Climate Change Expert Thinks There's Hope for Donald Trump on Global Warming

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
Photo by Gage Skidmore / CC 2.0

Just like the weather, Donald Trump’s stance on climate change is constantly shifting. In 2009, he and some of his children signed a letter calling on parties attending the Copenhagen Climate Accords to come to a consensus and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, the pronouncements on his presidential campaign’s web page outline an energy plan that is more than antagonistic to contemporary climate science. To further confuse things, the Republican presidential nominee has gone so far as to state that Climate Change is a “Chinese hoax” while simultaneously asking permission to build a sea wall at his famous Mar-a-Lago golf course to stave off — you guessed it — rising seas.

Could Donald Trump be persuaded to believe in climate change once and for all? One University of Miami professor would like to try and convince him.

“One of the things I have to do is write him a letter and try and meet with him, and see if we can’t persuade him a little bit,” says Professor Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami's Department of Geological Science. Professor Wanless has been studying sea-level rise since 1981, and he’s well-known by governors, senators, mayors, and councilmen. Like Bill McKibben of Middlebury College and James Hansen of NASA, Wanless belongs to a generation of climate scientists who’ve had to become activists just to get their point across.

“I’ve got Google Earth elevation maps of all of Trump’s properties,” Wanless says somewhat sheepishly. “He’s got a lot to worry about.”

The Republican presidential nominee does have more than most on the line when it comes to feeling the negative impact of climate change. He owns seven properties in Florida. Three of them lie on barrier islands that, according to the latest NOAA sea-level rise predictions, will almost certainly have to be abandoned by the year 2065.

Professor Wanless predicts that the Donald’s day of reckoning will come much sooner: “Jim Hanson says ten feet by 2065, NOAA says two. I agree with Jim. But I’ve chosen to use the U.S. government projections because if I tell people ten feet, they just go out and buy another bottle of scotch.”

The scientific community has thoroughly established that the oceans are warming, acidifying, and rising. The question now for scientists is not whether the seas will rise but how quickly that rise will occur. The answer increasingly seems to be: faster than at any other point in geologic history. The data is startling. Coastal flooding caused by sea-level rise is already affecting vulnerable communities like Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami Beach. A striking 2015 study warns that the changes human societies are making to the oceans are irreversible. The Greenland ice sheet, the second largest in the world, has lost a trillion tons of ice in just the last four years.

Professor Wanless is an expert on sedimentation, one of the processes that creates barrier islands like Miami Beach. According to his research, the islands over which Trump’s Grande Sunny Isles and Hollywood condo developments so vaingloriously loom are actually key pieces of evidence that tell us how quickly sea-level rise happened in the past.

“When you warm the planet just a little bit, sea-level rise doesn’t just gradually la-di-da take off. You have a series of jumps. That’s how it works. Period. If you get rapid ice-sheet loss, like we have now, you get a rapid rise, and these are one to ten meters of ocean rise within a century.” Wanless’ reasoning is pretty straightforward: If sea-level rise were gradual, one would observe barrier islands extending outward from the coast at a slope instead of forming in their actual, ladder-like patterns.

Professor Wanless’ hopes for persuading Mr. Trump on climate change are based on a similar logic of observation: “Donald Trump isn’t indebted to anybody, at least not by money, supposedly. Trump has ignored traditional everything, and he’s already changed a lot Republican of orthodoxy. Why not climate change?”

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