Written by Edward Langley
The Trump-appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, startled the scientific community last month by announcing that he did not believe the long-settled argument that carbon dioxide is the primary contributor to global warming. He did not ‘agree’ with the scientific consensus on this issue, contradicting what is even written on the EPA’s own website: ‘Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change’. A claim that is backed up by NASA.
Only, this isn’t an issue or claim to be argued with, it’s a fact. Just like the Earth is round and E = mc 2, this is a fact that can be, and has been proven time and time again. In fact, over 97% of scientists who study climate change agree that human activity of burning CO2 is its cause. Now most people who haven’t studied the subject naturally wouldn’t know much about climate change science and that’s obviously fine, why should they? I certainly don’t know much about the details. Science has never been my personal forte.
But in these situations we should lend our ears to the people who have actually studied the issue in depth. The scientists, not the politicians. Just like if you woke up very ill or noticed some strange symptoms and needed medical advice, you’d go to your GP’s surgery, not your MP’s. If you found yourself in the situation of needing to diffuse a bomb and had by your side a bomb disposal expert who’d studied it their whole life, and someone who had no experience in the area, whose advice would you ask for? It’s the exact same for science on global warming.
Before going any further, it’s probably worth addressing the question of why should we care about the environment in the first place. This may seem obvious to some people, but seemingly it isn’t so clear to others like Craig Idso of the ‘Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Climate Change’, (which may have a sensible sounding name but is actually just a non-profit group aiming to undermine the scientific evidence behind climate change) who recently told a crowd at a conservative climate conference that “Atmospheric CO2 is not a pollutant, It is the elixir of life.”
The fact that 2016 was the hottest year on record and this has continued into 2017, putting our planet into “truly uncharted territory” according to the World Meteorological Organisation, may sound fun to some people. Sun! Shorts! Endless summer! I mean who cares if a few polar bears lose their ice caps? If it means I can strut my stuff in a tank top all year round then why should I care about some flooding in random parts of the world? Isn’t it just a ‘hoax’ anyway, just some more classic fake news spread by the pinko liberal Hollywood establishment elites?
Well, maybe it is. But then again if we assume the people who have studied the topic are best suited to answer, there’s a 97% chance it isn’t. And if the scientists are right, the polar bears aren’t the only ones who are screwed from global warming.
Water-borne diseases like Malaria will plague poorer parts of the world as rainfall increases. According to Dr. Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford, climate change could cause over 500,000 deaths in 2050 alone due to the increasing extremity of storms, floods, earthquakes, and wildfires as well as reduce food availability by a third: “Climate change is likely to have a substantial negative impact on future mortality, even under optimistic scenarios.” The World Health Organisation is equally as damning predicting that ‘Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.’
So maybe Scotty P just hasn’t done his homework. Or perhaps he knows something we don’t, maybe he’s one of the 3% of experts who reject the consensus but they’re actually right, the ‘super-experts’ who can see the truth. Unlikely- he’s never studied the environment nor is he qualified at science in any respect. But its not just Scott Pruitt who’s fallen to the 3%, Republicans throughout the House and Senate outright deny the existence of man-made global warming; from moderates like Paul Ryan who accept that the Earth is warming, but deny any human involvement, to those on the far right of the party like Jim Inhofe, a fierce climate change skeptic who rabidly opposes any progress on combatting global warming, denying that the Earth is warming at all: ‘we are actually in a cold period that started nine years ago…’ claimed Inhofe in 2010 ‘…Now, thats not me talking, those are the scientists that say that.’ Except it wasn’t the scientists who were saying that, it was just Inhofe and his Republican colleagues.
Some of them waver when pressed on the specifics of their beliefs like ex-Speaker John Boehner who said in 2014 “Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change. But I am astute enough to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs.” Even if we take what Boehner says to be true, surely saving the planet for our children is more important than saving a few jobs? And while we’re on the topic of ‘killing American jobs’, 3000 people lost their jobs at the EPA due to budget cuts this March. At least under Obama the Democrats tried to implement policies that would aim to address climate change, Republicans are yet to put forward any solution that would cut emissions.
In fact the 2016 Republican party platform said that ‘environmental extremists’ in the Democratic party were attempting to ‘sustain the illusion of an environmental crisis.’
So why are Republicans so opposed to believing in climate change, or just reluctant to do anything about it? Many on the left would point their fingers at the Koch brothers, the notorious donors who pledged the year before to donate $880 million to Republican candidates in 2016. Koch Industries annual revenue is an impressive $115 billion, but this comes at the cost of emitting over 300 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. The Koch brothers give by far the most donations to Republicans to defend their cause, but they’re not the only culprits: ExxonMobil continue to give millions to politicians and corporate lobbyist groups who reject the scientific consensus despite pledging in 2007 that they’d stop such funding.
Exxon hasn’t always denied the science however, corporate documents from the late 1970s stated ‘there is no doubt’ that the CO2 from burning fossil fuels was a ‘problem’. However since then, in a similar manoeuvre to how the tobacco industry sowed misinformation about the health effects of cigarettes, Exxon decided that profits would come above the planet. According to the activist Bill McKibben : “ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most powerful oil company, knew everything there was to know about climate change by the mid-1980s, and then spent the next few decades systematically funding climate denial and lying about the state of the science.”
