Climate Change and Our New President

President-elect Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax, his Vice President-elect Mike Pence said in 2014 that global warming isn’t “a resolved issue in science today,” and Trump appointed a leading denier of climate change, Myron Ebell, who is not a scientist nor trained in science, to head the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The election of Trump is a sad but fitting way to put a final exclamation point on this blog. After more than two years of writing and research, during which I learned a great deal (and hope others did, too), there is now another remarkable confirmation that many people, notably leaders in the Republican Party, don’t believe anthropogenic climate change is real, or important if it is real.

It is true that ten days after the election Trump told The New York Times that he is looking “very closely” at the Paris climate agreement, adding that he “has an open mind about it.” Nonetheless years before this month’s election the chances were already tiny that the world would effectively combat climate change. Virtually no expert could imagine limiting global warming to 2° C or less without immediately implementing strong new practices worldwide. Now that Trump is President-elect prospects are still more dismal.

Years before the election many powerful Republicans in the Congress were already climate change deniers. A scientist friend of mine, who was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and as such shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace with Al Gore, was subpoenaed by the House Science Committee, chaired by Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, a climate change denier. That Committee has harassed legitimate, mainstream climate scientists for years. The Republican platform for the national election called for reduced funding for renewable energy and increased production of fossil fuels.

How can one begin to understand an election supporting more climate change denial? One place to start is with a movie called Denial, recently shown in theaters. Based on real events, the movie tells the story of an English holocaust denier and book author, David Irving, bringing a libel suit against an American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, who wrote about Irving’s work and called him a Holocaust denier. The most interesting parts of the movie, I thought, were learning about the English legal system, where the burden was on Lipstadt to prove she was right (!), and then seeing how her brilliant attorneys did research, presented evidence in court, and won the case.

The movie Denial helps one understand what made David Irving tick. The film depicts him as a man with an overwhelming motivation to be right, willing to lie to support his opinions, and with a desire to be perceived as an extraordinary individual, a “winner.” These qualities remind one of Donald Trump. While he shifts his policy views often, Trump is consistently grandiose and ran a campaign based on vicious lies.

In contrast to its depiction of David Irving, the movie has little to say about what motivated Irving’s followers to believe the monstrous lie of holocaust denial. Therefore, although Mick Jackson, the movie’s director, knew that climate change is another case where the opposite of something obviously true is believed by many people, the movie fails to explain why. I believe that this blog offers readers a fuller understanding of climate change denial than the movie Denial. The blog has discussed several dozen reasons why many people are misinformed about the issue (and if you are interested, here is a concise list of reasons, with links to the blog).

Yet another reason for ignorance about climate change is this: On election night I watched TV pundits Chris Wallace, James Carville, and Michael Steele discussing Trump’s pending election victory. Not one of them mentioned the implications for climate change. The next morning I read a half-dozen editorials and op-ed pieces in several papers and again none focused on climate change. The people behind these many sources are not all climate change deniers, yet what I heard and read was a demonstration of how climate change is merely a distant concern for most people, even those who one expected to be well informed. One report says the three TV network news programs devoted only 35 minutes total to discussions of any policy issues during the election! Media’s inadequate coverage over many years has contributed to people’s misunderstanding of climate change.

The Trump administration will have authority to overturn most of the Obama administration’s attempts to combat climate change. It is hard to see how a President Trump can be stopped from fulfilling many promises related to changing policies on the environment and energy, including stimulating production of more carbon-based fossil fuels.

Although I anticipate that he will blame someone else for failures to deliver on important campaign promises, President Trump is nonetheless likely to disappoint his followers on many counts. If he starts a trade war with China, unemployment is likely to rise, and well-informed observers say that China is the more likely winner. Another important reason to expect disappointment is that just as climate change has been pushed to the back of the policy agenda for decades, so the prospect of robots and artificial intelligence fundamentally re-making the economy has been viewed by many people as a minor issue, and kept largely out of sight. But the prospect is that in decades to come more jobs will be destroyed by new technology than are created. The working class that voted for Trump is unlikely to be the beneficiary of increased automation, whether in coal mining, manufacturing, transportation, or other areas.

The Club of Rome, which commissioned the far-sighted report The Limits to Growth more than forty years ago, warned about potential negative impacts of automation in a 1982 book called Microelectronics and Society: For Better or For Worse. The book noted that “with automation, the cheapest labor is no labor.” The world is now experiencing what has been called the “second industrial revolution,” which poses grave threats to employment. However, the public is far more likely to read excited expositions about “disruption” in every dimension of the modern world than be asked to think about the wisdom of what society is doing. By now the momentum to develop self-driving cars and dozens of other applications of smart technology appears unstoppable. China is buying large numbers of robots to replace human workers, as are other nations. The issue of automation is vitally important yet, like climate change, it has not received the attention it deserves.

