OAKLAND — President Donald Trump conceded to Gov. Gavin Newsom last month in California that climate change probably had a significant role in driving historic wildfires, moments after casting doubt on whether that was the case.
During a Sept. 14 meeting near Sacramento, Trump publicly asserted that science doesn’t know whether temperatures will continue rising — a claim that drew a rebuke from a top Newsom adviser. But the president subsequently told Newsom that climate change’s role in the fires was “probably like 50-50″ along with forest management, according to a source familiar with the exchange who was not permitted to speak on the record.
The president’s comments were first reported Thursday by the New York Times. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While Newsom has assiduously avoided criticizing Trump publicly in recent months, the two leaders have expressed sharply different views on climate change’s responsibility for the historic wildfires out West. Newsom has consistently said increasing temperatures are intensifying fires and converting what was once a limited wildfire season into a year-round risk. He has extolled California’s aggressive efforts to limit carbon emissions as a necessary response.
By contrast, Trump has focused on forest management as the principal culprit, regularly accusing California of failing to clear forest floors of dry fuel. Newsom and scientific experts generally agree that both forest management and climate change play a role; in recent years California has allocated more than $1 billion and entered a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to thin forests. And California leaders regularly point out that the federal government is responsible for 57 percent of forestland here, compared to 3 percent for state government.
The Trump-Newsom chasm on wildfire blame burst into public view in September, when Trump visited California to survey extensive wildfire damage. Wade Crowfoot, the head of the state’s Natural Resources Agency, implored Trump to not “ignore” climate science or “put our heads in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management.”
Trump retorted that the earth might begin to cool. When Crowfoot responded that “I don’t think the science agrees with you,” Trump rebutted that “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
For his part, Newsom had presented Trump with a packet laying out the correlation between fires and increasing temperatures. The Democratic governor asked Trump to “please respect the difference of opinion out here with respect to the fundamental issue of climate change,” to which Trump replied, “Absolutely.”
Newsom later fundraised off of the exchange, telling donors he had “confronted” Trump.