How to Talk about Climate Change in the Age of Trump

November 22, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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For all of those who study, understand, worry over, and fight against climate change, the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election was a soul-crushing disappointment. For those who face the realities of a changing climate on a daily basis, such as the Inuit of Greenland, who have seen ice sheets retreating at an alarming rate – and with them, their wild game – it is nothing less than a slap in the face.
Regrettably, the American electorate chose a president and vice president who believe that climate change is a hoax – that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change that is shared by hundreds of institutions and thousands of researchers is some kind of conspiracy against a vibrant economy.
How terribly mistaken they are in that belief.
Not only is the science of climate change extremely persuasive, but the economic ramifications of a warming planet are severely underappreciated by the very people who view economic strength as the country’s highest priority. A lot hangs in the balance in 2016. The world’s governments are just now ratifying the first serious international climate accord, which has been signed by over 190 countries. For many, including myself, the Paris accord is too weak and vague on its own to achieve the kinds of emissions reductions that the world needs, if warming is to be kept below 2 degrees Celsius vis-à-vis pre-industrial levels. But it is the only framework that we have, and it must be supported and strengthened if we have any chance of preventing the worst climate change scenarios.
Which is why it’s so troubling that the president-elect has threatened to withdraw from the Paris accord, drawing immediate (and somewhat surprising) rebukes from many large American firms, including Nike, Starbucks, and the Gap, not to mention countless environmental groups and foreign governments. 65 percent of Americans now worry about climate change a “great deal,” although voting behavior suggests that some of those worriers nonetheless voted against their own apparent concerns.
It is not clear what will happen with the Paris accord, or what will happen with climate policy more generally in the United States. Will we see a return to the Bush years, in which climate scientists were bullied, politicized, and censored? Regardless of what lies ahead, the struggle against climate change continues, and this discouraging election requires new attitudes, new resolve, and new tactics in the public debate on climate.
The reality is that the world must suffer the Denier-in-Chief for the next four years, whose views on climate are likely to embolden that 35 percent who remain blissfully unconcerned about our new environmental realities. But the work of building a more sustainable society, adapting to the climatic alterations that are likely to occur, and finding new and creative ways to reduce our emissions can and will move ahead.  
Given the new political realities in the United States, we need a new approach to building broad consensus on both adaptation and mitigation. Here is how those who understand climate change and its effects should approach the newly emboldened climate skeptics in the Age of Trump:
1. If Possible, Avoid Talking About Climate Change Much At All
This seems like odd advice, given the nature of this article. But as I have argued elsewhere, and as a growing body of research confirms, the political nature of the climate debate has made it difficult for those on the left, right, and center to set aside political differences and agree on the science. The subject of climate change is now a wedge issue that must suffer our increasingly dysfunctional either-or political culture. “If Democrats believe in it, then I, as a Republican, must perforce reject it.”
What I have found is that agreement on environmental action – action that happens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewables – is best achieved by avoiding the vexing issue of climate altogether. When speaking with hardened climate skeptics, the focus of the debate should shift to other concerns, upon which it is easier (and less politically delicate) to forge assent.   
2. The First Concern is Human Health and Air Pollution
Increasingly, climate activists focus on human health, for the very excellent reason that broad agreement already exists that humans should be able to live and flourish in a healthy environment. Moreover, it is relatively simple to wrap one’s brain around the importance of and risks to healthy bodies; certainly much easier than it is to imagine the long-distance impacts of pollution on, say, remote Arctic regions.
The World Health Organization now estimates that about 1 in every 7 or 8 deaths worldwide is directly related to air pollution, especially in large cities. Now, air pollution is a somewhat separate issue to that of climate change, given that not all air pollutants are potent greenhouse gases. But the two issues are nonetheless intimately related, and reducing urban air pollution is often synonymous with reducing emissions. Further, many in the United States live in urban areas in which smog is a real concern, and thus the problem of air pollution is less difficult to grasp.
3. The Second Concern is Energy Independence, Power, and National Security
Although the new administration is skeptical on climate change, the rather conservative US military establishment is not. A report released by the military in 2016 acknowledges that climate change poses a “significant and direct” threat to peaceful global relations. The US imports considerable petroleum resources from countries that are often hostile to the United States, and it still relies overwhelmingly on non-renewables energy sources. As of 2016, the US produces less than 14 percent of its energy from renewables. As fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive, and as the US faces new challenges in international affairs, it only makes sense to invest in renewable technologies that will secure America’s political and military influence, and which would also reduce emissions along the way. This kind of argument is vastly more persuasive and relevant to conservatives rightly concerned about America’s uncertain future in world affairs.
4. It’s Not About Science, It’s About Culture
Numerous writers and scholars, including Mike Hulme, Erik Conway, Naomi Oreskes, Andy Hoffman, and George Monbiot, have argued in recent years that the climate debate is less about science and more about conflicting worldviews, political leanings, and cultural concerns.[1] Thus it doesn’t make sense to cite more facts and more climate reports when discussing climate change with the skeptics. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way on more than one occasion.
As Andy Hoffman has shown, arguments over climate change are very rarely about carbon dioxide and climate models. They are nearly always about other things, including fears that the political left is using climate change as an excuse to intervene in the free market. (Given that the president-elect is hostile towards free trade agreements, it’s hard to know what conservatives currently want from the economy.) To be sure, there is a scientific consensus but not a social consensus on the reality of climate change. Further, there is a pervasive skepticism, bordering on hostility, toward the scientific community among hard-core conservatives, and thus invoking scientific truth only serves to muddy the waters.
