Climate Denialism and Its Weakness

Climate Denialism and Its Weakness

Tuesday, 4 December, 2018 - 12:15
One problem I have with “climate denial” is the name. Nobody denies there’s a climate (not yet, anyway). I guess it fits better into a tweet, but that brings me to another problem I have with climate denial: It’s really stupid.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s President Donald Trump trashing his own administration’s dire climate assessment, published with impeccable timing on Black Friday, to the Washington Post last week:

One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.

As with Ulysses, professors will surely be arguing for centuries over what the president was going on about there. Yet to parse the words is to miss the point. The paragraph is pure misdirection, conflating carbon emissions with “dirty” air and thereby casting the US as “clean” (and Trump isn’t exactly helping on that score anyway; see this and this.) Ditto the whataboutism regarding China and Russia, as the U.S. is still the world’s second biggest emitter of carbon, and Trump walked away from an international climate agreement.

This is what I mean by stupidity: lines of argument barely designed to withstand even the slightest scrutiny. This isn’t just a presidential prerogative. In the same week, Rick Santorum, former Republican senator and champion of intelligent design, accused the climate assessment’s authors of being in it for the money. Come on. The upstream oil industry alone — not counting refining, natural gas, or coal — rakes in roughly $5-6 billion of revenue a day at current prices. Yet the vested interest here is a bunch of scientists spread around labs and universities? Sure.

Incoherence serves a purpose, though. Whether Trump genuinely struggles to string a proper sentence together on this subject or just chooses not to, it offers a certain protection from effective rebuttal by turning the normal process of argument and counterargument into a farce.

There’s no real argument about the science. The tell is when Trump said he isn’t a believer. Recasting the issue as a matter of faith rather than reason lets him simply ignore the evidence. Moreover, resisting the consensus about climate change fits with other themes Trump champions, especially disdain for “elites” (scientists and other assorted intellectuals in this case) and international cooperation. Similarly, Santorum’s blithe smearing of scientists dovetails with the established theme of the “swamp” while also ducking the real issue.

So climate change actually serves a purpose, signaling Trump’s resolve on unrelated red-meat issues to his supporters. It follows that persuasion via yet more scientific evidence is a futile exercise. David Bookbinder, chief counsel to the Niskanen Center, a think tank advocating for action on climate change, among other things, summed it up for me last week: “It’s very hard to reason someone out of a position that they weren’t reasoned into.”

Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners LLC, a DC-based research firm, suggests past efforts to address climate change have often failed in securing public buy-in for what needs to be done. Consider, for example, the backlash against President Emmanuel Macron’s recent hike in gasoline taxes. This disconnect from the public creates an opening for those dismissing the mounting scientific evidence:

It is quite a thing for the world to proceed with a wholesale renovation of its energy systems without public buy-in, isn’t it? But at the same time, maybe that isn’t really that different from setting a trajectory towards inaction without scientific buy-in. Both approaches seem incomplete, but short political time horizons can rush things, notwithstanding long industrial and geological timescales.

That doesn’t mean progress is impossible. Action to address climate change is ongoing at state and city levels, and in other countries at the national level. And while the push on climate change by incoming Democratic House members won’t result in legislation under this administration, it does mean the issue will likely be more prominent in 2020.

Of course, if Democrats push the issue harder, right-wing intransigence may harden further. But then, given the depths to which the Republican leadership’s arguments on climate change have sunk already, that is hardly a reason to hold back. Raising public awareness of both the risks of climate change and the opportunities for new jobs and businesses, and not just costs, that come from dealing with it is essential anyway.

So is looking beyond those “short political time horizons” Book mentioned. While Trump dominates his party now, the recent midterm results and the gathering clouds of the Mueller investigation remind us that he is politically mortal. Younger Republicans, while more skeptical than Democrats, appear to be more open to taking action on climate change than their older counterparts.

As sociologist Robert Brulle has argued persuasively, the key to shifting Republican attitudes about climate change may well be to shift the cues provided by the right’s leading figures (or, elites, if you prefer) given their central role in shaping that amorphous thing known as “public opinion.” Jerry Taylor, a former climate-change denier who founded the Niskanen Center, points out Trump managed to get his party to abandon seemingly bedrock positions regarding free trade, Russia, and deficits pretty quickly. Only a decade ago, the late John McCain was campaigning on climate change as the Republican presidential candidate. Nothing is necessarily set in stone.

The resort to misdirection and conspiracy theories makes progress tough but also hints at the underlying fragility of climate denial. Ultimately, the issue of climate change can be boiled down to this: We have built prosperous societies on the extensive use of fossil fuels, but now know those same fuels also threaten our survival, requiring us to reimagine how we power our way of life. It is as simple and as difficult as that. And our debates, forceful as they are, should focus on the reimagining part. All else — the presidential free-associating, the tweets and the TV soundbites — is noise.


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