News and Views

Opinion: The Paris accords and rise of climate change scepticism

15 Jun
Anthony Angelini, lecturer with Adult Continuing Education (ACE), UCC.

Donald Trump’s decision to take America out of the Paris climate accord has been met with global derision. What lies behind it, asks Anthony Angelini.

Trump insisted that his main motivation for leaving the accord was the economic damage it would do American businesses; particularly industries like coal. But Trump’s statement seems to be at odds with reality. Coal sector jobs have steadily declined for decades, due to increases in automation and, more recently, the abundance of cheap natural gas. On the other hand, the renewable energy sector has seen rapid growth, driven largely by significant reductions in manufacturing and installation costs. The 2017 United States Energy and Employment Report (USEER) shows the solar workforce increased by 25% in 2016, while wind employment increased by 32%. According to the Department of Energy, there are about 373,000 Americans working in solar energy – more than double that of the coal industry.

To understand where Trump’s motivation lies, it is imperative to focus on the roots of climate scepticism. The scientific community is unequivocal in its belief that the C02 produced by human industry is causing the climate to warm at rates far higher than through natural processes. Earth-orbiting satellites and advances in computer technology have enabled scientists to construct climate models of greater complexity and sensitivity; giving them a much greater understanding of our planet and its climate. In a bid to counter the scientific consensus, the fossil fuel industry has poured millions of dollars into financing groups that work to deny climate science and undermine attempts to regulate the fossil fuel industry.

Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money documents the destructive influence that a small group of ultra-wealthy individuals have on American democracy; through the setting up of partisan policy think tanks to promote their free-market, libertarian views. Koch Industries, a fossil fuel giant owned by the billionaire Koch brothers is one of the most prominent of these hidden financiers. They are ideologically opposed to any form of regulation and see the realities of climate science as a massive threat, not only to the fossil fuel industry, but also to their concept of laissez-faire capitalism. Organisations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), The George C. Marshall Institute, the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute paint environmentalists as communists in green clothing; seeking an expansion of government control over ordinary people’s lives.

In the book Merchants of Doubt, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway detailed how many of the same individuals who had worked to combat regulation on tobacco, CFC’s and Sulphur dioxides were at the core of climate science denial. In a famous 1969 tobacco industry memo, one executive wrote: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public”. As with the tobacco industry, which spent decades casting doubt on links between their product and cancer rates; climate change deniers utilise doubt as a mechanism to undermine the links between industry and global warming. They suggest that the results are inconclusive; that we don’t know enough to make a judgement; the same tactics that were employed by Big Tobacco as well as the CFC and Pesticide industries. The handful of scientists supporting the denial industry tend to be from different scientific disciplines and therefore do not offer opposing experimental data. Instead they seek out inconsistencies; often taking points out of context in a bid to undermine the work of their fellow scientists.

The fossil fuel industry has funded scientists and front groups in a massive disinformation campaign to make the public believe that the science isn’t settled. In a typical tv news debate on a right-wing outlet like Fox News, an average viewer; visually seeing the screen evenly split between two guests; could easily conclude that both sides have equally valid points and opinions. The truth is very different. Climate scientists are regularly pitted against a representative of the Heartland Institute, or The Cato Institute or the CEI. These lobbyists, individuals like Steve Milloy and Myron Ebell, purport to be experts, but, in most cases; they have no scientific background whatsoever.

Donald Trump’s appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scott Pruitt has a long history of backing fossil-fuel interests over environmental concerns. He has previously denied that CO2 causes global warming and there are real concerns that he will attempt to gut environmental regulations during his tenure. The genius (if it can be called that) of the climate change denial industry is that it has turned a matter of scientific fact into a partisan issue, a central pillar of conservatism. Right wing pundits perpetuate the idea that man-made climate change is a liberal myth. But, the dispute is not just ideological, it also incorporates a common human flaw; greed. In the days leading up to Trump’s decision 22 Republican senators sent a letter urging Donald Trump to take the US out of the accord. A Guardian survey of Federal Elections Commission data organised by the Centre for Responsive Politics found that the coal, oil and gas industries had given a total of $10,694,284 to the 22 senators over the past three election cycles.

In leaving the accord, Trump may have shored up the support of some of his base. It has given him the opportunity to parade the fact that he has kept a campaign promise and it offers a momentary distraction for an Administration that is deeply mired in the scandal over its ties to Russia. But, there can be no doubt that the decision to remove the US from an historic agreement on climate change is incredibly short-sighted. Trump has signalled to the world that America is not engaged in the global bid to tackle global warming. In doing so, he has handed the initiative to emerging superpowers like China. The climate deniers on the right may see this as a victory, but in truth their endeavours have reduced US influence and weakened its standing in the eyes of the world.

Originally published in the Evening Echo. 

Anthony Angelini lectures with Adult Continuing Education (ACE), UCC. 

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