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Trumping science

The new American President is post-science just as he is post-truth

On 8 November Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States to be sworn into office with ancient pomp on 20 January 2017. The power and influence of the United States ensures that their presidential elections attract worldwide media coverage. This election got the studied interest of people who but for Donal Trump as the Republican candidate would not have been particularly interested. Because Trump is a rule-breaker and a showman. Much of the world, including you, oh reader, was aghast and bewildered by the electoral outcome. Sixty-one million people voted for Trump.

This column focuses on Trump’s attitude towards the biosphere whose health is critically dependent on humankind radically reducing its emission of global-warming gases.

Although in his New York businessman days he once signed a petition calling for urgent climate action Trump’s current view is that global warming is a hoax. In November 2012 he tweeted:

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.

In January 2014 he tweeted:

“Any and all weather events are used by the GLOBAL WARMING HOAXSTERS to justify higher taxes to save our planet! They don’t believe in $$$$!”; and:

“This is very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice”.

Trump has appointed climate-deniers Rick Perry to head the Energy Department and Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. Trump said that on assuming office his number one environmental priority would be to cancel the UN sponsored Paris Climate Agreement, not uncoincidentally the number one environmental priority for environmentalists, which aims to prevent the global temperature rising above 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, with the aspiration of curtailing the rise to 1.5 degrees. The global temperature has already risen by 1.2 degrees which means that the emission of global warming gases needs to be on a steep downward trajectory. Trump has also promised to “end the war on coal”, cut funding for renewable energy and neuter the effectiveness of the Environmental Protection Agency which has a country-wide environmental monitoring and enforcement role. The reason his expressed priorities are so subversive of environmentalism is that he has decided that his populist appeal is advanced by threatening the non-populist, indeed of course entirely voiceless, environment.

Some readers may be surprised to know that Trump’s views on the environment are in sync with the widespread rupture between citizens, corporations and governments have and nonhuman nature. This is demonstrated by our treating the biosphere as a warehouse of resources to be used to ever increase our comfort, convenience and amusement. It is demonstrated by our poisoning of the soil, air, inland waterways and seas. The disconnect is also underscored by the enormous amount of food that goes uneaten, the amount of redundant material, normally called waste, that is burnt in furnaces and dumped in holes in the ground as well as our historically epic extinction of species. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years.

If you think Trump’s environmental ideology is not that of most people, do an eco-audit. Ask yourself how many car journeys and air flights you decided not to take because of the contribution they would have made to global warming. When did you last forego a purchase because it contained palm oil, usually described as vegetable oil? Palm oil, an ingredient in over 2,000 everyday products, is grown in Indonesia and other tropical countries on land that was once covered with rainforest. The forests and their rich variety of flora and fauna were fire-bombed and clear-felled into oblivion and the indigenous peoples who lived in them expelled.

What percentage of your diet is composed of meat? Rearing animals for meat is a major contributor to global warming. Agriculture is a significant driver of global warming and causes 15% of all emissions, half of which are from livestock. Beef requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. What are your plans to help heal nonhuman nature this Christmas rather than harm it through extravagant consumption? Will you plant a tree or cut one down?

Most governments ignore the pro-environmental agreements they sign. Ireland plans to continue to expand dairy and beef farming which will increase rather than reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. The Northern Ireland Assembly is fixated on facilitating the use of private rather than public transport. In the UK autumn budget statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not mention climate change once.

Source: George Mason University Center for Climate Change

Given that the vast majority of people do not directly work with nonhuman nature in order to earn a living, and have little awareness about the wasteful lifecycle of goods, it is understandable, perhaps inevitable, that the level of empathy that exists for nonhuman nature has not translated into sustained eco-sensitive behaviour. The Herculean challenge is to nurture positive environmental sentiments that are a catalyst for behavioural change. This should involve schools teaching pupils to base their views on evidence, think critically, be aware of the place of humans in nature and indeed in the universe, and have the confidence to express their views, and change them, while respecting people who hold alternative ones. This should be an integral part of civic culture. Faith groups have also an important role to play in encouraging critical thinking and eco-sensitive behaviour.

What appears to have happened in the US presidential campaign is that voters heard what they wanted to hear, confirmation bias, and did not test the policies and claims of the contestants. What is disheartening about the election of Trump is that as a herd leader in the global arena, in a country that sets legal and normative standards for the world, he seems set to fail humanity and the community of species we share the biosphere with. As Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist of the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research has brutally noted, Trump’s election “is an unmitigated disaster for the planet”.

Fortunately the power of the US Presidency is not that of an autocratic monarch and the trend towards renewable forms of energy in the United States and elsewhere will continue regardless. Trump could become the President wearing no clothes, someone whose environmental ignorance and narcissism is mocked, resulting in his regressive attitude towards the biosphere melting as fast as the ice in the Arctic.

In general Trump’s ego won’t allow him to think he has been made a fool. The problem, for a man whose attention span and horizons are notoriously narrow and for the rest of us, is that the consequences of his environmental ignorance may not manifest during the septuagenarian’s lifetime.

By Laurence Speight