The Death Throes of Climate Denialism

Over time, climate denying politicians will need to seriously consider the wisdom of denying the obvious, as once-in-a-century heatwaves become annual, and drought and floods become regular occurrences in the red heartland of the country.

This piece was first published in Forbes on November 27, 2018. It is reprinted with their permission.

For those who think climate change is an issue that deserves to be addressed at the highest levels of government, a glimmer of hope might be found in the desperate measures the Trump administration must now take to keep the facts of climate change from the public eye. A case in point is the timing of the administration’s release of the National Climate Assessment, which took place on Black Friday, a time when the administration hoped an entire nation wouldn’t notice.

The president has said nary a word about the report, the work of 13 federal agencies, since its release. Quietly pushing the assessment under the rug seems the only workable strategy when the government’s own findings nullify the climate denialism professed from the top. It also signals the rising desperation, and isolation, of a climate denial camp that, with each passing day, is more broadly understood to be divorced from reality.

Despite the administration’s attempts to bury the NCA, its details have already been widely reported, as have its dire predictions for food supply, public health and a 10% drop in GDP due to climate impacts. And, while the previous NCA, released in 2014, named likely effects of climate change, for the 2018 report “significant advances have been made in the attribution of the human influence for individual climate and weather extreme events.” In sum, the ferocity of recent Western wildfires, coastal hurricanes and heartland floods and tornadoes are more clearly linked to climate change and our role in it.

The federal agencies behind the National Climate Assessment count those whose mandates obviously intersect with climate, including NASA, the EPA, DOE, and the Department of the Interior. Many are run by people committed to the president’s deregulatory environmental agenda, notably the EPA’s Andrew Wheeler, and Interior’s embattled Ryan Zinke.

None of the president’s henchmen could stop the congressionally mandated NCA from being published. And, as far as can be ascertained, the assessment’s findings have not been tampered with. The climate science it contains and conclusions it makes come from 300 of the best scientific and economic minds in the country, from outside of government and from within.

This must make the climate deniers in and around the White House feel cornered. Increasingly, the administration’s only defense is to circle the wagons, and continue to pretend that climate change doesn’t exist or, at a minimum, that man has nothing to do with it.

It wasn’t always this way. Once upon the time, climate truth could be suppressed, and facts effectively blurred before they reached the public. As related in a recent essay in The New Yorker, in the 1970s Exxon dove deep into climate science, with the company’s scientists clearly understanding the impact of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate and sharing that knowledge with the company’s leadership.

Recognizing the risk to business Exxon, along with other oil, gas and coal majors in the Global Climate Coalition coordinated to raise doubt about the validity of climate science and delay policy action. Republican leadership, beginning with the George W. Bush administration adopted the tactic and, even as late as last year, 90% of Americans didn’t understand that consensus on climate change did, in fact, exist in the scientific community.

In recent years the orthodoxy of climate denialism has been aided and abetted by super PACs that have targeted politicians who might acknowledge the climate problem. With money from the likes of the Koch Brothers, candidates out of step with certain fossil fuel interests have been eliminated from the political landscape or bullied into submission.

But over time, climate denying politicians will need to consider the wisdom of ignoring the obvious, as once-in-a-century heatwaves become annual, and drought and floods become regular occurrences in the country’s red center and extremities. In 2016, Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo co-founded the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan House group dedicated to finding solutions to the growing climate crisis. In South Florida, where nuisance flooding had become so routine that clocks might be set to inundations of Miami Beach, rising seas were an obvious reality.

This summer, Curbelo proposed a $24 per ton carbon tax, to which 97% of House Republicans responded with a resolution that categorically opposed a price on carbon. Curbelo subsequently lost his bid for reelection to Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. While that election hinged on a number of issues, being tied to the party of climate denialism surely didn’t help.

Americans clearly want action on climate. A July, 2018 survey by ABC News, Stanford University and Resources for the Future found that some 80% of Americans support greenhouse emissions cuts in line with the Paris Climate Accord. A March, 2018 Gallup poll found that 74% of American adults favor higher emissions standards for business and industry. Americans hold these views regardless of whether they think that climate science is settled.

The U.S. military gets it too. This December, the Defense Department will release its Climate Change Vulnerability Report, which is mandated in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, ushered by a Republican-controlled Congress. Regardless of what denialists in Congress might say publicly, they know that climate change is real enough for the military.

Yet the president continues to maintain that climate change is bunk, without evidence to back his assertions. To 300 sharp climate scientists, his only rejoinder is that a one-day weather event — Thanksgiving’s deep freeze in the Eastern U.S. — proves that today’s climate scientists, as well as Exxon’s decades ago, are just wrong.

“I don’t believe it,” was the president’s flaccid rebuttal to the NCA three days after its release. Surely, someone in the administration could have scripted the president a more forceful talking point. Or, maybe not. Maybe climate denialism is, like coastal infrastructure being swallowed by rising seas, crumbling.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.