By David Wallace-Wells
The list of crimes Donald Trump has committed against the planet, in just two years, is already so impeachably long that his slippery-fish climate denial registers as hardly more than a footnote. “I have a natural instinct for science,” the president bragged to the Associated Press Tuesday, a week after the U.N.’s IPCC raised the alarm on global warming that is much faster, and more horrifying, than it had acknowledged before. “And I will say that you have scientists on both sides of the picture,” said Trump. On Sunday, Lesley Stahl pressed the president on his contention that there were scientists saying that extreme weather had been worse in the past: “Who says that? ‘They say’?” Trump responded, defensively, “People say. People say.”
It was an especially grotesque demonstration of bad faith, given that just weeks ago, his administration had announced that, as a matter of climate policy, it was now assuming a worst-case global warming scenario — four degrees Celsius this century, an assumption suggesting that any effort to regulate American emissions would be effectively pointless. In the blink of an eye, the Republican Party seemed to pass directly from insisting that global warming isn’t happening to taking for granted a climate hellscape so inevitable that there’s nothing we can, or should, do about it.
The climate is already warmer than it has ever been at any point in human history. Should we get all the way to four degrees of warming, it will be warmer than in many millions of years, since the Arctic was effectively tropical and oceans were hundreds of feet higher. But Trump’s know-nothing-ism here is trivial compared to the cruel indifference of his actual policies: pulling out of the climate accords, of course, so spitefully that he had the band at the press conference play “Summertime” before the announcement; rolling back limits on the emission of methane, a far stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. These are environmental policies scientists say could kill 80,000 per decade (actually more: they say their findings account for just a fraction of the impact), and which even Trump’s own EPA admits would kill at least hundreds every year.
But one under-noticed horror arrived last week, when the EPA announced it was formally disbanding its own panel devoted to studying the effects of what’s called small-particulate pollution. What is that? It’s most of what you think of as air pollution — the tiny, dirty stuff that smogs up the air. It’s produced whenever you burn fossil fuels — in power plants, in cars, in coal furnaces — but also by volcanoes, dust storms, and wildfires. You can also mitigate it, using a variety of clean-up and filtration technologies that are, in just about every part of the industrialized world, required to some degree. The disbanding of this panel is a sign that, well, compared to every other advanced nation in the world, the Trump administration just isn’t going to worry about small-particulate matter very much.
This is very bad. The term “small-particulate” suggests a trivial form of pollution, but while the particles are small, the effects are actually enormous. About 9 million people die each year, globally, from small-particulate pollution — that is one out of every six deaths everywhere on the planet. This year, scientists estimated that the death toll from particulate pollution in a world two degrees warmer would be 150 million higher than at 1.5 degrees. In the U.S., the numbers are smaller, but not that much smaller: a 2013 study found 200,000 preventable deaths each year, in the U.S., from air pollution. And “lesser” effects are pervasive, too, and horrifying: small-particulate pollution causes dramatic drops in cognition, significant increases in the prevalence of mental illness, and is “strongly correlated” with dementia.