When one-time Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee quipped in 2015 that “a beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn,” the comment, a response to a Barack Obama speech about climate change as an urgent security threat, was met with laughter and applause. His audience was not mocking Huckabee’s ignorance so much as openly acknowledging his skepticism. America was in a dangerous place, and whatever was causing their collective unease, for many Americans, climate change was the least of their concerns.
The GOP has been largely cynical about environmental campaigns and climate change policies for more than two decades, yet it’s only recently that this skepticism has found its champion in the Trump administration.
There are many reasons for their doubt. Climate change has long been a bugaboo of right-leaning political campaigns and is typically associated with big government action in the form of taxes and so-called “elite” authority. Hence, in an age of mistrust and misinformation, climate research has been politicized with scientists often perceived as just as susceptible to “globalist” influence as Democrat politicians.
A dramatically shifting work environment for blue collar workers has been identified as one reason for the resentment that Trump so expertly manipulated. Automation could eliminate a further one million American jobs by 2026, according to some reports (while others say the threat from AI won’t be nearly so bad as many fear.) Either way, the uncertainty facing countless middle class workers and their families across the country has bred much resentment as the wealth disparity gap widens. To many worried about being left behind, Trump, seen as a resourceful billionaire, promised a return to a time when employment and steady wages felt less threatened by global influences.
Climate change denialism was slowly woven into mainstream media with any criticism discarded as “fake news.”
In 2015, the United Nations Climate Change Conference and its resulting Paris Climate Accord represented exactly the kind of “elite” and global authoritative voice that some workers felt punished them for merely filling up the tank to go about their everyday lives, even if their actions were damaging to the environment. And science, strangely, has no role to play in this conversation, as many Trump voters aren’t questioning the science so much as the motives behind those who seek to put checks on their behaviour.
The combination of this conservative culture with alt-right conspiracies is a new phenomenon. Steve Bannon’s entrance to the Trump campaign as chief strategist gave the alt-right a mainstream platform to tout its conspiracies about everything from the Clinton Foundation to the threat of “globalist” institutions. Bannon’s undeniable talent in working the press helped legitimize climate skepticism in the eyes of many. And, alongside Trump’s friends at Fox News, climate change denialism was slowly woven into mainstream media with any criticism discarded as “fake news.”
While mainstream news sources also accuse the alt-right of inaccuracies, facts, nowadays, have become disturbingly subjective. This shift has allowed the alt-right to justify their reporting with carefully selected facts, liberally peppered with “facts.” On climate change, they point to the hypocrisy of Al Gore, the former U.S. Vice President and climate campaigner, who produces massive quantities of greenhouse gases in traversing the world to advocate for sustainability and environmental conservation. But this narrow thinking goes straight to the top, seen when Donald Trump himself tweets about the appearance of snow as evidence of the absence of rising global temperatures.
Denialism and its impact on climate scientists
It doesn’t help that scientists are often not the best communicators. Most are used to speaking to other experts in their respective fields, relying on language and mannerisms common in academia. However, this language fails to resonate with mass media and the public. Meanwhile, the scientific method itself relies on uncertainty and constant testing of findings. No conclusion made through research can ever guarantee its accuracy, yet the public demands answers, not probabilities. Alt-right media has succeeded in large part by delivering firm, false and simplified answers to highly complex questions, rather than language presented in what can often be inaccessible scientific journals.
Although an overwhelming consensus of researchers confirm that climate change is happening, conspiracy theorists have concluded that no response is needed due to the uncertain nature of the science. Researchers typically regard these challenges as refutations to the methods of their research rather than blatant misinformation from people with no scientific expertise.
The ever-increasing climate skeptic opinions leaking into the mainstream has made the scientific community even more uncertain of their own expertise and place in society, prompting many to publish even more significant findings to justify their evidence which, as expected, fuelled more skepticism from the alt-right. Consequently, Trumpism has given skeptics and experts an unearned equal footing. And to Trump supporters and independents, the debate (itself a problematic idea) looks fair and balanced, rather than the growth of a culture of misinformation. Trump himself refers to these disagreements as “keeping an open mind.”
Kelly Craft, America’s ambassador to Canada since 2017, seemingly agrees. In a recent CBC interview, Craft, whose husband Joel is the CEO of one of America's largest coal companies, said there are facts supporting both climate change science and its denial. While many have criticized the absurdity of such a claim, it’s undeniable that whether one “believes” in climate science has been, to some extent, legitimized.
A culture of alternative facts
The power behind this culture of alternative facts can not only outcompete scientists, but ultimately change societal development. Recently, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which highlighted many consequences of the current trajectory of anthropogenic climate change, received only a dismissive response from the president. His nominee for Environmental Protection Agency’s permanent chief, Andrew Wheeler, has supported Trump’s continued skepticism on climate change by calling the report a scare tactic deployed by the Obama Administration, as the report, created partly during Obama’s tenure, had presented a worst case climate scenario that demonstrates the drastic economic and environmental degradation if current consumption patterns continue.
The ever-increasing climate skeptic opinions leaking into the mainstream has made the scientific community even more uncertain of their own expertise and voice in society.
Although many other more optimistic routes for green growth were proposed as a suggestion to change our current ways, Wheeler chose to focus on the worst case scenario, blaming scientific research for sensationalizing climate change and exaggerating the truth. With Wheeler’s current position and influence at the EPA, he has expressed a wish to re-evaluate all climate assessment methods for the agency’s next report. As a former coal lobbyist, Wheeler will have the authority to influence how expert opinion is presented, all while altering the definition of scientific truth.
But Trumpism may become one of America’s most influential exports, bolstering a culture of skepticism and alternative facts that is taking root in countries across Europe, South America and even Canada. As the U.S. abandons its Paris goals, more countries may follow suit. If they do, climate research will only become more marginalized.
The United Nations, meanwhile, built a series of Sustainable Development Goals into the Paris Climate Accord for a reason: By 2050, nine billion people are expected to live on the planet by that time, representing a 50 percent increase in demand for food, energy and resources. It’s impossible to achieve human welfare in the long term without clean energy and a general attitude of sustainability. If we have any chance of meeting these goals, the United States, with all its influence, must become a leader in climate reform.
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