A few days ago, Donald Trump predictably announced his unilateral decision to toss aside the Paris accord, an agreement which in of itself probably fails to adequately address the existential threat of ecological catastrophe. It’s worth remembering that the agreement is non-binding, essentially expecting each signatory to commit to, well, whatever to which that signatory commits. It may sound like a tautology, and that’s precisely what it is. After all, imagine if the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT) had simply been voluntary on the part of the old Soviet Union and the United States. That is to say, perhaps both countries would come to the table to agree that each would reduce the number of nuclear-carrying ballistic missiles by x% and y%, respectively, and each could assign that number at their leisure. It’s almost a prisoner’s dilemma, each side deciding later how to assign their number. Trump’s simian, chest-thumping “I get to play at the big people’s table” nonsense is all bluster: he just as easily could have played nice, then cut the commitment to zero. The Breitbart-Bannon crowd welcome Trump’s slash-and-burn America-first policy-making approach, no doubt euphoric at their bitter flavor of ignorance finally reaching institutional gravitas. Trump, clearly unaware of consequences, revels in his promise-keeping capacities. Too bad they don’t extend to truly defending the security of Americans by ignoring the Pentagon’s recognition that climate change is a threat, to say nothing of “draining the swamp”, as Trump and his cabinet have so many conflicts-of-interest that the rigor mortis of normalization is firmly in place.
More disconcerting is the relentless propaganda of the past thirty years with respect to the environment. I can remember sitting in computer science courses listening to a naive professor expel the gassy strawman that environmentalists simply don’t want anyone to have a job, as though completely eradicating chances of decent survival of the human race can’t compete with the tacit assumption that full employment is an essential feature of a successful society, as we’ve discussed previously. I’m reminded of Al Gore discussing imagery of a balancing scale with Earth on one plate and gold on the other, a slide from a presentation at a corporate consortium discussion on global warming.
When I was in elementary school, I recall the final chapter in my fifth grade science textbook explaining air and water pollution, acid rain, the ozone layer, and anthropogenic climate adjustments through introduction of wildlife to untouched ecosystems, industrialization, habitat destruction, and the like. I specifically remember my fifth grade teacher, Carolyn Hassell, remarking that she felt the textbook ends splendidly in suggesting that we, the youth of today but adults of tomorrow, have the power to save the environment and our future. That was spring of 1991, twenty-six years ago, in a rural, quite conservative town in Texas. Certainly no one could accuse any of my elementary school teachers of being particularly liberal, yet none could imagine any other conclusion than human beings influence the environment in quite potent ways, and that wisdom and judiciousness are requisite in deciding policy. A striking irony is that the Republican party, an organization dedicated to opposing environmentalism in virtually all of its policy manifestations, bears the moniker “conservative,” a label originating with Theodore Roosevelt and his passion for conservationism, noteworthy in his creation of the National Conservation Commission.
Recognition of industrial pollutants has certainly been in public consciousness more recently. Since the dawn of the industrial era, mass production and increasingly large factories have released more and more toxins into the air, water, and soil. Corporations, concerning purely with profit, are institutionally compelled to transfer the costs of waste to the environment, and ultimately, to the ecosystem; this phenomenon is something called an externality, in the parlance of economics. That is, market systems consider mostly the first order effect of a transaction, ignoring higher order effects. The example often discussed by analyst Noam Chomsky is perhaps you sell me a car for some fixed sum, and maybe we each get a good deal; an externality, among many, is that the additional car may result in more traffic, pollution, and the like, yet the original transaction fails to reflect any of these additional factors. In the more extreme case, industrialists need not consider dumping waste into local rivers, as they may not face any direct financial consequence for doing so. Quite infamous is the burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, symbolic of the effects of runaway industrialization on nature; the Stokes brothers, one the mayor of Cleveland, the other a federal congressman, jointly lobbied for passage of the Clean Air Act signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1972. The United Kingdom beat the United States by sixteen years: in 1952, rare weather conditions permitted a heavy concentration of sulfuric acid, emitted from coal-fired power plants, to coalesce in the atmosphere over London. For four days in December, the smog refused to lift, killing at least 12,000 people and poisoning 100,000 more. Four years later, Parliament enacted the first serious legislation aimed at curtailing emissions. Recent work by Texas A&M uncovered more detail in the specific mechanisms, but certainly the causes remain fairly obvious.
