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Climate change was the subtext of the State of the Union. It should’ve been the headline.

President Trump should see climate change as an opportunity, not something to ignore.

Nuisance flooding is already an issue in Washington, DC as sea levels continue to rise in part due to climate change. President Trump will give his State of the Union address tonight, but likely won’t mention climate at all.
Nuisance flooding is already an issue in Washington, DC, as sea levels continue to rise in part due to climate change. President Trump will give his State of the Union address Tuesday, but likely won’t mention climate at all.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

In his Tuesday State of the Union speech, President Trump focused on five main issues: immigration, workers, infrastructure, health care and prescription drugs, and national security.

And he squeezed in a boast about the surge in fossil fuel development in the United States. “We have unleashed a revolution in American energy — the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world,” Trump said. “And now, for the first time in 65 years, we are a net exporter of energy.”

Nobody expected him to mention the consequence of those fossil fuels, climate change. But if he were truly taking on the biggest challenge and opportunity facing America, climate change would be right up there.

Rising average temperatures have proved to be a serious threat during Trump’s time in office. In 2017 and 2018, the US experienced immense, deadly billion-dollar disasters worsened by rising sea levels and higher air and ocean temperatures. Hurricanes, fires, floods, and droughts all racked up a massive human and economic toll. Thousands died. Thousands remain homeless. Taxpayers are on the hook for billions in relief aid.

The recent bankruptcy of PG&E, California’s largest utility, is a case in point. The company is facing upward of $30 billion in liabilities since its equipment was blamed for starting some of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history. That the state became such a tinderbox is due in part to ongoing changes in the climate.

Trump’s own officials say the risks are growing. Last year’s National Climate Assessment produced by 13 federal agencies concluded that no part of the country is immune to the health and economic hazards of climate change. The Worldwide Threat Assessment from top intelligence personnel released last month warned that climate change poses a security risk.

“The United States will probably have to manage the impact of global human security challenges, such as threats to public health, historic levels of human displacement, assaults on religious freedom, and the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change,” according to the report.

Even closer to home, a few blocks away from the Capitol building, the Navy is considering building a 14-foot, $20 million flood wall around Washington Navy Yard to handle sea level rise induced by the changing climate.

For an issue of such major national importance, the State of the Union would’ve been a great time to acknowledge the pain and suffering Americans have already felt from climate change, and to chalk out a bold plan to deal with it.

And there are lots of reasons to do so that align with Trump’s politics. A recent report from the Brookings Institution showed that some of the largest economic impacts of climate change in the United States fall to states that voted for the president in the last election. Adapting to climate change would literally protect his base.

Red states bear the brunt of climate change costs.
Red states bear the brunt of climate change costs.
Brookings Institution

Meanwhile, the boom in renewable energy jobs and the ongoing implosion of the coal industry is a sign that ramping up clean energy even further could drive unemployment even lower.

While a drumbeat is mounting on the left for a Green New Deal, Republicans are building their own momentum for an innovation-led, market-based approach to cutting greenhouse gases. Some have even introduced legislation for a carbon tax.

That means there are plenty of good ways for Trump to take a leadership position on climate change. Will he? Given his mocking of global warming, his appointments of fossil fuel industry lobbyists to key environmental positions in his Cabinet, and his dismissal of his own intelligence chiefs’ read of the issue, it’s pretty clear why he has nothing to say during his address and likely won’t do much throughout the rest of his term.

However, several lawmakers sent a message with their guests in the House chamber. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) invited University of Washington climate scientist Lisa J. Graumlich to be her guest. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) brought former Interior Department climate researcher and whistleblower Joel Clement. And Sen. Ed. Markey (D-MA) brought Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a group pushing for a Green New Deal.

So while climate change was neglected at the lectern of the House chamber, some in the audience tried to signal to Americans watching at home that it deserves time in the national spotlight.