January 2017 marked the beginning of four years of climate change bashing and a loosening of environmental regulations in the United States. Under the presidency of the world’s most notorious climate change sceptic, Donald Trump, human-induced global warming was no longer deemed a national security threat, and lost out on millions of dollars’ worth of funding. Drilling was given the green light in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, air pollution laws were weakened, and most famously, the US pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
The hottest decade on record brought home the reality of our changing climate. But the nonchalant attitude of the Trump administration threatened to erode global climate consensus even further, damaging the credibility of international commitments to environmental limits. A ‘pollution is the price of progress’ attitude may be seen as indicative of our age; the age of science denial.
So why, when there is an abundance of empirical information concerning increasing greenhouse gases and the very real threat posed to our natural world, is this information greeted with scepticism?
Perhaps the knowledge is overwhelming; a sensory and information overload forcing a resistance of a global disaster on the horizon? Perhaps it’s simply easier to reject that which you fear? This fear of change can be seen in the introduction of new ideas and theories throughout history – didn’t Darwin face religious contempt when he suggested humans may be related to Great Apes? Potentially the refusal to believe in invisible gasses that slowly change sea levels isn’t so absurd. The fear mongering of science has led to the opposition of many projects: the harmless addition of fluoride to water in the US, a widespread measles and mumps vaccination programme and now attempts to tackle climate change. Future-oriented cognition was once claimed to be a defining factor in our ability to create civilisations, separating ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom, but is now being demoted and reviewed. Contemporary resistance towards anthropogenic climate change could be a perfect example of our myopic vision, our inability to consider the effects of our actions on a world more than 50 years in the future.
So how can we change this seemingly innate scepticism of scientific progress, reigniting the belief in the truth of science? As humanity pushes earth to its bio-physical limits the proverbial clock is ticking… Now, more than ever, science communication is more important that science itself.
President Biden is already making a strong case highlighting the central role that climate policy will take in his presidency, a much needed and delayed priority ignored by Trump. Only a month into office he is strides ahead of Obama’s environmental successes with leases for offshore oil and gas companies paused, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 19BT.
Demographically observed mistrust around global climate science is more prevalent among the political right. In the context of the US, there is a stark Republican/Democrat contrast to perceptions on climate with only 27% of Republicans considering climate change a major threat, compared with 84% of Democrats. In Europe, far-right populist groups such as Spain’s Vox, Finland’s Finns Party and the Freedom Party in Austria all promote rhetoric undermining climate change. It is critical that we create a dialogue between the sceptics and trusted experts, abandoning the polarised politics and addressing the true issues at hand.
Biden seemingly hit the nail on the head, speaking out about healing the divisions forming between world powers, adding climate change to US Foreign Policy. A focus on healing the environment could be the unifying force we need. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, argues nationalism offers no solution to climate change: ‘there is no room in the world for special obligations for your own people, loyalties must be on a level beyond the nation.’ Perhaps now, more than ever, we need science to take the forefront of both our global and domestic policies. Hopefully, with Trump gone and a slowing of nationalist popularism, scepticism will wane, and focus will shift towards empirically and scientifically determined climate policy not simply for one nation but for the global collective.
Illustration: Verity Laycock