The world is already looking at the Trump administration with derision after its announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. And in the decades ahead, lamentations of American hubris, ignorance, and stupidity in dealing with the environmental crisis will continue to grow. Never has the scientific community been surer about the dangers of runaway global warming, and yet Americans have largely abdicated their responsibility for pressuring the government to act on this vital issue. Despite abundant evidence documenting the dangers of climate change, we have done nothing to combat the threat, and Trump’s actions will further intensify the dangers associated with growing emissions over the next few decades.
With the U.S. pull out of the Paris Agreement, what little commitment the U.S. had to combating climate change is now gone. The American right will rejoice, as they have long embraced paranoid conspiracy theories attacking environmentalists as alarmists who have been duped by scientists engaged in an elaborate hoax – one supposedly motivated by a quest for attention and grant money. Some on the left will treat the Trump administration with kids gloves, and even congratulate Trump for stripping away what was left of the fig-leaf of an American “commitment” to addressing runaway warming.
But for many of us who have been warning about the dangers associated with climate change for the last few decades, now is a time to recognize that things are moving from bad to worse. At least under the Paris Agreement, there was a framework activists could use to pressure political officials to cut emissions growth, and pursue real cuts to greenhouse gas emissions moving forward. But there’s little chance of that now under the Trump administration, with a president who is willfully ignorant on climate change, scientifically illiterate, and hell-bent on reviving a coal industry that’s been dead in the water for some time now.
I don’t want to romanticize the Paris Agreement. It’s a short-term plan that does not extend beyond a 2030 emissions target, and even if that target is met, it will merely level off global CO2 emissions, rather than reduce them. To avoid more than two degrees (Celsius) of warming by the end of century, global carbon emissions must fall to zero between 2070 and 2100, with a radical cut in such emissions beginning by no later than 2030. Still, the Paris Agreement is the necessary first step in avoiding the worst effects of climate change, and leveling off CO2 emissions is certainly preferable to a significant increase in those emissions in coming decades.
Who is ultimately to blame for the catastrophic state we find ourselves in today? I don’t think there is just one answer. Obviously, the fossil fuel industry is a prime culprit. Corporations like Exxon Mobil and others have known – due to their own scientific research going as far back as the late-1970s – that global warming is a very real threat. Important investigative studies have exposed these corporations for pushing junk “science” and seeking to sow doubt on whether humans are responsible for warming the planet. These works are numerous, including: “Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming,” by James Hoggan; “The Heat is On: Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the prescription,” by Ross Gelbspan; and “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
As the above works make clear, the name of the game is convincing the public to deprioritize dealing with climate change, for fear of the negative effects government action may have on the economy and jobs. Fossil fuel-funded pundits, PR firms, and scientists don’t need to convince the public that global warming is a fraud. All they need to do is create doubt about whether climate change is a serious problem, thereby blunting the development of a critical public consciousness and any sort of real citizen push for change. And so far, the fossil fuel industry has been incredibly successful in its efforts.
The Republican Party, under the leadership of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, has been a fundamental threat to the planet. Bush first claimed that global warming was a fiction. Later his administration quietly admitted that it was real, but claimed that instead of addressing the problem head-on, the “solution” was simply that humans would “adapt” to a warming planet. Working under the “adaptation” framework, the Bush administration abandoned the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aimed for a modest 5 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, to be achieved by 2010. The agreement was never more than a first step in addressing climate change, but at least it represented some sort of effort to address the issue, which is more than one can say for the U.S. “response” thus far.
The “progress” made in dealing with climate change under Democrats and Barack Obama was largely illusory. While Obama has admitted that the effects of climate change are “terrifying” to contemplate, he did nothing to prioritize the issue in his first term. He was no leader of the environmental movement during the late 2000s and early 2010s, and did little to promote legislation that would mandate CO2 emission cuts. Had he wished to demonstrate a serious commitment to battling climate change, he would have announced an executive action on day one of his tenure, back in early 2009, that could have been implemented well before the specter of a Trump presidency even became a topic of discussion. The lesson of the “Affordable Care Act” is that it’s far harder for Republicans to slow down or stop a government program or initiative in its tracks when it’s already been put in motion. A roll back of climate change regulations would have been much more difficult if these regulations were already implemented years before Trump took office.
Not only did Obama refuse to prioritize CO2 emission cuts during much of his presidency, he encouraged the expansion of fossil fuel consumption. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have grown significantly over the last few years following the 2008 economic crash. Part of the growing consumption had to do with federal encouragement of oil drilling, which went well beyond supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Through the Export-Import Bank, the Obama administration allocated $34 billion (through 2016) to more than five dozen fossil fuel projects across the globe related to coal, gas, and oil production. Leases granted for oil and gas drilling on federal lands grew during Obama’s second term, while tens of millions of acres of federal lands were opened up for oil exploration and extraction, and “processing times” for granting permits for fossil fuel extraction were shortened significantly.
At the end of the day, what really matters is whether the U.S. has succeeded or failed in cutting CO2 emissions. And on this front the Bush and Obama presidencies were resounding failures. In 1990, the U.S. emitted about 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. But throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, the U.S. averaged between 5.5 to 6 billion tons of CO2 emissions per year. The numbers fell to the lower part of this range following the post-2008 economic slowdown, but quickly increased by late in Obama’s second term. By 2015, the U.S. averaged 6.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions, an increase of a third from the 1990 level. And the numbers will only increase with population growth in the coming decades if there is no federal effort to reverse this trend. The Obama administration’s “commitment” to limiting emissions was all set-up with no follow through. His image as an environmentalist was based on the rhetoric of “hope” for future change and on an unimplemented plan to reduce emissions.
