Trump’s Scientific Legacy Is Denialism, Delusion, And Destruction

Trump's presidency will be in part defined by environmental regulation rollbacks, climate change denialism, and a damaging war on science and expertise.
President Trump (AP) and an iceberg melting in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle on Aug, 16, 2005 (AP/John McConnico)

President Trump (AP) and an iceberg melting in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle on Aug, 16, 2005 (AP/John McConnico)

This is part two in a series on Trump’s legacy. This one focuses on his climate change denialism and overall war on science.

Hans-Georg Betz is an adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

I grew up in southern Bavaria in the early 1960s. On the first of November, the day when Catholics celebrate All Saints, we went to the cemetery to commemorate dead relatives. It was an ordeal, not only because I had never met my grandfather who had “fallen” in the Soviet Union during World War II, but also because I was cold, really cold. And for good reasons: in early November, the cemetery was covered in snow, and my rudimentary leather boots did little to protect me against the freezing cold that made its way up the body until hands and face were completely numb.

Today, these days in early November are a distant memory. Today, on the first of November, temperatures are in the mid-teens Celsius, and snow? There is none. More often than not, there is no snow on Christmas, only mud, a result of prolonged rains. The weather forecasters on public TV do their best to find even the tiniest indication that we might be in for a white Christmas. But as always, it’s a hopeless undertaking.

If you are of a certain generation who grew up with snow in early November, you know that climate change and global warming are anything but a hoax, concocted by left-wing elites intent on destroying “our way of life.” Fortunately enough, over the past few decades, public awareness of and concern over the fundamental threat of global warming to the future of the planet has steadily grown.

In 2019, a major Pew survey found majorities in all the nations included in the survey agreeing that global climate change represented a major threat to their nation. Upon a closer look, there were, however, major differences between nations. In France, for instance, more than 80 percent of respondents considered global warming a major threat; against that in the United States, a bit less than 60 percent. The results of additional survey evidence suggest that the arguably most important reason for this divergence is the Trump administration’s systematic dismissal of global warming. In fact, with Trump, climate change and global warming have become part of the culture war underlying the polarization of contemporary American politics.

A few facts: In the Pew survey, more than 80 percent of Democrats said they thought climate change was a major threat, among Republicans, less than 30 percent thought so. The central question underlying this polarization is the question of whether or not humans are responsible for global warming. In 2016, around 70 percent of Democrats held that view; among Republicans, less than a quarter. A recent poll commissioned by the European Investment Bank (EIB) found that 18 percent of Americans did not believe climate change was happening; among European, 9 percent.

This, of course, has been the rhetoric coming out of the White House for the past four years. This is what has informed the Trump administration’s environmental policy. In a recent policy brief, Brookings counted 74 actions by the Trump administration designed to weaken environmental protection. Many of them aimed at policies addressing climate change. A major focus was the elimination of regulations issued by the Obama administration, dismissed as Obama’s “anti-growth agenda” and “war on American energy” targeting the country’s fossil fuel industry, and here particularly coal.

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Carbon Emissions Decreased In Spite Of Trump’s Actions, Not Because Of Them

During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised that if elected he would make the revival of “beautiful clean coal” a top priority on his legislative agenda. What obviously motivated this pledge was to garner much-needed support in coal-mining states such as West Virginia. Once in the White House, the administration sold its slashing of environmental regulations as an “energy revolution” that “has produced affordable, reliable energy for consumers along with stable, high-paying jobs for small businesses—all while dropping carbon emissions to their lowest level in 25 years.”