Although this is my last post on the blog, I plan to continue to lobby the Massachusetts legislature to increase the Renewable Portfolio Standard (a legal mandate requiring electricity providers to steadily increase the amount of renewable energy they deliver), which may be politically feasible in the coming session. I also plan to work with two non-profit organizations that I respect, one of them focused on social justice in the Boston area and the other encouraging more people to talk with their family members about wishes and plans for end-of-life care.

People like me who had hoped Secretary Hillary Clinton would become President now wonder what they can do. Each person will find his or her own answers. To those who are wondering what to do, I would say this: In the first part of The Way of the Sufi (1968) Idries Shah wrote that “nowadays ‘wisdom’ is not a popular word.” Unfortunately that is still true, and it is still a shame. The attributes of a wise person may incorrectly be associated with rigid tradition, formality, being too judgmental, lacking compassion, or an absent sense of humor. But of course, none of that need be the case. Think of the people you know with uncommon insight, or who provide you with sound advice about difficult situations.

The reason to focus on wisdom is because, especially in the face of the many unwise decisions in the world to which we are witness, wisdom is what I think each of us needs in ourselves and others. Any “answers” there may be for climate change, the world’s other pressing problems, or for our own personal questions and concerns, depend on finding wisdom in others and ourselves.

You need not be a religious person, or even a believer in God, to appreciate the idea, “seek God in the hearts of men.” People need sound information and knowledge, of course, but it is clearer than ever that these are not sufficient if people don’t have the wisdom to apply information and knowledge properly. Books help us find wisdom, but wisdom is not to be found on the written page alone, as I expect readers of this blog would agree. In the difficult times we face, we each need the wisdom to know what to do and how to do it.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)

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Climate Change in the Presidential Debates

This year’s campaign for President of the United States has been extraordinary, unprecedented, bizarre—choose your  favorite term. There has been far too little discussion of substantive policy matters. Instead, Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s offensive behavior toward women have received the lion’s share of attention.

Notably, amazingly, incredibly—again, choose your  favorite word—the various moderators did not ask a single question about climate change during this year’s three presidential and one vice presidential debate, lasting five hours in all. One audience member at the final debate asked about energy policy, which is related but not identical. To her credit, Hillary Clinton mentioned climate change on several occasions, but that was the sum total of attention to the issue. Worse yet, in the debates for the 2012 presiden­tial campaign the candidates made absolutely no mention of climate change at all. Zero.

We should remember that it’s not as if the future of humanity on this planet is threatened. Oh, wait; yes it is. So it is truly a shame that the moderators asked zero questions about climate change.

There are many reasons why discussing climate change intelligently is difficult, as readers of this blog know. Add to those the growing view of the public that politics is largely an appropriate occasion for insults, braggadocio, or entertainment. The book called Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change seems apposite. A significant segment of the electorate believes that climate change is a hoax, as Donald, Trump has claimed, or at best is not an urgent problem. Only 15% of Trump supporters care “a great deal” about climate change, compared to 56% of Clinton supporters.

Who is it that for decades has been telling Americans that climate change is a major problem? You might think of Al Gore, NASA scientist James Hansen, and President Obama and observe that the federal government often has been the bearer of this bad news, the “inconvenient truth” about climate, as Gore called it. Now look at the graph below showing how trust in government has eroded among both Democrats and Republicans during the past 57 years. (An informative discussion of this erosion of trust by Michael Svoboda can be found here.) It seems probable that many people are paying insufficient attention to the climate change message because they do not trust the messenger.

trust-graph

If you had been a moderator for one of the debates how would you have framed a question about climate change? Knowing that political candidates find ways to be evasive in their answers to questions they don’t want to address directly (with respect to climate change I am thinking mainly of Trump), you might have wanted to frame your question in an unusual way.

Perhaps it would have been useful to pose a climate change question in terms of national security. For many years, starting even before Barack Obama became President, the Pentagon has identified climate change as a serious threat to national security, because changes in the climate create more refugees, greater competition for resources (including food), threats to naval harbors for American vessels as oceans rise, and increased potential for armed international conflict. A Pentagon report published last year concluded, “the Defense Department already is observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, the Arctic, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.” Donald Trump might have replied to such a question by saying that he knows more than the generals do about climate change—but if he had, then at least he would have been clearly on the record and not able to deny he said so.

Today, less than a week before the election, the odds are high that Hillary Clinton will be elected President. The Senate may also flip from Republican to Democratic, but the House is likely to remain Republican. The first two would be good outcomes for people concerned about climate change, but a Republican House could mean more years of gridlock. The outcome of the election could be even better if there could then be a productive conversation among and between elected politicians and the public about the threat of climate change.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)