Despite his poor environmental record, Obama looks like a climate crusader in comparison to Donald Trump. At least his administration was potentially open to pressure from environmental groups and conservationists, which is more than can be said for Trump. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. – the second largest carbon polluter in the world – has continued the march toward climate oblivion. Under Scott Pruitt, the EPA is now run by an avid climate change denier who has a history of working for the fossil fuels industry to fight government regulations related to clean water and regulation of coal-burning power plants. Trump himself has embraced a delusional commitment to “bringing back” the coal industry, despite a national decline in coal consumption of nearly 25 percent in the last ten years due to the rise of fracking and natural gas consumption. The abandonment of the Paris Accord means that the world will have to wait another four years before there is even a chance of the U.S. moving forward with government regulations for cutting CO2 emissions growth.
Complaining about Obama and Trump is convenient at a time when public distrust of government officials is rampant. It’s easy to blame Obama for talking a big game about addressing climate change, considering his nearly non-existent follow through. And Trump’s contempt for human sustainability is beyond deplorable, threatening the survival of the species as we move into an increasingly dangerous, unknown future. But it will make Americans much more uncomfortable to consider that the public itself is one of the prime culprits in the failure to deal with climate change. But it’s hard to exonerate Americans for their role in stoking this crisis. By acquiescing to the ecologically disastrous actions of the fossil fuel industry, Americans have refused to take seriously the threat of climate change. This point is difficult to deny following Trump’s electoral victory and his assault on the Paris Agreement, both of which have been consented to either actively or passively by large segments of the public.
Available evidence regarding public opinion of climate change is encouraging in some ways, and maddening in others. On the positive side, the number of Americans recognizing the problem has grown in recent years. CBS Polling finds that the number of Americans who feel that global warming is having a “serious impact now” increased from 43 percent in 2009 to 56 percent in 2016. Pew Research Center polling finds that, while 57 percent of Americans thought there was “solid evidence” that “the earth is warming” in 2009, the number grew to 72 percent by 2014. On the other hand, just 46 percent of Americans admitted in a 2016 Bloomberg poll that climate change represents a “serious threat” to the world. Pew polling from the same year revealed that only 27 percent of Americans felt “almost all” climate scientists agree that human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change, despite most all climatologists having come to this conclusion. The same poll found that just 48 percent of Americans were willing to admit that climate change was occurring “due to human activity.”
It is difficult, perhaps impossible to address a problem when half of the public refuses to recognize that it even exists. And when nearly half the voting public prefers a global warming flat-earther who takes pride in his scientific illiteracy and ignorance, mass public pressure on the political system to address climate change will be significantly blunted. Sadly, there’s no other way to put it: Americans have empowered an ecocidal maniac who is doing everything in his power to escalate the environmental dangers we face in the coming decades.
Most Americans refuse to recognize the magnitude of the threat, preferring willful ignorance. Gallup polling from 2014 to 2017 finds that just one to four percent of the American public feels that “pollution” or “the environment” represent “the most important problem” facing the nation. The public prefers to look instead at issues that more immediately affect them in their day to day lives, such as health care, jobs, and the economy. The specter of terror threats also poll well in terms of being recognized widely as a “most important problem.” Even if only a miniscule number of Americans will ever be the victim of terrorist violence, the non-stop attention to the spectacle of terrorism in U.S. political and media discourse has meant the redirection of public attention away from climate change. Americans’ tunnel vision regarding the environmental problems we face as a nation has meant the de-prioritization of climate concerns.
The foundation of public ignorance is based on numerous factors. First, the twin powers of partisanship and ideology have blunted public pressure for reform. Conservative Republican Americans have allowed their contempt for science, their distrust of scientists, and their worship of “free market” capitalism blind them to the dangers we now face on the climate front. This segment of America has fallen victim to clumsy Rush Limbaugh-propaganda talking points, which have been instrumental to the dumbing down of national political discourse.
Second, the threat of climate change has not yet fully materialized in a way in which it can be easily processed by your average “Joe” or “Jane,” who do not closely follow the news, politics, or events occurring in the world around them. Perhaps when the American Midwest loses its entire corn and soy crops for multiple years in a row, threatening our food supply and increasing the danger of famine, Americans will finally begin to take serious notice. But until these kinds of catastrophic events occur, Americans are unlikely to prioritize dealing with climate change.
Finally, Americans are a selfish people, and are the product of a “me first,” consumer-centered culture that embraces instant gratification, convenience, and hedonism. Under this status quo, it’s convenient to push off responsibility for dealing with climate change to other nations – as the U.S. has done – while reaping the short-term benefits of fossil fuel consumption.
There is no need to speculate over the role of American selfishness in stoking the threat of a warming planet. It’s already been documented empirically. The Pew Research Center, for example, found in a late-2015 poll that the intensity of carbon pollution across nations was directly linked to level of public concern over climate change. Countries that polluted the most were conveniently the least concerned about the damage they were doing. In countries such as Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, which are each responsible for almost none of the global CO2 emissions (measured in CO2 emissions per capita in metric tons), concern with climate change was about 25 percent higher than in the worst offending countries, such as the U.S., Australia, and Russia. On average, high-polluting countries were about 20 percent less likely to be concerned with climate change than countries producing little to no CO2 emissions.
As the old proverb goes: necessity is the mother of invention. Unfortunately, the necessity for action on climate change seems to be dependent on the rapidly escalating threat to human survival via global warming. This threat will have to intensify before the American public becomes willing to address the problem at hand. The election of Donald Trump demonstrates that the public is simply not yet willing to tackle the threat of climate change. When Americans will wake up from their apathy-induced climate coma remains to be seen.