Monday, February 18, 2019

President's Day Special Report: How Trump's Contempt for Climate Science Harms the National Interest

President's Day celebrates the honor and leadership of George Washington, the first president of the United States (1789–1797).  America's founding father urged tolerance for all religions and the most enduring quality assigned to Washington is his truthfulness, a quality that is altogether lacking in Donald Trump. According to the cherry tree myth, when Washington was six years old he damaged his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet. When confronted by his father young George said, "I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet."

Although the story was the invention of a Washington biographer by the name of Mason Locke Weems, it speaks to what Weems described as Washington's "Great Virtues".* When one thinks of Trump virtue does not come to mind. His legacy is indelibly linked to his mendacity.

While Washington has been ranked by scholars as among the greatest American presidents, Trump has earned the distinction of being the most deceitful president in the history of the Republic. Trump has lied thousands of times since becoming president. Here is a summary of some of these lies as reviewed by the Washington Post and Robert Reich. To watch more of Trump's lies captured on video click here.




Trump administration's war on climate science

The president and those that he has appointed to his cabinet commonly deny the facts about climate change and regularly misinform the public. At the end of last year Trump tried to bury his own government's climate report and rejected its findings. 

The science of climate change has been the subject of study for almost two centuries. The major findings and the body of evidence have come to the irrefutable conclusion that human activities are the cause of climate change.

The Trump administration has a well earned reputation of flouting science. They ignored the science supporting the Paris Climate Agreement and rolled back more than 40 fact-based environmental regulations. Trump's appointee Scott Pruitt virtually eradicated science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Trump repeatedly proposed budget cuts for climate science at NOAA, NASA’s Earth science program, National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. The Trump administration has terminated research projects, hobbled scientific infrastructure and harassed scientists.

As reported in an LA Times article by Michael Hiltzik the Trump administration has devastated scientific research. "Among the up-is-down, night-is-day practices of the Trump administration, one of the most dangerous and disturbing is its habit of turning America’s leading science agencies into hives of anti-science policymaking."

Trump appears to have no interest in the facts. As revealed by E&E News reporter Scott Waldman in a Climatewire story, Trump has never had nor has he ever requested a climate briefing from scientists.

This is consistent with a leaked memo that purports to expose the administration's climate change denial strategy. The threefold approach involves highlighting the uncertainties, trashing the science and ignoring it altogether. In a damning condemnation of the Trump administration, Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity said, "This administration doesn't even have a scientific support document at all."

At the end of 2018 a Union of Concerned Scientists report detailed the "monumental disaster" of the assault on science at the Department of the Interior. According to the report Trump's former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took a "multifaceted approach to wiping science out of its policymaking." Zinke used the same tactics employed by Scott Pruitt to harass and ultimately purge scientists at the EPA. Like Pruitt, Zinke has removed publicly available information about climate change at the department.

After Zinke was forced to resign due to ethical violations, deputy secretary David Bernhardt became the acting chief. The latter is responsible for revoking directives on integrating climate science and other devious techniques to undermine science in the department.

In fairness Trump and his appointees are not the first to lie about climate change. Republicans and the fossil fuel industry have been lying to the public for years. Now this unholy trinity is working together to undermine the facts.

Consequences of rejecting climate science

Lies have consequences particularly when they are told by the leader of the free world. The impact of Trump's lies about climate change could prove catastrophic. These lies obscure fact-based policy decisions including climate action.

Trump's rejection of efficiency initiatives and support for fossil fuels make it harder to achieve the required emissions reductions thereby increasing the likelihood that we will see warming beyond the upper threshold limit of 2 C.

The implications of Trump's rejection of science are very serious both for policy and the impact that it has on his Republican supporters. Trump's lies about climate change augur massive economic costs. One of the most dangerous aspects of Trump's rejection of science is the division that it fosters.

This administration is also a threat to human health. Climate change is the the single biggest health threat we face according to The Lancet Countdown. A total of 150 experts from 27 academic institutions and intergovernmental organizations, including the World Health Organization and the World Bank concluded:
"A rapidly changing climate has dire implications for every aspect of human life, exposing vulnerable populations to extremes of weather, altering patterns of infectious disease, and compromising food security, safe drinking water and clean air."
Pollution compromises cardiovascular and respiratory health. A World Health Organization report, released at last year’s COP24 climate summit in Katowice, Poland, echoes the Lancet findings, noting that at least seven million people a year die prematurely because of pollution, and millions more become ill.

Former EPA administrator Pruitt's murderous legacy will live in infamy for contributing to air pollution. The most serious consequence of Trump's rejection of climate science concerns the prospect of triggering tipping points from which we may not be able to recover. 

Why Trump lies

Trump lies because it is a strategy he has successfully employed throughout his life. As explained in a Politico article on the psychology of Trump's lies, "When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything." Dictators have long understood the power of a lie. Adolf Hitler described a propaganda technique known as "the big lie," in his memoir Mein Kampf. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said, "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth."

Trump sews division to erode the basis for a shared understanding. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a strong correlation between incompetence and self rated intelligence. Research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour reveals that people who know the least, think they know the most. The inference being that those who are most in need of the facts are least receptive to them. When it comes to climate change denial people have adopted the viewpoint of their (Republican) ideological affiliations.

Here is a summary of how and why Trump lies including the Dunning-Kruger effect, Robert Reich on Trump's ten step plan of deception, and a strategy to control the narrative called dead-cat theory. These videos also include discussions of some of the ways that we may be able to parse Trump's comments and combat his lies.




Hope in the face of urgency

The road ahead of us is daunting, our time is running short and the potential consequences of unchecked climate change are horrifying. We are facing a climate emergency as the window of opportunity to act is rapidly closing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests we have 12 years to take decisive action.

As Dan Rather said, "We need to damn the lies and expose the truth". We need science to help us to expose deception and discern truth from falsehood. Despite the darkness that is the Trump administration there are reasons to hope that 2019 may be a turning point for climate action.

There are reasons to believe that science is making a comeback. Democrats have flipped the House of Representatives and unlike their Republican colleagues they embrace science. The most recent polls suggest the Americans are also embracing the truth about climate change in ever increasing numbers.

* Mason Locke Weems to Mathew Carey, January 12, 1800, in Paul Leicester Ford, Mason Locke Weems: His Works, His Ways: A Bibliography Left Unfinished, 3 vols. (New York: Plimpton Press, 1929), 2: 8-9. 

Related
Trump's America: State of Lies
War on Science Makes Fossil Fuels a Climate Archvillain
Opposition to Science Invites a Climate Catastrophe
The Implications of Trump's Reprehensible Rejection of Climate Science
Why Trump Does Not Want a Science Advisor
Scientists Take on Trump and GOP Climate Denial
Sham Hearings Make a Mockery out of Climate Science
The Implications of the Trump Administration's Disdain for Science

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