US President Donald Trump listens to California Governor Gavin Newsom at Sacramento McClellan Airport in McClellan Park, California on Sept. 14
Brendan Smialowski—AFP via Getty Images
September 21, 2020 4:22 PM EDT

For months, the Trump campaign’s public statements and the President’s prepared remarks have repeated a message on climate change carefully calibrated not to alienate Republicans worried about the health of the planet: regardless of the science, Democratic plans to address the issue are too expensive. Last week, President Trump disregarded his own campaign’s meticulous messaging and offered an assessment of climate change so out of touch with most voters that it may have made even some of his loyalest supporters cringe.

During a stop in California to observe the destruction caused by the state’s wildfires, Trump called for better forest management to reduce the risk of fire. When pressed by a state official on the link between climate change and worsening wildfires, Trump spoke bluntly — and inaccurately. “It will start getting cooler,” he said, seemingly conflating the upcoming change of season with the long-term shifting climate. Challenged further, he replied, “I don’t think science knows actually.”

The moment — and Trump’s dismissal of climate change more broadly — indicates how disconnected Trump has grown from the popular understanding of the problem. Voters increasingly understand that climate change is happening, and Republicans, including in Trump’s own campaign, are seeking to adjust their message on the issue to match public sentiment. Trump hasn’t seemed to notice.

“I would encourage the President to look at the science,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally who represents South Carolina, said at an event last year. “Admit that climate change is real, and come up with solutions that do not destroy the economy like the Green New Deal.”

Understanding the Trump campaign’s strategy on the issue requires looking back to last year, when the Democratic primary was heating up and the word “coronavirus” would have elicited blank stares in most circles. At the time, climate change seemed poised to be a major issue on in the 2020 race. Some polls showed the issue ranking neck-and-neck with health care as the top issue among Democratic primary voters, and most of the wide field of Democratic contenders scrambled to endorse proposals for a Green New Deal, a massive government spending program that paired emissions reduction with a focus on social justice issues.

But Democrats weren’t alone. Polling from the Pew Research Center found that 67% of all U.S. adults thought the federal government wasn’t doing enough to address climate change. And these findings seem to match the Trump campaign’s internal polls. John McLaughlin, one of Trump’s top pollsters, said in an interview last year for the podcast Climate 2020 that the “vast majority of Americans” understand that climate change is happening, but that they remain receptive to arguments that proposed solutions are too costly. “Voters are highly cynical,” he said. “They don’t want to lose their jobs over this and they don’t want to pay a lot of money.”

The Trump’s campaign’s official message has played out along those lines. The campaign avoids questioning the science of climate change and instead offers exaggerated claims about the price tag of climate policy. In recent months, the Trump campaign has sent email blasts saying Biden has endorsed “a job-killing war on energy” and called his climate policy “socialism.” After Biden delivered a speech on climate change on Sept. 14, for example, the Trump campaign released a “fact check” that took issue with everything from Biden’s claim that Trump didn’t listen to experts regarding wildfires to Biden’s promise of clean energy jobs. Notably absent was any skepticism about the fundamental fact that the Earth is warming and humans are to blame.

Knowing that an ever-increasing number of voters are concerned about these issues, Trump’s aides have also sought to soften the President’s environmental record of regulatory rollbacks and unilateralism with a more positive narrative. Last year, Trump hosted an event at the White House to highlight his environmental “accomplishments,” which he claimed included reducing carbon emissions and ensuring the “cleanest air” and “crystal clean” water. During a Sept. 8 event in Florida, a state already facing many climate-related challenges, Trump simultaneously endorsed a ban on offshore drilling in the state and claimed that he was “number one since Teddy Roosevelt” on environmental protection.

The ongoing efforts to paint Trump in a green light aren’t matched with substantive policy. Trump’s environmental agenda has consisted largely of undoing rules and regulations created under President Barack Obama, from a rollback of vehicle emissions standards to a nixing of emissions rules for power plants to the departure from the Paris Agreement, the landmark global deal aimed at combating climate change. A Sept. 17 analysis from the Rhodium Group, an independent research that analyzes energy and climate data, found that Trump’s climate rollbacks could add as much as 1.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2035. That’s about a third of the country’s emissions last year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the message of Trump, as an individual candidate, has at times departed from the calibrated message constructed by his campaign. When left to improvise, Trump has made light of climate science and rejected the scientists responsible for producing it.

That messaging aligned with many Republicans a decade ago, but today most of the party’s leaders either say they understand that man-made climate change is a reality or avoid talking about the issue entirely. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, said he accepted the scientific consensus on global warming last year as talk of the Green New Deal rippled across Capitol Hill. “I do. The question is how do you address it,” he said when asked whether he believed in man-made global warming. “The way to do this consistent with American values and American capitalism is through technology and innovation.”

McConnell hasn’t offered anything in the way of substantive climate policy, but other Republicans have proposed piecemeal legislation, calling for measures to promote the planting of trees and funding for clean-energy innovation. The desire to promote climate-change credentials has been especially strong among vulnerable Republicans. Graham and Cory Gardner of Colorado, both GOP senators up for re-election in November, have both put their names on a handful of modest environment issues this year and last, including the formation of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus last year.

This is a far cry from Trump’s climate denial, but, in some ways, it is a distinction without a difference. Acknowledging that climate change is real does nothing if that admission isn’t accompanied by meaningful policies to address it. And on that score, there isn’t much to show.

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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