Superficially, this is true. In fact, Trump went into the November election “with US a marginally less polluting country than when he came to power.” Ironically enough, coal had a significant role in that. Not because it is beautiful and clean, but because during Trump’s tenure, coal mines closed at a record pace. Throughout the country, utilities wound down their commitment to coal, primarily because of cost. Given the enormous costs of turning coal into “clean coal” – a misnomer in any case – they preferred investing in renewable energy technologies. As one prominent executive put it on Bloomberg, “You need 20 years just to pay off the debt,” stemming from the various technologies necessary to turn coal cleaner. “Where do you think that makes sense? We don’t see any new coal in the U.S. That’s the bottom line”

Trump got the message. He stopped mentioning coal. As one observer noted, coal was clearly a loser. In fact, despite all Trump’s disdain for renewables, in the first quarter of 2020, renewables surpassed coal as a source of energy. This explains to a certain extent why at the end of his tenure, carbon emissions were the lowest since 1992. In fact, carbon emissions per capita were lower in 2019 than “at any time since at least 1950.” Ironically, according to the International Energy Agency (AEI), what accounted for the decline in US emissions in 2019 was a significant drop of around 15 percent in the use of coal for energy production. This underpinned the decline in overall US emissions in 2019.

Had Trump succeeded in reviving the country’s ailing coal industry, the results would obviously have been quite different. This is equally true for the emissions embodied in American imports from China. According to a recent scientific paper, in 2017, “288 Mt CO2 emissions were associated with products produced in China but finally consumed in the US, and only 46 Mt CO2 were associated with the US products that were consumed in China. From this perspective, China-US trade results in a net transfer of 242 Mt CO2 per year from the US to China, accounting for approximately 5% of the total CO2 emissions in the US.” Overall, during the first three years of Trump’s tenure, carbon emissions declined by 0.5 percent, and this largely despite his administration.

A Promotion Of Climate Change Denialism

Climate Activist Greta Thunberg standing behind President Trump at the United Nations General Assembly – September 23, 2019 (Source: The Guardian)

Climate Activist Greta Thunberg standing behind President Trump at the United Nations General Assembly – September 23, 2019 (Source: The Guardian)

Where Trump can take credit is in giving a big boost to climate change skepticism and or denial. To be sure, both were relatively wide-spread among a portion of the American population long before Trump assumed power. The politicization of global warming started in the mid-1990s, following the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, which swept a wave of conservative Republicans into Congress allowing the GOP to gain control of Congress. The new majority immediately challenged environmental science and policy particularly with respect to climate change.

In the years that followed, the issue of climate change assumed a central role in the growing polarization of American politics, both on the elite level and among the public, reflected in surveys. Between 1998 and 2008, the percentage of Republicans who said they believed global warming had already begun declined by five points, from 46 to 41 percent. At the same time, among Democrats, it rose by 30 points, from 46 to 76 percent Between 2003 and 2008 the gap between the two camps with regard to the human cause of climate change increased from 16 to 31 points. It has been suggested that the adherence of substantial portions of Republican partisans to climate change denial is the result of “socially constructed ignorance.” This is the strategy the GOP chose “to keep uncomfortable knowledge at bay” – a hodgepodge of denial, dismissal, diversion, and displacement. This was a classical example of the old German saying, Es kann nicht sein, was nicht sein darf (that what must not be, cannot be).

Over the past four years, this strategy became the official hallmark of Trump’s presidency. Ironically, this was not always Trump’s position. In 2009, Trump was among a number of prominent signatories of an open letter to the Obama administration that stated, “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.” Among other things, the letter called “for passage of U.S. climate legislation, investment in the clean energy economy, and leadership to inspire the rest of the world to join the fight against climate change.” A few years later, during his campaign, he completely changed his tune. Now, he said, he no longer believed that humans contributed to climate change; now he claimed that the threat of climate change was “one of the dumbest ideas” in the history of politics.

By then, of course, the focus was no longer on the irreversible consequences climate change was poised to inflict on humanity; now it was on making America great again, one of Trump’s major obsessions. The slogan implied that American was no longer great. And that for one major reason – the dramatic rise of China. It is in this context that global warming assumed a central position in the MAGA narrative.