Raising public awareness in 1962 was marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in which she discusses the deleterious effects of pesticides on bird populations; it’s possible her volume influenced the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization which immediately took up the task of curtailing pesticide use after its founding in 1967. The EDF’s influence in policy certainly reverberates throughout the early days of the popular environmental movement, including underwriting a study linking cancer in New Orleans to water contaminants which presaged the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and lobbying to ban lead in gasoline beginning in 1985, a measure which predictably better protected children from the ghastly effects of exposure. Interestingly enough, the risks to pregnant women and children were understood as early as 1966 when Lyndon Johnson’s surgeon general William Stewart testified to Congress:
Existing evidence suggests that certain groups in the population may be particularly susceptible to lead injury. Children and pregnant women constitute two of the most important of such groups. Some studies have suggested an association between lead exposure and the occurrence of mental retardation among children.
Two decades and much public pressure finally wrested regulatory control from corporations, including Associated Octel, responsible for poisoning the population. Much data was available earlier from studies in New Zealand on the toxicity of lead, yet American lobbyists stubbornly allowed gold to weigh more than earth, borrowing from the earlier imagery.
Tracing the history of the runaway greenhouse effect as we understand it today, we have that Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first proposed in 1896 that by-products of fossil fuel combustion could gradually warm the planet. After some back and forth in the mid-twentieth century, scientists settled in 1988 on the proposition that atmospheric temperatures were higher than anytime since 1880, a warming trend due primarily to industrialization. The mechanics of industrial release of carbon dioxide and oceanic resorption were by then largely understood, and the recognition that industrial activity was releasing more carbon dioxide than could be absorbed was beyond question. A coalition of international scientists formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization representing perhaps the largest peer-reviewed scientific cooperation in history. More recent scientific studies, including reports in 2014 and 2016 by the Coastal Resources Commission in North Carolina Coastal dispense with the propagandized claptrap of fossil-fuel underwritten think tanks such as Koch Industries, arguing the scope and damage of rising sea levels is perhaps inevitable now at the current rate of warming. North Carolina is perhaps most striking in its proactive stance toward climate change: in 2012, they simply outlawed it by denying local governments from enacting ordinances or legislation with respect to an earlier report. So much for permitting local governments to make their own choices, a frequent conservative refrain with a host of betrayals, such as the instructing all state and local governments how to define how people can associate in the Defense of Marriage Act, denying local governments the right to protect vulnerable immigrants through Gestapo-like tactics by the Immigration Customs Enforcement, and the like. One can’t help but ponder the tired argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery, despite the slave states happily supporting the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a preposterous piece of freedom-trampling legislation compelling citizens in free states to form militias to return runaway slaves.
Returning to the environment, denialism actually dates back to explorations by Exxon Mobile in 1979 into the implications of climate shifts due to fossil-fuel combustion, an understandable venture given policy could affect their bread-and-butter; in the following years, they vehemently funded a campaign of disinformation to postpone any meaningful action. No strangers to controversy, their almost suicidal foot-dragging and propaganda campaigns permitted horrendous accidents such as the Exxon Valdes spill, a near impossibility with a more decentralized sustainable energy system. Early governmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, would have required signatories to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as the aforementioned carbon dioxide, chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), aerosol chemicals known to damage the paper-thin shield of ozone gas absorbing some of the sun’s more harmful ultraviolet radiation, and a handful of other pollutants and toxins. Not unexpectedly, George W. Bush pulled out of the agreement, citing economic needs of American business were more important than the environment; his advisers came to regret the unilateral cowboy decision, as it, like Trump’s blustering parallel move this past week, further galvanized the rest of the world in their perception that America is the selfish, bully child demanding more than its fair share.
Though one could read myriad books on the subject of human contributions to environmental destruction, I’m more interested here in discussing the persistent issue: mountains of evidence, virtual unanimity among scientists regarding these issues, together with palpable, very visible effects seem insufficient to overcome the static friction of apathy. Though we can point to indoctrination and diminished sources of information in the past, online media has somewhat mitigated this problem in recent years, provided one knows where to look for peer-reviewed summaries. A 2015 study by Yale University reports distributions of awareness and concern throughout the world about climate change, noting that 40% of people in the world have never heard about it, obviously mostly in third world nations, and that 48% of Americans aren’t worried despite having heard a good deal of evidence. Certainly that pattern persists across the developed world : awareness perhaps weakly correlates with concern. So one might ask, logically, how it is possible that seemingly rational people can deny the overwhelming scientific evidence? Is it simply because they deny science? Is it because they follow the lead of their favorite pundits and politicians? I would tend to believe the problem is both institutional and sociological, the former being the more obvious antecedent, the latter based on fairly recent research, to which we’ll return.
