• Paul D. Wilke

Climate Change Hustle

Doubt about climate change is still alive and well, even with all the evidence to the contrary. The scientific debate is over - it has been for years - but that's not the debate that matters. In a democracy, public opinion matters more than scientific consensus when it comes to setting public policy. Science can inform an electorate, but it cannot dictate policy. With the battle over the science lost, bad-faith doubt has shifted to influencing public opinion.

So I was switching back and forth between Meet the Press and Rocky II this last Sunday when I came upon MtP host Chuck Todd moderating a discussion on the recently released National Climate Assessment. The report paints a dire economic and ecological picture of the future if climate change continues unabated. The Assessment, mandated by law, was put together by the US Global Research Program, an organization composed of thirteen government agencies including the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA, just to name a few.

You can read the report here. Suffice it to say, it shows what many of us already suspect: Climate change is already happening and will get worse if we do nothing. Eventually, we'll see economic impacts to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. It's not all gloom and doom, though, since the report offers a ray of hope that it's still not too late to take measures to mitigate some of the worst case scenarios, but only if we act now. Doing so will require the joint efforts of communities, governments, and corporations all working together to deal with the looming crisis.

But that's the problem, we're not going to act in unison now, or any time soon, and not in any coordinated way. The President is still explicit in his denial that anthropogenic climate change is even happening or that it could possibly cause significant damage to the economy. And let's be honest, even as unpopular as he is today, the President still has about 40% of the public's approval.

His response to last Friday's report was concise and to the point. "No, no, I don't believe it." Alas, yet another example of a non-expert dismissing expertise, but this time from the person with the biggest megaphone in the country, not to mention the most important political office in the land. Never mind that this report was the result of collaboration between experts in climate science and other related fields. No, that doesn't matter. "I don't believe it."

The President's Twitter feed has long been a platform from which to convey his contempt for the very idea of human-caused climate change. If there's a cold spell, you can almost bank on a mocking climate change tweet.

Here is a modest sampling.

"It snowed over 4 inches this past weekend in New York City. It is still October. So much for Global Warming." Donald Trump - 1 November 2011

"In the 1920's (sic) people were worried about global cooling--it never happened. Now it's global warming. Give me a break!" Donald Trump - 4 May 2012

"It’s extremely cold in NY & NJ—not good for flood victims. Where is global warming?" Donald Trump - 5 November 2012

"Snowing in Texas and Louisiana, record setting freezing temperatures throughout the country and beyond. Global warming is an expensive hoax!" Donald Trump - 29 January 2014

"Baltimore just set a record for the coldest day in March in a long recorded history - 4 degrees. Other places likewise. Global warming con!" Donald Trump - 4 March 2014

"It's record cold all over the country and world - where the hell is global warming, we need some fast!" Donald Trump - 8 January 2015

"Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS - Whatever happened to Global Warming?" President Donald Trump - 21 November 2018

Then, of course, are the tweets that call both the science and the integrity of the scientists into question. As we'll see, this isn't just the President.

"Global warming is based on faulty science and manipulated data which is proven by the emails that were leaked." Donald Trump - 2 November 2012

And so on, ad nauseam, repetitively hammering home this message of doubt and ridicule, over and over again, at least 115 times in the last eight years. I would mock the crudeness of the message, but he's preaching to a pretty large choir who agree with what he's saying. Crude or not, it's effective communication.

According to Gallup, only 35% of Republicans think climate change is caused by human activities. Only 18% think it'll be a serious problem in their lifetimes. Only 42% of Republicans think most scientists believe climate change is occurring. In other words, those tweets above are not wacky to millions of Americans, even if they are miles apart from what the scientific community believes. As is often the case, ideology trumps evidence. People start with a belief and then work backward to make the evidence fit their reality.

Okay, so the President is catering to a political base that is already skeptical of climate science. And let's be fair, the right is not any more anti-science than other demographics. Progressives skew against scientific consensus when it comes to GMOs and vaccines. Scientific ignorance is non-partisan, but if you pull the string and see what unravels, you'll almost always find ideology lurking in the background blocking any hard look at the evidence.

Ideology comes with a narrative. Doubter ideology equates climate change with advocacy for left-leaning green policies, which would mean more government regulation, higher taxes, and an overall less friendly business environment. Or, to be blunt, socialism. That premise is entirely debatable, but it's a long-established narrative and one that's been around for years. I hear it all the time, even if many of those who are parroting that line of reasoning don't know any more about the topic than they hear from Fox & Friends.

However, there's a more highbrow branch of climate doubt that comes across as less strident and more open-minded, deploying facts with enough confidence that even well-informed non-specialists won't easily be able to discern fact from fiction. Once you strip the rhetoric down to the bone and do some fact checking, though, you get pretty much the same themes the President is putting out there on his Twitter feed.

Let me offer a few examples to make my point.

