Climate change denial is not dead
By Professor Michael E. Mann
The era of climate change denial is over.
Rejection of the unequivocal scientific evidence that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are warming the planet and changing our climate is no longer socially acceptable.
Only the most fringe of politicians now disputes the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused, and they are largely ignored.
So why dignify the notion of climate change denial by writing about it?
Such was the criticism I received from many well-meaning fellow climate scientists last fall after I published my latest book, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy,” co-authored with Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles.
I wish the critics had been right. But of course, they weren’t.
Our book couldn’t seem any more prophetic now. For we are firmly back in the madhouse. Climate change denial is once again in vogue in Washington, D.C. As of Jan. 20, it is now the official policy of our executive branch.
Our new president, Donald Trump, has, of course, infamously dismissed global warming as a Chinese hoax and “a big scam for a lot of people a lot of money.” He has vowed to cancel U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement and has threatened to block the Clean Power Plan, a measure to reduce carbon emissions in the power sector. Among his key advisers are some of the most notorious climate change deniers. One has suggested cutting NASA’s entire climate research program dismissing it, with no apparent sense of irony as, “heavily politicized.”
Trump is in the process of putting together a climate change denial dream team to run his administration. His nominee for Energy secretary, Rick Perry — who would readily eliminate the department if he could remember its name, wrote in his 2010 book that “we have been experiencing a cooling trend” — in reality, 2016 was the third consecutive warmest year on record.
Trump’s nominee for Interior secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), plays down climate change as “not proven science” (there is in fact widespread agreement among the world’s scientists that climate change is real and human-caused), and his nominee for secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is the chief executive of ExxonMobil, a company that is notorious for the disinformation campaign it has waged against the science of human-caused climate change.
Trump’s nominee for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, asserted earlier this year in National Review that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind,” once again ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. He is one of a group of Republican state attorneys general who have sued the EPA over the plan.
Add to all this the Trump team’s disturbing demand a month ago that the Energy Department identify employees and contractors who have been involved in climate meetings during the Obama administration. Trump and his team backed off on this “enemy’s list” approach to climate policy as negative publicity continued to mount, but its chilling effect continues to be felt. The fear that the incoming Trump administration might slash government-funded climate laboratories, decommission key weather satellites and cancel key programs prompted a massive effort to archive government climate data before the incoming Trump administration can engage in any mischief.
Since then, Trump has now barred the EPA from publishing studies or data prior to review by political appointees and has told them to remove mention of climate change from their website. The White House’s own climate webpage has been disappeared for good measure. And he has now appointed a climate change denier from the execrable Heartland Institute — an industry front group funded by the Koch brothers and others — to oversee the transition at NOAA.
It is difficult to keep up with this dizzying ongoing assault on science.
Indeed, that assault was enough to motivate my fellow climate scientists and me to participate in a rally at the annual meeting of the largest Earth Science organization in the country, the American Geophysical Union, last December. And now there is a much larger plan afoot for a scientists’ march on Washington next month.
We scientists are, in general, a reticent lot who would much rather spend our time in the lab, out in the field, teaching and doing research. It is only the most unusual of circumstances that gets us marching in the streets. Trump’s assault on science is just such a circumstance. And we are seeing a rebellion continue to mount.
Trump’s demand last week that the National Park Service freeze its Twitter account — an ironic demand indeed from a president whose preferred means of communication is that very medium — met with a remarkable act of resistance and defiance. The Badlands National Park Twitter account not only continued to tweet, it did so issuing inconvenient (for the Trump administration) facts about the reality and threat of climate change. The tweets were later deleted, but within a matter of days, more than a dozen rogue unofficial agency Twitter accounts emerged, posting key climate change facts.
Trump and his fossil fuel-soaked administration cannot hold back the tide of history. The transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy is, as my friend Bill Nye says, unstoppable.”
The rest of the world is moving ahead in meeting its obligations under the Paris climate accord, and countries like China have indicated they are more than willing to fill the void in leadership if Trump reneges on our Paris obligations. California Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated that the state will accelerate its transition toward clean energy, regardless of what Trump does, and that it will even take up any slack that results from Trump’s attempts to cut funding for basic climate research, exclaiming that “California will launch it’s own damn satellite!”
We may have to withstand a vacuum in climate leadership at the national level for the next several years, given the stranglehold that fossil fuel interests currently have on the presidency and the Republican congressional leadership. Yet any continued delays in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions might well commit us to more than six feet of sea level rise and massive coastal flooding, more devastating storms, historic deluges and crippling summer heat and drought.
That makes it all the more important that we make headway when it comes to action at the individual, municipal, state and international level. There is progress to be made on those fronts as we await a change, which will inevitably come, in the prevailing U.S. political winds.
Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at The Pennsylvania State University, director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, and author of three books, including “The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars,” “Dire Predictions” and “The Madhouse Effect.”
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