Corporate disinformation is a major institutional factor : science discovers some mechanism through which environmental manipulation harms ecosystems, imperiling the food supplies and the quality of water and air, next industrial corporations mostly responsible for the devastation dispatch their public relations people to the airwaves and their lobbyists to Washington to “control the narrative,” or rather supplant or obfuscate truth. One can literally go case after case to find the same pattern: if there’s an agency or cache of talking points aimed at undermining environmental concerns, typically the underwriting comes from none other than the corporations poised to lose the most if policy reflects said concerns, as we mentioned earlier. One can note that as of June 6, 2017, Exxon itself buys ad space on Google if one searches for “Exxon climate change denial;” the page is an exercise in public relations spin mostly lambasting environmental groups dedicated to reducing consumption of fossil fuels in energy production, suggesting they and the media are somehow part of an outlandish conspiracy theory discussed by Paul Krugman in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. Krugman’s arguments extend to more than just climate change, which we’ll discuss momentarily. Greenpeace provides a fascinating timeline of Exxon’s early research in the 1960s and 1970s, initially with Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins presenting a report to the American Petroleum Institute about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide raising sea levels and re-architecting marine ecosystems, James Black of the research division circulating reports internally about the greenhouse effect, writing in 1978 that
[p]resent thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical,
and so on into the early 1980s. In particular, meeting minutes released from a task force on climate change organized by Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, Shell, and others suggested agreement with the realities of greenhouse gas emission and climate change, along with concession of the responsibilities they would bear going forward. Roger Cohen, a scientist at Exxon, wrote in an internal memo in 1983, later leaked,
[t]he consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5)°C [equal to 5.4 ± 1.7°F]… There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.
Cohen decided to reverse his position later, joining a denial think tank created by Exxon. Disinformation campaigns have emerged over time from various industrial leaders, the Koch leaders being a particular example. In the academic field of climate science, near unanimity of the scope and risk of ecological catastrophe is easy to find, documented heavily by various non-partisan organizations such as Skeptical Science. The majority of scientists in other fields and government scientific agencies also agree with the consensus, documented by NASA. Astonishingly, as the consensus has solidified and global temperatures have risen steadily by easily understood anthropomorphic mechanisms, the Republican party’s official position has shifted increasingly in the direction of mind-numbingly stupid denialism. Vox offered an intriguing look at the evolution of the Republican position on environmentalism in an April 22 article, tracing the perspectives as beginning with more sound acceptance of scientific research, gradually eased out by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s and both the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy in the 1980s, along with a tidal wave of anti-establishment politics in Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory. Ann Gorsuch, mother of Trump’s recent far-right appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, headed the Environmental Protection Agency with a penchant for dismantling the regulatory and administrative state shared by the nationalist Bannon contingency in today’s executive branch. She later resigned amidst threats from the Democratic-led Congress to investigate allegations into corruption; a SCOTUS decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council 1984 broadened agency interpretation of legislation, reversing somewhat Reagan’s efforts at deregulation. Nonetheless, institutional denial has increased as the science has become more certain; analyst Noam Chomsky points to institutional bias of corporations as a partial culprit, pointing out that a CEO of a multinational corporation, even if aware of the overwhelming dangers, cannot risk profits, even at great moral cost. Anglo-American legal precedent offers evidence in Dodge v. Ford in 1919, codifying the position that corporations granted charters in America must pursue profits above all other considerations, meaning the rest, as I would imagine most people know, is public relations. We’ll return to the contradiction of rising denialism corresponding to increasing uniformity in the scientific consensus momentarily, but to circle back to Krugman’s editorial, the official Republican party position has become increasingly fact-free, or perhaps more appropriately fact-abhorrent. As he points out, whether it be environmentalism, the budget, healthcare, and the like, Trump’s programs, and by a marginal difference, the Paul Ryan fiscal wing, are almost completely without any constructive intent. Trump’s own leaked internal analysis of his first stab at healthcare reform had even more dire projections than the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment, despite all the bluster to the contrary. As Chomsky has pointed out previously, the Republican party no longer follows parliamentary procedure, nor does it care about the opinions of experts, scientists, or anyone offering anything challenging their fragile, fantastical world-view, echoing conservative analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in declaring the “unparty” to be a “radical insurgency”. This madness extends to the stubborn, Republican position that curtailing fossil fuel consumption would destroy jobs, no longer supported by any facts since renewable energy job projections far exceed any job loss associated with older energy programs, reported by Fortune; even today, the number of jobs in renewable energy exceeds that of non-renewables, according to a Department of Energy study. In older arguments I’ve heard throughout my life, conservatives have pointed to the high cost of investment in renewable energy, again ignorant of the pervasive state capitalism model we’ve discussed previously : heavy government investment in the technology sector during the more expensive phase of research and development, followed by private interests cashing in once the technology becomes marketable. So in summary, every argument offered by Republicans contravening meaningful action against ecological catastrophe folds like a cheap card table under the enormity of scientific consensus and thorough economic analysis.
