Oct 17, 2020 (The New Yorker)
It is now October of 2020, the homestretch or—God help us—the halfway point of the Donald Trump years. As we flip through our metaphorical national photo album, reminiscing on some of the all-time darkest moments, there are so many to consider. You’ve got Charlottesville, of course, with the marching Nazis holding tiki torches—Trump’s “very fine people.” The peaceful protesters being tear-gassed in front of St. John’s Church. The maskless superspreader event in the Rose Garden.
One event that comes up less often is Trump’s California wildfire briefing, early last month. The West Coast was in flames. The skies above San Francisco were red. Smoke and ash blotted out the sun. And the President was on television assuring the public that “it’ll start to get cooler. You just watch.” He added, “I don’t think science knows” the truth about climate change.
Altogether, an extremely grim tableau. But among some environmental activists there was cause for celebration. For once, climate change had broken into the foreground of our insane news cycle. Within a week of Trump’s California visit, there was a pileup of evening TV news segments on the subject. “NBC Nightly News” did a piece about California climate refugees. CNN anchors interviewed the former California governor Jerry Brown about climate change and discussed Trump’s appointment of David Legates—a known climate-change denier—to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Frankly, it was better than anything I’d even dreamed,” the activist Genevieve Guenther told me recently, from her home in the West Village. “I’d been hoping the news anchors would mention climate change. But they didn’t just do that. They talked about it as the emergency that it is. And they gave their guests space to connect it to the Presidential elections and American politics, and even talk about some of the policy solutions.”
Guenther runs a volunteer group called End Climate Silence, which is focussed on combatting something more subtle than the aggressive climate denial espoused by Trump and his allies in government, or on Fox News: when news anchors or weather forecasters breathlessly cover an extreme-weather event—a hurricane, drought, forest fire, or heat wave—without ever mentioning the C-phrase. Instead, they’ll talk around it, using terms like “historic,” “unprecedented,” and “record-shattering.” According to Guenther, this silence is just as pernicious as denial. “There is a name for the unprecedented intensity and scale and relentlessness of extreme-weather disasters,” she said. “Climate change.” She added, “If you fail to mention that, it gives people the impression that it’s not happening—that these disasters are acts of God.”