On Meet the Press this past weekend, Danielle Pletka from the conservative American Enterprise Institute confidently trotted out, mostly unchallenged, several denial-not-quite-denial talking points.

Here she goes, first some uncertainty. "From the standpoint of those who have doubts about this, and I don't think we can have any doubts that there is climate change, whether it's anthropogenic, I don't know, I'm not a scientist (bold italics mine), I just look at this as a citizen, and I see it, and I understand it."

The "I'm not a scientist" line was a popular GOP talking point a few years ago, with prominent Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio punting on any discussion of climate change because, as they humbly put it, they were not scientists and therefore didn't feel qualified to weigh in. This was really just a tactic to avoid a subject they preferred to ignore. Of course, when it came to health care or the economy, we didn't get the same humility, even though these guys are not medical professionals or economists. They felt qualified to opine in those cases. "I'm not a scientist" kind of died out after getting roasted by late night talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert, but not entirely, it seems.

Ms. Pletka continues, and notice the whiff of conspiracy and hidden agendas creep in, but nothing too Alex Jones, along with some sketchy data thrown out with confident nonchalance. "On the other hand, we also need to recognize that we just had two of the coldest years, two of the biggest drops in global temperatures that we've had since the 1980s [false], the biggest in the last hundred years, but we don't talk about that because it's not part of the agenda. The United States has been dropping its CO2 emissions since we dropped out of Paris. There are actually good things that are happening. We are not using dirty coal anymore [not true]. It's the Europeans that are using dirty coal. There actually is some corporate leadership on this [true, but the federal government?]. Yes, we need to deal with these problems. Yes, we need to mitigate the things we see, but we shouldn't be hysterical."

Ms. Pletka's comment that we just had two of the coldest years "...since the 1980s, the biggest in the last hundred years (which is it?), but we don't talk about that because it's not part of the agenda." What agenda is that? One could argue that Ms. Pletka's own facts are themselves a wee bit agenda-driven. Now, this last April was unseasonably cold, true, but I'm still not sure what two cold years of record cold she's talking about.

On the other hand, ponder this sobering fact from NASA: "Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998. The year 2016 ranks as the warmest on record." 2017 was the second hottest year on record. I don't know where Ms. Pletka's is getting her facts from, but apparently, it's not from NASA.

And then there was Rick Santorum on CNN where he dutifully doled out a few more doubter tropes. First, echoing Ms. Pletka, he made the claim that we don't know if humanity is causing climate change (Note: we do, we really do, believe me, we do!).

Second, scientists are just in it for the grant money (Note: See video at the end of this article for a funny rebuttal to that claim). Santorum dismissed the report as "...generated by people in the bureaucracy, these were not Trump appointees."


So Trump appointees, and not climate scientists, would have given us a better, more scientifically-grounded report? Wow! I do appreciate the honesty, intentional or not.

And then, "If there was no climate change, we'd have a lot of scientists looking for work [maybe with Big Energy, and then making a lot more money]. The reality is that a lot of these scientists are driven by the money they receive." Of course, if scientists "are just in it for the money," then they should be flocking to tell President Trump precisely what he wants to hear, just like scientists also did not do when fellow climate doubter, G.W. Bush, was president. Instead, they reported what the evidence showed them, and the evidence showed them the climate was warming and we were the cause of it.

By labeling the report's authors as mere bureaucrats, instead of scientists, Santorum is also blowing an anti-government dog whistle that paints climate scientists as parasitic hacks looking to further careers with taxpayer money. In Santorum's world, these are not specialists, professionals, and public servants trying to call attention to a potentially catastrophic issue. No, they're opportunists looking to make a buck at our expense.

Santorum also used another favorite talking point: "Of course, the climate is always changing." That phrase means absolutely nothing in this context. Think about it. Water is also wet; fire is also hot. So what? But why is the climate changing now?

Remember, people like Santorum and Pletka are spinning narratives for political motives. It's bullshit, but it's bullshit a lot of people enthusiastically agree with. Again, ideology drives perception, and perception carries over to the ballot box with real policy implications that can last years.

Finally, it bears repeating, even if I'm pissing in the wind, but there is very little doubt at this point that human activity is the primary driver for climate change. According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists who have written in peer-reviewed journals have concluded that humanity is the primary driver for climate change. There is no serious debate about whether it is happening, or whether we're the cause, at least within the scientific community. Why? Because the experts, the folks who research this for a living, have told us so. For any doubters out there, they've made available all the evidence they've found to back up those claims. Check it out some time. It's all out there on the GoogleNet, waiting to inform inquiring minds. Remember that when you hear agenda-driven sophistry from non-experts like Danielle Pletka, Rush Limbaugh, and Rick Santorum preaching the gospel of doubt. They're selling a narrative. Are you buying?


Here's a humorous video from climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. She offers a humorous take on a lot of the points I make above, especially the hilarious idea that scientists are just in it for the money.