So certainly we can point to institutional corruption and the shift rightward of both major political parties, placing one center right and the other in outer space, in explaining part of the propaganda campaign against environmentalism, but how do we explain some of the more curious phenomena with respect to attitudes and beliefs? Sociologist Kari Marie Noorgard of the University of Oregon has an interesting set of answers in her 2011 book Living in Denial. She compares a few competing theories on denialism: the first theory, for instance discussed in Harriet Bulkeley’s paper in 2000 on Australian attitudes, suggests that denialism is rooted in disinformation campaigns of corrupt institutions and ignorance of the population, neatly a problem of information. The more astonishing theory, echoing work in Norway by Hellevik and Barstad in 2004, asserts that willingness to solve climate change diminishes as public awareness grows. Similar work in the United States by Kellsted, Zahran, and Vedlitz finds a similar, stunning trend : the more people know about the problem, the less responsible they feel for it. Aside from the 26% of Americans who stubbornly refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus, coincident with Trump’s more galvanized nativist base, many of us simply refuse to take responsibility for it, and thus fail to pressure the political elite to ignore intensive lobbying from fossil-fuel firms. In fact, I found in reading the theory that I, too am part of the contingency; though I drive an electric car to reduce emissions, aim for aluminum can consumption rather than plastic bottle since aluminum is cheaper and easier to recycle, lobby officials on behalf of environmental causes, and eat virtually no meat, I nonetheless have a much larger carbon footprint than do most people, mainly in very frequent air travel to see family scattered across the continent. It occurred to me in thinking about the problem that I, too, feel a sense of resignation in the defeat of either more environmentally-friendly or more malleable candidates, such as Clinton in 2016 (more the latter than the former, as the Democratic party barely addresses the climate concerns), and thus somehow feel less responsible for the damage done either in the manufacture of products that I buy or not more vehemently pressing local, state, and federal representatives to pursue more sustainable policies. Calmer, more educated conservatives point to this contradiction as part of the problem of framing, as in the American Conservative. They complain that liberals, if that term even makes sense anymore, appeal to social justice, uplifting indigenous populations vulnerable to sea rises, and the like, notions argued to be viscerally repulsive to their less educated Christian conservative brethren. It’s rather stunning to me that one could profess to be Christ-like yet be unconcerned with social justice, but then again most flavors of religion offer a mixture of dogmatism, progressivism, oppression, liberation, and so on, depending on where you look. Certainly Christian conservative politicians fall off the spectrum, with such notables as Jim Inhofe saying,
God is still up there... arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.
In other words, if God chooses to let us burn, we shouldn’t buck His divine plans. Fervently religious, the Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential election all denied climate science, with the exception of John Kasich and tentatively Jeb Bush, despite admonitions from the Good Book about protecting mother nature. Neither of the “adults in the room” thought we should do anything about it, incidentally. And it’s debatable whether Trump has ever read any book, let alone one on science of any kind beyond Little Golden Books.
In any case, Noorgard’s research suggests to me that most of us, whether we’re knowledgeable or not, bear responsibility for what happens with regard to this existential threat. Admittedly, convincing the unscientifically-minded and the institutionally-indoctrinated of the gravity presents challenges, but we’re fast running out of options. Facing believers and non-believers alike are
- retreating glaciers, something visually perceivable thanks to photography and more recently satellite imagery,
- extreme weather, destroying coastal cities and killing thousands of people,
- extinction rates at least 1000 times the background rate, catapulting us into a sixth extinction event,
- crop destruction affecting food supplies of thousands in third-world nations,
- coastal flooding in low-lying regions such as Bangladesh, a worsening of which would generate refugee crises never before seen in civilization,
- diminishing water supplies as Himalayan ice caps melt, potentially depriving southeast Asian populations of all drinkable water and increasing tensions between the nuclear states India and Pakistan,
- melting of Siberian tundra, releasing from peat bogs vast reserves of the significantly more potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere,
and the terrifying list grows. And unlike in the mortgage crisis of 2008, the stock market crash of 1929, the savings and loans disaster of the 1980s, the automotive crisis of 2008 to 2010, and other “free market” disasters, corporations primarily responsible for ecological destruction will find no nanny state riding to the rescue when the elites finally ask for help, cap contritely in hand, to borrow an expression from Chomsky.