Trump's climate scepticism continues to exploit climate hawks' cultural cringe

James Murray
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Trump's climate scepticism continues to exploit climate hawks' cultural cringe

How much longer can Donald Trump's dangerous environmental philosophy be left unchallenged by media and public alike?

What more is there to say about Donald Trump's reckless, conceited, and scientifically illiterate climate scepticism?

For all Piers Morgan's attempts to spin his self-congratulatory interview with the Commander-in-Chief as a treasure trove of 'exclusive' revelations, Trump's comments on climate change and the Paris Agreement were neither new nor a 'U-turn'.

The 45 minute love-in gave us confirmation once again that the US would stick with the international accord if the country got a "good deal", albeit without any explanation as to what a "good deal" would entail and with a turn of phrase that suggested the President may not be fully aware that the US currently remains a participant in the Paris Agreement.

It also provided further evidence, as if it were needed, that Trump is fully signed up to a fog of climate-sceptic tropes and talking points, which he is seemingly incapable of stitching together into a coherent narrative. Not for Trump the high risk but vaguely coherent hypothesis proffered by the 'lukewarmist' hypothesis that climate impacts may be manageably small. No, he'd rather stick with an outdated game of climate sceptic message board bingo, parroting self-evident nonsense about global cooling and 'climate change' nomenclature conspiracies and record ice reach and real environmentalism being about the 'clean air [and] crystal clear water' that his administration is still intent on polluting.

But beyond the repetition of these well-established 'facts', there was nothing new to report.

The opportunity to ask the obvious and pertinent question as to what would make the Paris Agreement a "good deal" in his eyes was missed. The chance to quiz the President about what on Earth he is talking about when he suggests the ice caps are "setting records", was squandered as embarrassingly and catastrophically as Morgan's beloved Arsenal throw away of two-goal leads. The hope we could gain an insight into the President's thinking - or more likely expose his ignorance - on this most important of topics was wilfully crushed. The only real news we got was confirmation this was less a genuine journalistic exercise and more an obsequious attempt at ingratiation between two rampaging egomaniacs.

And yet, there was a noteworthy aspect of Trump's comments on climate change.

It's just it was provided not by Trump, but by the reaction to him, first from Morgan, then from the media, and then from us as the wider audience. It was a reaction that reflected well on precisely no one and only served to highlight how badly our collective response to climate change is lagging behind what is so urgently required.

Let's start with Morgan. It may come as a surprise to many given his social media provocateur persona, but the Britain's Got Talent host is something of an eco-warrior.

He has spoken in defence of green policies, he has admitted he disagreed with Trump on climate change, he used his stint at CNN to challenge climate sceptic thinking, and he once cut off an angry interview on the latest floods with the hapless then Environment Secretary Liz Truss with the words:"You can have this bit of advice for nothing - you need to set up a 'department for the unprecedented' within your department, because guess what? With global warming and climate change that's what's going to happen".

Speaking to Talk Radio today he conceded that Trump "certainly doesn't make a lot of sense to people like me, who believe fundamentally in climate change… I thought some of his assessments on ice caps were just plain wrong".

We can therefore say with a high degree of confidence that Morgan is reasonably well-versed on the latest climate science and regards climate impacts as an extremely serious issue. And yet when faced with (apologies to Lord Lawson) the world's most famous climate sceptic spouting verifiably false and dangerous nonsense he offered not so much as a word of pushback, not even the most cursory attempt at correction or clarification. He was absolutely incapable of being consistent and applying his underlying acceptance that climate change is a grave threat to humanity to the situation at hand. He could not bring himself to say 'no Mr President, on this, the most important issue of the age, your claims are false and your arguments are flawed". He just let the misinformation, falsehoods, and hypocrisies of his friend stand unchallenged.

It is to hoped Morgan has enough journalistic integrity left intact to privately regret missing this most glaring of open goals. But then again, perhaps we shouldn't judge him too harshly. After all, as the reporting of Trump's comments confirmed, pretty much every media outlet on the planet made a similar error.   

When Trump was first elected newsrooms around the world debated how to avoid normalising this most abnormal of presidents. But here we are, a year on, with the most powerful man in the world publicly endorsing crank theories that every scientific academy on the planet says could result in catastrophe for human civilisation and there was barely a whisper of consternation nor a slither of useful context in the reporting of his comments.

