By Clara Grosz
Every year, the Global Sustainable Development department’s essay competitions aims to engage prospective students within the sustainability debate. This year, one of the potential questions the competition essayists were able to talk about was a response to those in society who deny the existence of climate change – climate deniers .
This fantastically well written entry was written by Clara Grosz. Clara discusses the origins of ‘climate denial’, highlighting the role of economic prosperity in climate dialogue and the impact of high profile figures, such as Donald Trump, in discourse surrounding ‘the science’ in what is an interesting and informative essay.
We are currently experiencing a government-declared climate emergency. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal”. Global average temperatures are increasing due to the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect, which is over 95% likely to have been caused by human activity via the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Indeed, Earth has warmed by at least 0.8℃ since the Industrial Revolution, while sea levels have risen by 22 cm: a rapid increase in such a geologically short period of time. The effects of this are numerous and wide-reaching, including sea level rise, an increasingly arid climate, greater hurricane frequency and intensity and the melting of the Arctic. Many of these changes can be described as “irreversible” until temperatures return to pre-industrial levels. These effects have led to the coining of the highly contentious name of our current Epoch, ‘The Anthropocene’, a term that identifies that humankind is now the main influence on climate and the environment.
Perhaps, however, it would be more appropriate to label this epoch ‘The Trumpocene’. This term began to circulate online during 2016, popularised by Guardian journalist Graham Readfearn. One Collins Dictionary user submitted a definition as the name for an epoch ‘in which the denial of man-made climate change is propounded by the US President’. In other words, large numbers of people, typically bound together by the Internet and encouraged by influential figures such as President Trump, are rejecting expert opinions in favour of their own echo chambers. Science is now up for debate.
But how can scientific evidence labeled as “unequivocal” be questioned, let alone by those without any qualifications to ground their claims? In order to successfully confront climate denial, we must go back to its roots.
The year is 1992. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro has just kicked off, attended by 10,000 journalists, 17,000 environmental activists and over 100 heads of state, including the current US President, George H. W. Bush. The Summit is widely broadcast to the public, with a mainly receptive audience- however, in one particular interview, the seeds of doubt are sown. On the 4th June, Tom Brokaw, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News hosted a scientific report on the Summit. First, NBC’s chief science correspondent explained the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect, followed by another climate scientist who detailed the risks of climate change. Then, the owner of a coal mine is interviewed. He argues in a southern drawl that ‘precipitous action in the form of legislation and international commitments will eliminate jobs’ – an ominous forewarning at a time of recession. This was the first time that a political – or economic – perspective was brought into a scientific report, and the first time that climate change was warped into a ‘debate’.
This muddying of the waters between economics and science has led to the perpetration of the idea that transitioning to a low carbon economy will be detrimental to income and jobs. In the case of President Trump, his rampant climate change denial appears to stem from a fear that the global economic centre of gravity has shifted away from the USA to the East, specifically to China. In a tweet shared over 100,000 times, Trump writes that ‘the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive’. It is evident that ‘listening to the science’ becomes impossible when you have plugged your ears with the belief that economic growth and decarbonisation are mutually exclusive. Therefore, the most successful responses to climate change denial are those that advertise the benefits of a moving towards a low carbon economy – or the dangers of inaction.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that global inaction on climate change will prove more costly in the long term than beneficial in the short term. The Stern Review published in 2007 suggested that transitioning to a low-carbon economy now would cost between 1-3% of world GDP. This figure rises to at least 20% of world GDP if no action is taken. Last year, the Bank of England declared that up to£16 trillion of assets could be eliminated if the climate crisis is not addressed effectively. This means limiting warming to a global average of 2.0℃: according to most scientists, this target can be seen as a tipping point beyond which the effects of the climate crisis worsen rapidly and irretrievably. ‘Business as usual’ is simply off the cards. The limited time scale available to us means that persuading powerful skeptics is essential to fixing the climate crisis. Moreover, President Trump is instrumental to this equation due to the fact that the USA has one of the highest per capita emissions in the world – nine times the amount necessary if we want to limit warming to 2.0℃.
In order to win over influential skeptics, we must examine why, psychologically, climate denial has so effectively permeated the global consciousness. According to Debika Shome, co-author of The Psychology of Climate Change Communication in 2009,the human brain experiences difficulty processing events that are geographically and temporally distant as threats. For President Trump, who has recently been described as “feeling untouchable”, the threats posed by the climate crisis may seem far removed from the sense of stability that his economic and political position provides. He may not believe that he will feel any of the effects of the climate crisis personally during his term as President, let alone during his lifetime. However, the consequences of climate inaction are closer than than think; The UN predicts that by 2050, there will be 200 million climate migrants (although some estimates suggest as many as 1 billion), many of whom are likely to seek residency in the USA. In the years to come, this will develop into a humanitarian disaster (quite literally) on President Trump’s doorstep.
Economically, the effects of climate change are already beginning to hit close to home for the US President. “President Trump, you’re on notice,” New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared in 2019, just as the city passed legislation aiming to reduce the carbon emissions of its most polluting buildings, including Trump Tower.If Trump Organisation’s properties do not slash carbon emissions by 40%, it will owe $2.1 million a year from 2030. It seems that decarbonisation is proving itself to be necessary on both a personal and a professional level.
However, there are plenty of people fighting for change in the US, and one solution proposed to tackle the climate crisis is the Green New Deal. To summarise, the Green New Deal is an ambitious national project that would unite American society in a rapid transition towards an innovative, equal, prosperous and sustainable future. Formulated in 2007 by a group of economists and environmentalists, the Deal attempts to avert the most severe consequences of the climate crisis while promoting racial justice and equity, and ensuring economic security for all. It is instrumental to debunking the myth that low income households will be disadvantaged by reforms addressing the climate crisis. Social justice is highly intertwined with climate justice: new research from Stanford University proposes that the gap in GDP per capita between the most and least economically developed countries is 25% higher today than it would have been without the influence of climate change. Perhaps if someone had suggested to the owner of the coal mine speaking on NBC’S Earth Summit report 28 years ago that he and others with jobs in the fossil fuel industry would be recompensed for economic losses caused by decarbonisation and offered a place in a new ‘green workforce’, he would have spoken differently.
The Green New Deal is not without its flaws. Namely, it is non-binding, meaning that even if it were approved by Congress, it would not be enshrined in law. However, it illustrates one of many possible visions of a low carbon economy. If we can persuade skeptical leaders of the benefits of investing 1-3% of the world’s GDP as recommended by the Stern Review, then options such as carbon capture, clean energy sources and carbon trading will be unlocked as economically viable solutions to place us on the path towards a low carbon future. The technology required to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis is already available to us. We are at a critical point in not only human history, but the history of the Earth.
For now, we must ensure that the Trumpocene becomes only a ‘Trumpenian’ – a stage rather than a series in time – by steering those who represent us in government away from high carbon emissions forecasts towards an equitable, safe and sustainable society for all.