Trump had already laid the ground in late 2012 when he charged via Twitter that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” A few months later, following a speech by President Obama on climate change, Trump scoffed that China had loved it. “They laughed! It hastens their takeover of us as the leading world economy.” Three years later, Trump was elected president, ready to translate rhetoric into concrete policy action, grounded in climate change denial in all of its different facets.

Academic studies of climate change denial distinguish between at least four variants: trend denial, contesting the global warming is happening at all; attribution denial, which might accept that it is happening but rejects the notion that it is in large part caused by human activities; impact denial, which might accept that global warming has anthropogenic causes, but denies that it will have a significant impact on the planet; and consensus denial, which questions the extent to which scientists agree on human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change.

Needless to say, at one point or another, the Trump administration played on each one of these variants to justify its policies directly impacting the environment. In 2015, Trump infamously referred to global warming as a hoax. By the end of 2016, he admitted that there was “some connectivity” between human activity and global warming; in 2017, he reversed most of the Obama administration’s Green initiatives; finally in 2018, he publicly dismissed a report by his own government scientists that warned of devastating effects from climate change. In the face of overwhelming consensus among scientists worldwide on the potentially catastrophic impact of human-induced climate change, Trump simply said “I don’t believe it.”

Politically, Trump’s narrative on the environment, wavering between climate skepticism and outright denial, proved to be enormously successful, at least among his tribe. In 2018, more than two-thirds of Republicans thought the seriousness of global warming was exaggerated. Among Democrats, less than five percent held that view. A bit more than a third of Republicans thought global warming was caused by human activities; among Democrats, some 90 percent. And when asked whether they thought global warming would pose a serious threat in their lifetime, a mere 18 percent of Republicans voiced concern; among Democrats, about two-thirds.

These results suggest that halfway into Trump’s presidency, an individual’s position on climate change had become an intricate part of the ideational polarization which has increasingly divided American society over the past few decades. Climate change denial, in turn, is part of a larger syndrome – skepticism toward, if not outright disdain for scientists.

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A War On Science And Expertise

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at a coronavirus (COVID-19) press briefing as Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci watch on Friday, March 20, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at a coronavirus (COVID-19) press briefing as Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci watch on Friday, March 20, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Together with the dismissal of scientific findings, they became one of the defining traits of the Trump administration, leading Time magazine, in early 2017, to charge that under Donald Trump “wishing away scientific reality” had become national policy. Denigrating and dismissing scientists and their findings is, of course, typical of current-day radical right-wing populism with its glorification of “the common sense of ordinary people” and their wisdom based on individual experience and perceptions. (It’s snowing outside, therefore global warming is a hoax).

Curiously enough, however, recent surveys have found that public trust in scientists is as strong as it has been for several decades. Yet, as an article in Scientific American noted, Americans don’t seem to act like it. One plausible answer advanced by the author is that over the past few years, politics increasingly trumped science, at least among significant parts of the public. At the same time, when it comes to certain highly polarizing issues, such as, recently, Covid-19, federal scientists more often than not were “ignored, censored, bullied, and accused of sedition.”

A second answer might be that certain scientific issues are closely aligned with partisanship, such as global warming, evolution, vaccination, and particularly Covid-19, where partisanship has arguably caused the most harm. Recent reports from the Dakotas and Iowa give a stark and graphic impression of the tragic consequences of living in a parallel universe where partisanship trumps any sense of reason and reality.

It is feasible that the incoming Biden administration will be able to reverse at least some of the damage Trump and his minions have done to a progressive global environmental agenda capable of at least mitigating the impact of global warming. It is much less likely that it will be able to undo the damage “Trumpism” has done to the minds of tens of millions of Americans who dismiss anything that does not conform to their worldview as socialist scare tactics, designed to destroy the United States.

Under the circumstances, Trump’s legacy is likely to weigh heavily on any attempt to heal the deep wounds four years of Trump have inflicted on the republic. Any attempt to advance a progressive agenda, particularly with respect to America’s position on global warming and other environmental-related issues is more than likely to require a Herculean effort – outcome uncertain.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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