Many outlets simply quoted Trump verbatim, without any attempt to inform their readers that there is precisely zero evidence to back up the assertion the ice caps are setting new record highs or that the context for Trump's professed love of "clean air" and "crystal clear water" is his axing of clean air and water regulations (kudos to New Republic and Reuters for attempting to correct the record today, not least for the scientist who suggests Trump might have been talking about ice caps on a different planet).

The President of the US confirms he is fully signed up to a school of thought that most media outlets in their wider reporting accept is flawed, reckless, and epoch-shapingly dangerous, and yet many editors seemed incapable of applying what they know about climate change consistently and giving due weight and attention to what Trump was actually saying - which is that he is utterly indifferent to the potential rapid destruction of the climate that enabled the development of human civilisation.

Make no mistake, Trump's climate scepticism is right up there as one of the weirdest and most dangerous things about him. Yes, his unhealthy interest in nuclear weapons is terrifying, but at least he is not firing them off while insouciantly declaring that "some people say they'll cause Armageddon, but other people say they'll actually help crops grow, so I guess we'll see". His misogyny and racism is an abomination, but there has to be reasonable grounds to hope any damage he does will be reversible under his successor. The outcome of the Russia probe could shake geopolitics to its core, but the world would go on.

In contrast, Trump's stance on climate change is to actively pursue a path that the world's best scientists are convinced would lock in risk and suffering for millions, if not billions, of people for generations to come. And yet the reporting of the latest comments were generally framed, with their focus on the prospect of a U-turn on the Paris Agreement, as if this was just another bland policy story.

Then again, perhaps we shouldn't judge the media too harshly. After all, as the business community and the public has confirmed time and again, applying what we know about climate change consistently is staggeringly difficult. It's too big, too complicated, and too scary.

In a typically clear-eyed blog post this week, Vox's David Roberts argues that being a "being a consistent climate hawk, it turns out, is extremely difficult".

"Just about nobody is taking climate change completely seriously at present, because, let's face it, doing so is traumatic," he writes. "To absorb the full implications of climate change is to realize that even a level of action beyond what's reasonable to hope for can at best avert the worst of the damage… To take that seriously is to support massive, immediate carbon reductions, not only at the level of theory, not only in statements and proclamations and pledges, but in the sense of preferring the lower carbon strategy in every local, city, state, or federal decision, whether it's about land, housing, transportation, infrastructure, agriculture, taxes, regulations, or lifestyle habits. It means preferring the lower carbon strategy even if other things you value must be sacrificed, even if the lower carbon strategy is suboptimal in light of your other preferences and priorities."

Business leaders know this better than most. They know it is far easier to launch a new green product or introduce a waste reduction strategy than follow climate change through to its logical conclusion and imagine how a fully decarbonised economy would necessitate a fundamental transformation of their business models. They know it is much easier to sign up to a renewable power pledge than follow climate change through to its logical conclusion and face down shareholders in actively campaigning for higher carbon taxes. They know it is easier to buy a few electric vehicles than follow climate change through to its logical conclusion and lobby against new airport capacity.

Consistency, even amongst those businesses and campaigners who are serious about the threats and opportunities presented by climate change, is almost impossible to achieve.

As Roberts observes: "pure climate hawks are a rare species indeed. None of us can claim purity on that front, so we should show one another compassion. But we should also, at every opportunity, drag our eyes back, unflinching, to the terrible truth."

He is right, of course, the best course of action for any business, policymaker, journalist, or political leader concerned about the climate threat is to strive for a consistent response - a response necessarily based on full spectrum prioritisation - while acknowledging that our response to date has been inadequate and will likely continue to be so for some time to come.

To do so we must shrug off the cultural cringe that makes so many green business leaders and environmental campaigners soft pedal when talking of climate risks. We must reject the fear of being seen as an outsider or a zealot and find a way to honestly express the seriousness of the climate crisis without alienating those who would rather look the other way. And we can start by demanding that media reporting of what all but one government on the planet accepts is an epoch-shaping threat follows its own scientific priors through to their logical conclusion and starts treating a story of planetary importance as if it is a story of planetary importance.  

Most of all though we must have the nerve to point out the "terrible truth" of climate change when faced with anyone who would downplay that reality, even if it is the President of the United States.

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