Fear and Loathing, Irony and Deception

Published: 12:11 AM GMT on January 10, 2017

Fear and Loathing, Irony and Deception

Surely, some will think that I will sound like an apologist in this blog. Oh, well.

Several colleagues have told me that my last blog / editorial was a struggle to find optimism. After finishing that blog, I had no sense of optimism. (I expect an updated version of the editorial will be published in the February print edition of EOS.)

A common emotion among my climate friends is a feeling of loss, much like the death of someone close. I feel threat to my livelihood, my health insurance, and my retirement. I feel threat to the practice science and the use of science-based knowledge. I feel threat to the country – to the stubborn checks and balances built into our government to support a participatory democracy.

However, we have what we have.

During the presidential transition, a number of statements hostile to climate science and climate scientists have risen and, perhaps, fallen. There was the request for names of climate scientists in the Department of Energy. There were the statements about NASA’s Earth observations being cut or eliminated – some sort of merger with NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. There is the ongoing anxiety, in some cases panic, about the collection, management, and provision of climate data by the U.S. government. There are the many concerns about the future of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Climate change is a political issue. It may be motivated and informed by scientific investigation, but it is a political issue. It is a political issue that is intertwined with energy policy. By extension, it is intertwined with the economy. Climate change is entangled with beliefs, self-identification, and power structures.

The responses to the Trump election by the climate community are not monolithic or simple. The responses that seem to dominate in public are panic and simplistic, speculative fear. These responses play into the political strategy of those who dismiss or oppose climate change as an important environmental and societal issue. Panic and fear-based speculation about the damage that will be wrought by hostile actors increase the likelihood that those fears will come true. I believe that is the classic definition of irony. A response that limits itself to outrage at political appointees, and in some cases, dismissal of those appointees as laughable, uninformed individuals, virtually assures the success of those appointees in their new jobs.

A point of my previous editorial was that there is opportunity in what, on the surface, appears as an absolute disaster for climate policy, climate science, and climate professionals. To take advantage of those opportunities requires leadership, organization, presence, and recognition that there are points of negotiation and possibility.

I have been called by colleagues and journalists to get my comments on, for example, the efforts by some scientists and activists to archive and preserve climate data. Whenever I get a call on a subject like this, it seems that they want an answer that either substantiates or amplifies the narrative of war and peace, good and bad, evil and virtue. Usually, however, I find such amplification to be less than useful and, sincerely, not justified. Often my comments end up on the cutting room floor.

When I am asked about Rick Perry, the nominee for Energy Secretary, having said that he wants to shut down the Department of Energy or, more generally, about Trump’s transition team’s hostility towards the EPA, my first response is that there is precedence. This is not new. Spencer Abraham was an Energy Secretary who rather famously, as an elected politician, wanted to eliminate the Department.

The same is true with NASA. Through most of my career at NASA, there were some politicians who wanted to eliminate the Earth observing parts of NASA. There were budget markups with potentially devastating consequences. There were proposals to combine NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Some of these proposals made sense. At the same time, they could be construed as an analogue to corporate mergers, which are used as an opportunity to eliminate those functions and those people that are unwanted by the corporate leaders. The contrast between sensible reforms and existential threat is a frequent characteristic of political back and forth.

We are a country often based on conflicting points of views, presented with prejudice, and resolved with some sort of balance of the points of view or adjudication. We do not rely, primarily, on evidence-based, deliberative, decision making.

We do, in fact, have some models of what we might expect to happen. Several states, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida, have tried to suppress and control the language of climate change. Most recently there is the example of Wisconsin (link1, link2, link3). As carefully documented with before and after examples of the words, the human influence on climate change was purged from the web pages of the Department of Natural Resources. Our changing climate is framed as a child, going through a mysterious change. Rather than having an evidence-based foundation for rational planning, we leave climate change to Providence and a response based on reaction and whim. By leaving the causes of climate change out of the language, they are left out of public policy, and there is an unnecessary increase in risk.

This sort of political messaging, which I always view as a sin of omission or information hiding, is deceptive. It is, however, standard behavior in politics and business. In fact, in Wisconsin it is not new. In 2015, I wrote a blog on Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands not allowing its employees to discuss how climate change affects the lands that it oversees. (A collection of Wisconsin articles.)

This type of message management should be expected as a tactic. Indeed, if I were in the government, I could think of a host of ways to disrupt the federal provision and interpretation of climate data. There are easy ways to take down servers. I expect that much of the excellent analysis placed in the public domain during the Obama administration to sink far below the surface. I expect the hard-earned improvements of climate services to stagnate.

I do not think that observational data will be destroyed; I suspect that would break the law, and presently, I think that we will remain a country of law.

I expect that there will be attempts to weaken many environmental laws. I worry that participation in the panic and fear-based speculation will divert attention from the important issues.

I worry that exaggeration and amplification of anxiety in social media will fuel ineffective fury.

Though I pointed out examples, above, of similar attacks on climate science in the past, I do not mean to suggest, hence, all will be all right. We are in the situation when the executive vigor and legislative wherewithal are in position to do considerable damage. There is the ability to appoint and confirm judges sympathetic to environmental regulation as damaging to business and economic growth. However, there is also the fact that President-elect Trump has proved to be difficult to characterize, resistant to traditional partisan classification, and prone to swift changes of position. Hence, there should be moments of opportunity, which requires leadership, organization, presence, and recognition that there are points of negotiation and possibility.

However, we have what we have. Climate change is a political issue, and it is a political issue that will require political tactics until it is settled policy on a foundation of the settled science.

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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