This article, originally posted September 27, 2016, was updated September 28. Go to the end for the update.

Much of America is talking today about last night’s (September 26, 2016) debate between the U.S. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. When the dust settles it will probably be recorded that this debate is the most-seen political event of modern times, garnering over 80 million pairs of eyeballs–viewing numbers typically only rivaled by Super Bowl games and the famous M*A*S*H finale of 1983. While it’s indisputable that Hillary won the debate by a wide margin, I was quite intrigued by a particular one of Trump’s many gaffes and missteps. When confronted by Secretary Clinton with his assertions that anthropogenic climate change is a “hoax” ginned up by the Chinese, Trump hotly denied saying it. I was struck by this because it’s the first instance I can think of where a conservative politician has been openly ashamed of climate change denial.

Conservative politicians have an uneasy relationship with climate change. Often paid directly by fossil fuel interests–or wishing not to offend those who are–politicians will vacillate between denying that global warming is happening at all, admitting that it is happening but making excuses for doing nothing about it (like claiming it’s a natural process), or else throwing up their hands and claiming that we can’t know for sure because the science is “unsettled.” Of course it isn’t–that humans are causing the vast majority of global warming through the burning of fossil fuels is absolutely 100% proven science–but deniers love to traffic in doubts. Some of the most brazen deniers, like Senator Jim Inhofe, flaunt their denial and mock those who believe the proven scientific truth of climate change–Inhofe is famous for bringing a snowball to the floor of Congress, claiming that its existence automatically disproved global warming. But with others there’s a sense of unease.

Take, for example, the terribly awkward meeting in September 2014 between Florida Governor Rick Scott–a notorious and vituperative climate change denier–and a group of climate scientists who had the temerity to call Scott on the then-popular Republican Party line, when asked about climate change, that “I’m not a scientist.” These people who are scientists asked for a meeting with Scott so they could explain to him what climate change was all about. Scott wasn’t very interested in what they had to say and burned a third of the 30-minute meeting making smalltalk with the scientists. This indicates some discomfort, even on the part of arch-deniers, in denying proven science to the face of the people who proved it. It’s also a telltale sign that climate change denial is a very shaky strategy, politically and rhetorically, and that the people who do it probably know deep-down that they’re peddling falsehoods.

But last night’s gaffe by Trump was, I think, in another category. Trump is famous for speaking and acting “off the cuff,” which was part of his whole problem last night. On the fly, not as part of a political strategy or a message being gamed by political operatives, when Hillary confronted him with his egregious statement that climate change was a hoax, Trump’s instant impulse was to deny it. Instead of flaunting his denialism in order to curry favor with conservative voters and fossil fuel interests, Trump’s instinctive reaction at being called a climate change denier was to backpedal. That suggests that even he knows, deep down, that climate change denialism is not only factually untenable, but a political loser in the long run.

james inhofe pd

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is a notorious climate change denialist. He flaunts it–but Trump, the leader of Inhofe’s party, is evidently ashamed of it.

Many observers say that Donald Trump has no shame. I don’t believe that. I think he has a lot of shame. I think he’s ashamed of his looks, his accomplishments, his wealth (or lack thereof), his personal and professional life, and many other things. This is why he acts out so recklessly and hurtfully. But until last night I would never have believed that he would be ashamed of being a climate change denier. Evidently he is. That in itself is an interesting change; but better still, the debate finally put climate change on the map as a major issue in the Presidential race. Trump knows he’s on the wrong side of that issue–and now so does everyone else.

Update 28 September 2016

This article originally asserted that someone on Trump’s staff deleted the “global warming is a hoax” tweet and featured a picture of the tweet with a “Tweet Not Found” error box over it–which was later found to be simply a bug, and the tweet remains up on Trump’s account. However, I don’t think it matters, chiefly because Trump did deny at the debate that he claimed climate change was a hoax.

Even more amazing, this morning (September 28, 2016), Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, famous for his horrendously bigoted “religious freedom” law in Indiana, went on a morning show and admitted that climate change is not a hoax. Furthermore, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway also stated that Trump did not believe climate change is a hoax. Ron Greenman at the ClimateCrocks blog has a great rundown of these developments. I think they’re amazing, and I think they underscore my point: that, for the first time, a major Republican campaign is backing away from climate change denial out of embarrassment and fear that voters will find it unacceptable.

The screenshot at the top of this article is from Twitter. The photo of Sen. Inhofe is in the public domain.