survey scientists to “gin up” and exaggerate carbon emission figures from wildland fires and to downplay carbon emissions from fossil fuel extraction. The objective of this scheme was to create a political narrative that demonizes forest fires and promotes increased logging ostensibly as a means to “reduce fuels” and curb carbon emissions while simultaneously dismissing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel consumption in the electricity sector as relatively less significant.

But the administration’s propaganda simply doesn’t square with the scientific evidence. For example, annual emissions from forest fires in the US equates to 7 million tons of carbon, while annual carbon emissions from the US electricity sector are 493 million tons—approximately 70 times higher than from wildland fires. Nor can the Trump administration’s implication—that increased logging will curb carbon emissions—be reconciled with the facts. The annual emissions from logging in US forests are 23 times higher than they are from forest fires.

Even more recently, the Trump administration’s Department of Energy proposed a nightmarish plan that was creatively packaged as a climate change solution. The plan proposes to increase logging levels in California’s forests—mostly national forests—by more than tenfold to 800,000 acres of logging each year. It specifically states that larger, mature trees would be removed to make logging more profitable to timber companies, and smaller trees, and branches and tops from the larger ones, would be incinerated to facilitate a massive increase in “biomass energy” production, essentially treating the forests on our public lands like coalfields. The plan promotes the construction of a massive series of new pipelines across California, claiming that the CO2 emitted from the incineration of trees would be captured, transported for hundreds of miles, and pumped underground (much like the “clean coal” myth), casually mentioning that there may be “geological” issues, such as earthquakes, that could send the CO2 into the atmosphere

In addition to ignoring the profound biodiversity impacts that this enormous increase in logging would cause, the administration’s report fails to take into account the reduction in forest carbon sequestration and storage capacity from the nutrient removal and soil compaction caused by logging. Nor does it account for the fact that wildland fires, unlike logging, create a nutrient-rich bed of mineral ash that spurs forest growth for decades. Further, the report bases its analysis on the assumption that increased logging will reduce forest fire intensity, resulting in “avoided emissions,” but that assumption is, once again, contradicted by current science. The most comprehensive scientific analysis ever conducted on this issue found that forests with fewer environmental protections, and more logging, generally burn at significantly higher intensities. There are additional, hidden, assumptions that are alluded to in the report, but the administration’s Department of Energy has refused to provide those additional assumptions to the public, which doesn’t inspire confidence. 

Earlier this month, Trump claimed that he supports planting a “trillion trees” to mitigate climate change, and indicated that legislation would be introduced soon. Shortly thereafter, the Trillion Trees Act was announced by a staunch Trump ally, Republican representative Bruce Westerman, who is typically the largest recipient of logging industry campaign contributions in the House of Representatives. The bill would more fittingly be named the “Trillion Stumps Act,” since it envisions annual “increases in the amount of boardfeet harvested from public lands” and attacks bedrock environmental laws in order to facilitate the goal of ever-higher logging levels.

The Trump-Westerman logging bill’s notion of “capturing and storing carbon” is that the increased timber removed from public, and private, forestlands would be stored in lumber products in residential or commercial structures, thus perpetuating a long-standing logging industry myth. The reality is that most of the carbon in trees that are logged quickly ends up in the atmosphere—as the branches, treetops, bark, and milling residues are incinerated, typically for energy production. Only about 19 percent of the carbon in trees removed from forests ends up in lumber products in structures. The bill neglects to mention this. 

Forests are an essential part of climate solutions, in conjunction with swiftly moving beyond fossil fuels, but Trump and Westerman seem to have forgotten that forests will significantly help to mitigate climate change if we stop cutting them down.

Yes, the Trump administration has decided that it can no longer politically afford to simply deny climate change. Still, the biggest climate and biodiversity threat comes from the administration’s cynical exploitation of the climate crisis to double-down on the carbon economy in the form of false climate solutions while misrepresenting and denying the underlying climate science. It is exactly the sort of greenwashing that we should have expected from Trump’s creepy self-branding as an “environmentalist.”