There’s more to it than that however, and it’s unfair to paint all Republicans as being in the pockets of big oil companies. Some conservatives argue that believing in a free market system and private property rights must mean opposing the restrictions that environmental regulation places on businesses. This may be fair enough since clamping down on firms who will inevitably have to pollute in some way hampers growth which is of core importance to free market ideals. So maybe trying to slow down global warming is just incompatible with conservative ideology, but this doesn’t explain why other conservative parties across the world support measures to address climate change. As pointed out by Sondre Båtstrand, a researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway who studied the manifestos of nine conservative parties across the world including the UK and Australia: “Even though other conservative parties might share skepticism towards concrete political measures, the Republican Party is the only to openly question climate science and to criticise political opponents for taking climate change seriously”.
So it is just Republicans, then. But this brings us back to our question of why they in particular are so out of step with the rest of the world. Why do they think they know better than the scientists on an issue that is so tied to the fate of humanity and the world?
The fairest way to answer this is by asking some of the deniers in the party themselves. Jim Inhofe is widely seen to be the poster boy of climate change denial, and was up until this January chairman of the Senate Environment Committee. His position on the subject is more radical than most Republicans in Congress so he obviously doesn’t speak for all of them, but since he is the most vocal on the issue and the purist in his opposition to environmentalism, looking at Inhofe’s justifications for his views are a decent place to start. In 2012 Inhofe said: “God’s still up there, the 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.”
He has also said “It’s all about money. I mean, what would happen to the Weather Channel’s ratings if all the sudden people weren’t scared anymore?”. And stated that rising temperatures: “coincided with the greatest advancement of living standards, life expectancy, food production and human health in the history of our planet. So it is hard to argue that the global warming we experienced in the 20th century was somehow negative”.
Now Inhofe’s faith in God is only something to be respected, and any hostility he holds towards weather companies is none of our business. But in the realm of science and stacked up against all of the evidence pointing otherwise, the points he makes are either misleading or just non-arguments. In fairness he does seem to acknowledge this, claiming he has “never pointed to Scriptures in a debate, because I know this would discredit me,” and when asked by Democrat Jay Inslee on why he thinks he knows better than the IPCC’s 2,000 climate scientists, Inhofe said he’d given “five speeches on the science.” Inhofe may not have always held these contrarian views however, as he said to Rachel Maddow: “I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.”
Some Republicans who do acknowledge the environmental damage caused by climate change may argue that the free market will provide solutions. Now this is certainly a very respectable position, acknowledging there is a issue is the first step to treating the GOP’s denial problem. And whilst I agree that the free market does have an important role to play in countering climate change, we can’t just wait until the environmental damage is so bad companies start realising there could be profit made in trying to reverse it. We have to act now, with government intervention.
But there is hope. Not all Republicans have been swallowed by the destructive pit of climate change denial. There are those who have seen light, and a bold few daring to challenge the GOP orthodoxy. Take Bob Inglis for example, a conservative convert. He was first stirred on the issue when challenged by his son, who said “Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.” He then visited Antarctica in 2006 as a member of the House Committee on Science and saw first-hand the damage being done to the ice core. Having witnessed the actual effects of global warming, he later had a crucial discussion with an Australian climate scientist at Great Barrier Reef. That the scientist was deeply religious, like himself, awakened him to the spiritual component within environmentalism that he realised was perfectly compatible with his conservative Christian faith: “I could see he worshipped the God of creation, and not the creation itself”, he remarked. Since then, Inglis has been on a committed mission to convert the non-believers. He founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University- among its core propositions is an elimination of all fuel subsidies as well as a carbon tax. Inglis was the recipient of the 2015 Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation “for the courage he demonstrated when reversing his position on climate change after extensive briefings with scientists, and discussions with his children, about the impact of atmospheric warming on our future.” What he proposes on his website, republicEn.Org, are free-market solutions to climate change that he argues will lead to job creation as well as boost competition. However, unfortunately, Bob’s tenure as US Representative in the House came to an end in 2010 when he was unseated by a Tea Party challenger, who used Inglis’ enlightened views on global warming to falsely tarnish him as “removed from the interests of the district” (his state, North Carolina, is expected to see sea levels rise by 39 inches over the coming century). Despite this, he boasted a 93.5% approval rating from the American Conservative Union, 100% from the Christian Coalition of America and an A from the NRA.
So what can we learn from Bob Inglis? Firstly, it’s possible to be a Republican (and a conservative Christian no less) yet still escape the billion dollar-laden grip of the fossil fuel industry. Most importantly however, what must be taken from his heroic actions is the method behind them. Progressives alone do not have the voting power in Congress to push through vital climate policy. With the whole of the federal and most state governments comfortably in the hands of the GOP and a President hell-bent on silencing Democrats, change needs to come from conservatives. There is good reason for optimism: 47% of conservatives now say the climate is changing, up 19 points since 2014.
Inglis was right that people respond best to language in keeping with their values. Egalitarian language may hold sway with Democrat voters, but for Republicans the message must be in keeping with their commitment to individualism and the free-market, or compatible with belief in God. Respecting God’s creation should be a no-brainer for Christians, and it’s no surprise that there is a movement of green Christians. Indeed, international charities like Christian Aid are actively pushing for a binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions.
So why are Republicans generally so against doing anything to combat climate change? The answer still isn’t clear cut. It could be something to do with ties to fossil fuel companies, it could be plain ignorance, or it could be fear of how much it would cost. But we do know with certainty that climate change denial doesn’t go hand in hand with conservative ideology. You can be a conservative and still be an environmentalist. Conservative. Conservation. They’re not so different.
Indeed one of the most conservative presidential candidate there’s ever been, Barry Goldwater, said “While I am a great believer in the free enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment.”
You see, maybe it’s not just a Chinese hoax after all.