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Grand Jury Indicts Prominent Climate Denier

The man who famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and pulled the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement reportedly faces 30 counts of business fraud.

Donald Trump and pollution.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

On Thursday, a Manhattan grand jury reportedly indicted former President Donald Trump — who famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax,” pulled the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, gutted the Clean Water Act, and removed protections from more U.S. lands than President Teddy Roosevelt protected — over an improper payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign, according to three people with knowledge of the matter who spoke with The New York Times. CNN reports he faces more than 30 counts of business fraud.

The decision, likely to be unsealed in the coming days, marks not just a seismic moment for American history — among his inglorious distinctions, Trump will now become the first former president to face felony criminal charges — but for the 2024 presidential campaign and potentially the future of the planet.

As many in the media have pointed out to breathless courthouse watchers in the days since Trump prematurely predicted his arrest, a criminal record does not prevent him from running for office again; NPR reminds readers that President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested in 1872 for speeding — in a horsedrawn carriage — the same year he’d go on to win re-election. But that won’t prevent Trump from being read his Miranda rights, from being photographed, from being fingerprinted, and perhaps from being handcuffed and perp-walked as well.

So, yes, there’s a bit of schadenfreude at work here.

After losing the 2020 election, Trump used his chaotic final days in office to cram through as many environmental rollbacks as possible, ranging from expediting approvals for the energy development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; to the Interior adopting less-severe meteorological models out of a disingenuous concern over the “uncertainty” of climate science; to overturning Obama-era restrictions on CO2 emissions from power plants; to trimming protections and habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl. Many of these gestures weren’t actually consequential or meaningful and were swiftly overturned by President Biden, who also used his first day in office to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Rather, Trump’s eleventh-hour rollbacks seemed almost more intended as a middle finger to the “haters and losers” on the left and their precious climate concerns (particularly so when his moves are viewed in contrast to Democratic predecessors who used their outgoing days in office to dedicate new protected lands).

That makes what happens next of particularly heightened interest for those concerned about the climate. There is already an obvious “revenge tour” theme to Trump’s 2024 campaign, and one of Trump’s favorite punching bags historically has been the planet. He’s already set his sights on it as a target, vowing at his recent Waco, Texas, rally that “proud Texas energy workers will once again be pumping, producing, and refining Texas oil and gas to turn America into the number one energy superpower on Earth,” insisting that “the Green New Deal will lead to our destruction,” and piling onto his bizarre ongoing campaign against EVs by complaining they “can’t go far, cost too much, and [use batteries] produced in China … when an unlimited amount of gasoline is available inexpensively in the United States of America.” But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of “the climate and energy scenario in Trump II,” as Josh Freed of Third Way, a center-left think tank, had ominously warned Vox ahead of the 2020 election.

Perhaps nothing is more concerning than the looming specter of the return of David Bernhardt, a climate crisis denier and former oil lobbyist. Formerly the U.S. secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt is one of the rare administrators who Trump still likes and who seems potentially willing to rejoin a hypothetical Trump administration; Brooke Rollins, the president and CEO of the America First Policy Institute, a think tank that promotes Trump’s policy agenda, specifically named Bernhardt to Newsweek as “an example of the sort of people who are likely to be reinstalled and who now better know their way around government.”

Between joining the Trump administration in August 2017 and being named to lead the office in early 2019, the Interior Department “either begun or completed at least 19 policy actions requested or supported by at least 16 of Bernhardt’s former lobbying clients, including oil, gas and mining companies and their trade associations,” Inside Climate News wrote at the time. (The Washington Postreported that Bernhardt had so many potential conflicts of interest, he had to literally carry around a list of their names to remember them all). At Trump's direction and under Bernhardt's leadership, it seems very likely the United States would undo all of the monumental progress it’s painstakingly made toward the green transition.

However, Trump is not likely thinking about the planet, or even oil and gas and mining, right now. Somewhere in Florida, he’ll be busy with his attorneys. But very soon, those conversations will be replaced by ones with his strategists — fine-tuning how to spin his arrest, how to make him out as the victim, and how to goad his supporters into outrage.

And soon after that, either with the power that comes from being the former president of the United States with millions of still-devoted followers, or with the power that comes from retaking the White House, Trump will once again set his sights on exacting his punishment on those who dared to cross him. His list of grievances is long, and it's growing. And after everything, the planet might still be in his hands.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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