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The Climate Change Debate No Longer Turns On Science. That May Not Be All Bad

A climate activists with a colorful mask attends the March for Climate in a protest against global warming in Katowice, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, as the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference takes place in the city. (Alik Keplicz/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
A climate activists with a colorful mask attends the March for Climate in a protest against global warming in Katowice, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, as the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference takes place in the city. (Alik Keplicz/AP)

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On few issues has the Trump administration thumbed its nose at the global community more belligerently than on climate change.

In November, the Trump administration released an alarming climate report compiled by federal agencies, and immediately dismissed its significance.

When G-20 leaders meeting in Argentina wanted to adopt strong language on the need to address climate change, Trump demanded special language exempting the United States.

This month, when 44 small island nation states rose at the global climate conference in Poland to urge similarly strong language acknowledging the most recent international climate report, almost all of the rest of the world rose in affirmation. But the Trump administration derailed their efforts.

Much of the coverage of these events has derided Trump’s actions as emblematic of his disregard for climate science. “This is a new frontier of disavowance of science, of disdain for facts,” said William K. Reilly, who led the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush.

In this slow-shutter zoom effect photo, commuters backed up in traffic during the morning rush hour Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in Brussels, a city that regularly experiences pollution alert warnings. (Francisco Seco/AP)
In this slow-shutter zoom effect photo, commuters backed up in traffic during the morning rush hour Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in Brussels, a city that regularly experiences pollution alert warnings. (Francisco Seco/AP)

But to describe this as a debate over science or facts misses something crucial. This is no longer a debate about science; it is a debate about values. And the Trump administration, for all its deceit and corruption, has been ploddingly predictable in explaining why taking action on climate change is supposedly a “bad deal for the U.S.”

In Trump’s view, what is at stake is not the science of climate change, but international competitiveness, energy abundance, faith in technological innovation and American exceptionalism.

This marks an under-appreciated change in the debates over climate policy. In 2001, President George W. Bush explained that he wanted a “science-based approach” to global climate change. What that meant to Bush’s allies in the fossil fuel industry was that if they wanted to advance their policy agenda, the best way to do so was to challenge climate science.

That became the playbook for groups like the George C. Marshall Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute. With the support of the fossil fuel industry, they spent decades attacking climate science — dogging scientists, publishing misleading reports, and trying to sway the media with disinformation campaigns. The Bush White House was notorious for line editing government climate reports to emphasize uncertainties and downplay the need to address climate change. 

The Trump administration’s approach has been different. Although it has cut funding for climate science research, weakened scientific advisory committees, and cast doubt on climate science, it has also released a string of urgent climate studies that directly contradict its policy positions. Instead of undermining the science, Trump has largely ignored it.

Consider Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord in June 2017. In retrospect, what is most telling about that announcement is what Trump did not say. He made almost no mention of climate science, nor did he question the reality of climate change. Instead, he based his decision to withdraw from the accord almost entirely on economic concerns and matters of international competitiveness.

Trump explained that, in his view, he has to do “everything within my power to give America a level playing field and to create the economic, regulatory and tax structures that make America the most prosperous and productive country on Earth.”  For him, keeping the United States ahead of China, expanding domestic energy production, and protecting jobs for coal miners come first, not future and uncertain concerns about climate change.

For those who understand the gravity of scientists’ warnings about climate change, this presents an opportunity and a challenge. Rather than more urgent science or compelling facts, the debate over climate change is increasingly one about competing values and alternative visions for the future. To win the debate over climate change means swaying the public with a vision, not with facts.

To win the debate over climate change means swaying the public with a vision, not with facts.

Americans who believe that the costs of climate action would be far less than the costs of doing nothing, who hold that there is a moral imperative to take action to protect the vulnerable, who see a more democratic future in an economy built on renewable energy technologies, and who believe that it is a mistake for the United States to cede international leadership on climate change to other nations, should challenge Trump’s values with their own.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal offers the beginning of what can be a new progressive effort to address climate change and advance clean energy future. It hitches a vision for a clean energy future to the urgent task of addressing poverty and promoting social equality.

Such work will not be easy. But, unlike the basics of climate change science, which are beyond dispute, these are policy matters about which there remains room for productive discussion and debate.

James Morton Turner is an associate professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College. Andrew C. Isenberg is the Hall Professor of American History at the University of Kansas. They are the authors of "The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump."

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