The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord is being billed as a victory for the “nationalist” wing of the White House. But this is not entirely true: climate denial was “fake news” before “fake news” was a thing, and it’s part of the Republican mainstream, not the Trumpist fringe.
For thirty years, there has been no significant scientific uncertainty about climate change. Fully 100% of peer-reviewed articles by scientific experts endorse the theory (remember, gravity is also a “theory”) while disagreeing only about the extent of the harm – with the options ranging from very bad to catastrophic.
While the scientific consensus has remained unchanged, the industry-funded fake news of climate denial has not. In the 1990s, Republicans told us the earth wasn’t warming at all. In the 2000s, after a decade of record-high temperatures, they said that the warming was just a regular fluctuation, nothing to do with us. In the 2010s, faced with irrefutable graphs correlating unprecedented CO2 output and unprecedented global warming, they’ve said that, well, maybe some of the warming is due to us, but not all of it, and we’ll be okay, and, look over here, covfefe, ha ha ha.
Notice that I’ve said “Republicans”—not Trump. While the Trump administration has indeed been unprecedented in its attack on scientists, journalists, criminologists, and anyone else who tells inconvenient truths that the president doesn’t want to hear, it has behaved more like a traditional Republican administration when it comes to climate change.
Indeed, if anything, the mercurial Trump offered some hope that he might diverge from the GOP’s anti-science orthodoxy. Maybe Ivanka would convince him. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio. Or maybe just his own ego.
Those hopes have now been dashed. First came Scott Pruitt, the lying-under-oath, fossil-fuel-mouthpiece climate denier at the head of the EPA, duly eliminating all climate change programs (and webpages) at the agency. Then came the Trump budget, with its oxymoronic “clean coal” BS. And now, the cruelest cut of all: Paris.
With the world’s largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases out of the game, the Paris Climate Accord is like every politician agreeing to quit Twitter… except for Donald Trump. What’s the point? The U.S. emits 8 billion metric tons of CO2 each year—more than any other country except China, and more than China until 2010. Action that doesn’t involve the United States is fruitless.
And harmful. Think about it—if you were India, a fast-developing country with a lot of downside costs to curbing your emissions, why would you put yourself at a competitive disadvantage to the U.S., who made most of this mess in the first place and who is now refusing to even help clean it up? You’d have to be a fool to stay with Paris now that the U.S. has quit.
Yet Trump’s competitors in the Republican primary would have acted the same way, at least according to their campaign statements. Jeb Bush said “I don't think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made and...what percentage is natural.” (It is clear; the anthrogenic causes are an order of magnitude more significant than any others.) Ted Cruz, at an event sponsored by the Koch Brothers, said “If you look to the satellite data in the last 18 years there has been zero recorded warming.” (That is demonstrably false.)
In fact, the only Republican contender who accepted the scientific facts about climate change was the maverick Lindsey Graham.
Why is this going on?
Obviously, it’s the money—but more exactly, it’s the money first, and groupthink second.
First, as recorded in several tomes including Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt and Jim Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, climate denial is yet another example of lies spread by an industry with a financial stake in the game.
Indeed, one of the leading climate denial drivers, the Heartland Institute, also spearheaded the tobacco industry’s campaign to persuade us that smoking didn’t cause cancer. According to internal documents leaked in 2012, Heartland sponsors a fake “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC),” pays scientists $300,000 a year to publish non-peer-reviewed climate denial, and has created a climate denial curriculum for schools. (Other focus areas include promoting fracking and eliminating collective bargaining for public employees.)
And who’s paying Heartland? Its lead donor is an anonymous individual who gave $13 million between 2007-11. Its other leading donors are the Charles Koch foundation, insurance companies, and a variety of family foundations. And Exxon.
The result is an entire parallel universe, not unlike the extreme-right online echo chamber, filled with bogus scientists and often-repeated-yet-still-nonsensical claims. The campaign has worked: as of last October, only 48% of Americans “believed” that the climate is changing due to human activity.
Second, and relatedly, climate change has now become a culture-war issue with hardened positions passed down from parents to children. As Professor Andrew Hoffman has written, “the public debate around climate change is no longer about carbon dioxide and climate models. It is about values, culture, worldviews, and ideology.”
Those are sticky positions, and they’re not going to be loosened by barrages of facts. Among former climate deniers posting on a recent thread on Reddit (not, to be sure, a scientifically valid sample), the most common reason for their climate skepticism was that it was what their family believed. And climate change was just one in a bundle of issues – taxes, corruption, civil rights, foreign policy – that comprised a conservative as opposed to liberal political identity. Theoretically, matters of public health and scientific data should be non-partisan. But in reality, climate change is not.
“I was raised Republican. Naturally, I believed climate change is leftist bullshit,” said one Reddit user.
Rank-and-file Republicans aren’t stupid. Like progressives and moderates, they make decisions in large part based on the beliefs of their families, communities, news media, and sources they deem to be trustworthy. And climate denial fits comfortably within a conservative worldview that is skeptical of any governmental attempt to curtail individual freedom and, lately, any ‘elite media’ attempt to describe reality. For anyone raised or persuaded to be Republican, it doesn’t take work to become a climate denier – it takes work to stop being one.
Today is a day of great loss to the planet and to the human race. Climate change, an issue I have been writing about for twenty years, has already contributed to war (Syria’s conflict erupted when food prices skyrocketed due to unusually intense drought conditions), habitat loss, and loss of life from catastrophic storms. And we ain’t seen nothing yet.
But I, for one, still have faith. Like conservative lies about African Americans, conservative lies about tobacco and conservative lies about LGBT people, conservative lies about climate are still lies. They are demonstrably untrue, even if the largest industries on the planet are paying to have them repeated. And while truth doesn’t always win, it’s hard to defeat it in the long term.
Unfortunately, that term just got a little longer today, and a lot more destructive.