So if it is true that cultural differences, and not scientific ambiguities, are the real source of our ongoing social disagreements, then it stands to reason that relying on rational scientific data to solve our disputes is a pointless endeavor. Rather, we must find those shared cultural concerns that can form the basis of real climate (or “climate”) action.
5. Let’s Not Ignore the Economics
The likelihood of economic hardship in the medium and long term is rarely discussed in the debates over climate change, even though concerns about economic vitality sit at the heart of climate skepticism.
So then let’s talk about economics.
In 2006, the respected economist Nicholas Stern attempted to calculate the expected costs of action versus inaction on climate change. He originally determined that it would cost 1 percent of global GDP to create a society that ran sustainably on renewables, and later doubled that number to 2 percent.[2] That’s a lot of money. But even more expensive will be the costs of inaction.
The original Stern Review warns that failure to both mitigate and adapt to climate change will begin to drain national economies of an increasing percentage of their GDP. In the near future the number might approximate 5 percent of GDP; in the next few decades, it could jump as high as 20 percent. This month, Stern acknowledged that even the latter estimate was too low. “With hindsight, I now realize that I underestimated the risks. I should have been much stronger in what I said in the report about the costs of inaction. I underplayed the dangers.”[3]
With a significant portion of national wealth going to pay for the effects of climate change, it seems quite impossible that the world will have a viable economy in a warming climate. The upshot is that it will almost certainly cost less to deal with climate change now than it will in the future.
Put differently, climate change is bad for business, and at a certain point, the costs will essentially outweigh the revenues of the global economies, making overall profitability seem rather impossible. Our economy would become a gigantic effort to concentrate capital for the express purpose of coping with the effects of climate change.
It’s a bit like the parent who takes a job in order to pay for daycare, even though the costs of that care actually exceed the parent’s net income. It makes better economic and social sense to stay home with the child.
Further, there’s a real concern that without serious investment in renewables – a concept that is now wholeheartedly supported by Hank Paulson and other Wall Street tycoons – the US will fail to remain competitive. This is the argument that has been made by Thomas Friedman. The lack of preparedness for peak oil will mean that the US will be playing catch-up with rival economies, many of which are investing in renewables now, thereby freeing up future financial resources. Indeed, the US lags behind on renewable energy. Denmark now produces 42 percent of its own energy via renewables. Germany is at 31 percent. China is at 20 percent; Canada at about 19. The US has not yet surpassed 14.
The public can and should be having serious discussions about how economies can survive climate change. But clearly, inaction is not an option.
The Paris climate accord might thus be reframed in light of these economic concerns. For those who still feel skeptical about the science, perhaps Paris is best viewed as a kick in the pants to spur the growth of renewables and clean tech, which would bring long-term benefits to the economy, national security, and urban air pollution, not to mention create the conditions for new jobs and technologies.
Renewables create stable employment, too, since this sector is is generally less subject to the fluctuations of fossil fuel markets, such as the current economic downturn that has befallen Alberta’s tar sands. Nearly 400,000 people work in the renewable energy sector in Germany, and as of 2015, in Canada, there are more people employed in renewables than in fossil fuels. Renewables will provide good, stable jobs, and will become one of the cornerstones of the American economy.  
6. Build Consensus and Find Common Ground, Especially on Adaptation
Although I use generic terms such as “denier” and “skeptic,” the reality is that there are different categories of climate-related doubt. There are fundamentally five views on climate change held by the public, which can be summarized as follows:
A.      The climate is not changing at all
B.      The climate is changing and having effects, but not because of human action; the changes are entirely “natural”
C.      The climate is changing and having effects, but we do not know why
D.     The climate is changing and having effects, humans are partly to blame, but are not the principal driver of this change
E.      The climate is changing and having effects, and humans are the principal driver of this change
Categories A through D are routinely mixed up or misidentified. As far as I can tell, there isn’t much at all that one can do with those in category A, except to steer the conversation toward health and national security. However those in categories B, C, and D have much in common with those in category E, and the middle three groups clearly constitute the majority of the skeptic population.
This is significant because it creates a foundation for consensus and common ground on at least some issues, the most important of which is the need to take adaptation seriously. In theory, all those in categories B through E should agree that it makes good sense to adapt to the realities of the new climate, for instance, by preparing cities in low-lying areas for expected increases in sea level.
But what about emissions reductions? The consensus on this subject will have to come from the other concerns cited above.
For all those fretting over the outcome of the election, there is still hope that a broad consensus on climate change can emerge in the US. After all, by denying climate change, the new administration is going against the clear majority of Americans, the entire scientific community, and even the US military.
As I have argued previously, those of different political and cultural viewpoints can agree that “emissions from fossil fuels must be reduced and that countries should produce their own safe, low-impact, renewable energies.”[4] And we don’t necessarily need the science of climate change to reach that important conclusion.

[1] See Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009); Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt (2010); Andy Hoffman, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (2015); George Monbiot, Heat (2006).
[2] Nicholas Stern, The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006)


Jeremy L. Caradonna

Jeremy L. Caradonna, PhD, teaches Environmental Studies and the Human Dimensions of Climate Change at the University of Victoria. He is the author of Sustainability: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014/2016). He is the former owner of an organic food company in Victoria, BC. He is active in permaculture, biofuels, gardening, and the organic food movement. He is married with two kids.

Tags: American politics, climate change, climate change communication