November 2017 - LIVING ON EARTH
Climate Change and the Art of Denial
By Steven Leibo
In late August hundreds of thousands of people, many having driven enormous distances, gathered to watch a solar eclipse whose arrival, literally to the minute, had been predicted decades before by the scientific community.
Yet, only a few weeks later, the nation found itself reeling under a horrendous series of disasters from record breaking fires in the American West to devastating tropical storms like Harvey, Irma and Maria. That same scientific community that had been so trusted to precisely predict an eclipse was often ignored, as many scientists warned that such events were not climatic anomalies, but harbingers of an increasingly destabilized global climate system – indeed sober warnings of our collective future!
To be sure, there are many reasons why humans have trouble appreciating the existential threat of climate change. We are products of evolutionary biology, which give us a markedly better ability to notice a hungry lion monitoring us in our peripheral vision, than to draw patterns from what can sometimes appear to be random events.
Indeed, the simple fact is that climate crisis tends to look like the extreme weather events humanity has regularly endured. But it is also just as true that homo sapiens are among those animals most able to experience a deep sense of time and change, and especially able to recognize patterns and assimilate the enormous amounts of evidence already available to recognize the threat. Indeed, the science of global warming is now in its third century of investigation, an investigation that began in the mid-19th century as scientists of that era tried to understand how the sun’s heat was distributed – even during periods when significant portions of the earth were turned away from the sun. And thus, grew an understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in retaining solar heat.
Ironically, though even as last summer’s crowds were confident enough in science to significantly disrupt their lives to see the eclipse, in the face of even more dramatic evidence; this fall’s barrage of horrendous fires and storms, millions still deny the reality of the climate crisis, a phenomenon that can only be explained by reference to the misinformation campaign, especially documented in books and films such as the “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobbacco Smoke to Global Warming.”
Although a considerable percentage of climate denial seems at times linked to a dislike of Al Gore, the man whose popular vote victory over George Bush in 2000 tainted the second Bush presidency’s first administration, the bulk of climate denial anger has been very deliberately manufactured for financial and ideological reasons.
At base, there are two quite understandable sources for the largely manufactured denial industry. First, simple financial interest. Just as a generation ago the tobacco industry spent enormous sums to confuse people regarding the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, in recent decades the fossil fuel industry has expended massive amounts of money to fund similar campaigns to deny the negative impacts of their industry’s carbon pollution on the stability of the global climatic system.
But that money would not have been nearly as effective if it had not complemented one of the most ideologically charged questions of modern history. The defining question, “What should the relationship be between government and the economy?” A basic question that in itself, on a macro level, separated Communism’s command economy from America’s enthusiasm for capitalism. While the same core question is at the heart of the struggle between America’s more laissez-faire Republicans and the today’s Democratic Party, that remains a product of FDR’s depression era interventionist policies.
Therein lies the problem. Given that only governments have the taxation and regulatory powers to make energy changes quickly, recognition of the threat of climate change brings with it almost by definition, a greater role for the government in a nation’s economy – in this case its energy economy. And when that ideological problem is augmented by financial resources available from the richest industry on the planet, the fossil fuel industry, it has proven a formidable force to undermine progress and inspire impressive levels of anger among those susceptible to misinformation campaigns.
Thus, emerged over the last generation, a professionally managed denial industry that has used methods ranging from phony but professional looking think tank reports, to extremist media personalities from Rush Limbaugh to Glen Beck, to argue that humanity does not need to replace fossil fuels with safer sources of energy.
Finding spokespersons to confuse the issue was not enough for the denial industry. They also used their influence and deep pockets to attempt to control those climate scientists like James Hansen, who as the then director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was a government employee, and thus vulnerable to such pressure. Additionally, they went after somewhat more protected tenured academics like Michael Mann by harassing them with expensive legal challenges to their scholarship and access to research funding.
During the administration of George W. Bush, that approach was complemented by an unprecedented access to the inner sanctums of administration, which allowed the actual modification of government reports.
The level of rhetoric became especially incendiary during 2015, when the denial community found themselves facing a leader significantly more difficult to demonize than Al Gore or even President Obama. Barack Obama, of course, facing a Congress dominated by climate change deniers, had taken it upon himself to use the power of the executive branch to push the nation toward cleaner safer energy sources.
But neither Gore nor Obama represented the sort of moral authority that the denial community found challenging them, when the increasingly popular Catholic Pope Francis took up the mantle of serving as champion of humanity’s environmental responsibilities with his papal encyclical of September 2015, an effort that aroused a level of conservative anger against a Pope few had ever seen.
Ironically, the Pope’s encyclical was especially problematic for the denial community, because not only did it urge humanity to address the dangers of climate change, but also focused on those who would put materialism and profits above the needs of people. In short, Pope Francis hit most of the hot button issues of the climate denial community and their reaction was not all that unpredictable, especially coming as it was during the opening rounds of the American presidential campaign.
As of course is well known, after an extraordinary effort begun in the early 1990s that culminated in the Paris Climate Accords of 2015, the international community produced an agreement among the vast majority of the world’s nations to dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. True, while the actual goals set were relatively modest, the international agreement was expected to send a message to the world’s economic decision makers that would reverberate around the capitalist global economy; that the age of fossil fuels was winding down and the era of safer greener, energies had debuted. Indeed, that was largely the dominant global message until the American elections of 2016.
Enormous amounts have already been written about the significance of America’s 2016 election, on everything from racial and gender relations to immigration, but the potential impact on humanity’s efforts to confront the climate crisis is easily the longest-term result.
Most importantly, while over his career Donald Trump has at times appeared somewhat ambivalent on the existential threat of dramatic climate change, once elected he not only committed his administration to a renaissance of climate busting, coal-based energy production, but a full-throated effort to use the executive branch to undermine not only the science, but those employees of the executive branch who carry out research and green energy policies. Indeed, much of the Trump administration’s fossil fuel playbook has been borrowed directly from the playbook pioneered generations ago by the tobacco industry in its efforts to preserve its corporate profits.
So, what does that mean for our future, regional to global? There never was, of course, a chance to genuinely avoid the traumas of climate crisis. Humanity simply waited too long to phase out climate busting fossil fuels. But the impact of Washington’s new policies, however mitigated at levels from local to planetary, will still be significant.
For Americans the impact will probably be twofold. On one, we will most likely see the withdrawal of the federal government’s support of green energy technologies, which might have become the foundation of 21st century American global manufacturing profits and jobs. Secondarily, and perhaps equally significant, will be a weakened ability, without the support of Washington, DC, to implement the many adaptation technologies – from more storm-resistant buildings to community cooling stations we will need to weather the storms of upcoming decades. In short, the burden has become even more obviously placed on the individual to plan their own and their family’s future in an even more climate-challenged environment.
Steven A Leibo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of World Civilization at the Sage Colleges, commentator for WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, and author of works of historical fiction including “Beyond the Heavenly Kingdom” about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.