Donald Trump, “King of Misinformation,” and One Way to Fight Back on Climate Change
Al Gore sent a much needed message to all of us in December on the issue of climate change and the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States:
“My message would be that despair is just another form of denial. There is no time to despair. We don’t have time to lick our wounds, to hope for a different election outcome … We have to win this struggle and we will win it; the only question is how fast we win. But more damaged is baked into the climate system every day, so it’s a race against time.”
I think this is exactly what we needed to hear, especially during these difficult times. One of the things that has scared me the most about Donald Trump is his stance on environmental issues, and specifically climate change — basically playing “dumb” and acting like the science is unsettled (when the reality is there has been an overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is real, man-made and getting worse) and advocating the return to a 19th-century energy policy based on the unfettered exploitation of fossil fuel resources without any regard to environmental or human health impacts. I’ve also been saddened and disgusted with Trump’s willingness to do anything to please his followers even if it means going against all established facts or reason — I could mention a lot of racist or misogynistic stereotypes he perpetuated on the campaign trail here, but staying on the theme of the environment I’ll just say a) his promise to bring back coal-miners’ jobs to the U.S. (when in reality the price of coal is set internationally and the extremely low price of coal, along with competition from natural gas and renewables, is something the U.S. government can do nothing about) or b) his joke a few years back that climate change is a “hoax” created by the Chinese. Now I know this latter instance was mostly a joke that was meant to bend the minds of conservatives towards him, but it’s sickening to see a person who has all the advantages of education, wealth, power etc. go completely against all reason and science to make a joke at the expense of well, basically, all of us.
However, I recently read an op-ed by George Monbiot (a well-known journalist over at The Guardian) that was a bit of an eye-opener for me. His premise is not something radical or terribly new, but it resurfaces something we, or at least I, had kind of forgotten: his premise is that we should not be worried so much about the “alt-right,” who are basically still a fringe groupwith no power in the upcoming administration, but that the real people we should be worried about are wealthy individuals such as the Koch brothers and powerful corporate interests who are going to advocate for deregulation, lower taxes and the dismantling of any effective service the government currently gives to the American people. He also argues that these corporate interests — who include major fossil fuel companies, big tobacco, big pharma, etc. have already been lobbying, pouring hundreds of millions of dollar into our elections and conducting deliberate misinformation campaigns on their issues of interest for decades. In his case, he has been directly in the line of fire on the issue of climate change and “spent the last 15 years fighting them.” Mr. Monbiot talks about how when he first started writing about climate change he was shocked by the massive amount of hatred he saw directed at journalists and scientists on this issue, until he realized “the hatred had been paid for.” Special interests like the Koch brothers and fossil fuel companies had poured hundred of millions of dollars into creating fake “think tanks” (essentially corporate fronts whose real purpose is to spread corporate propaganda, e.g. Americans for Prosperity) and paying bloggers to deliberately spread hatred and disinformation on the internet. All of this is true. All of this has been going on for decades (in the case of climate change, the denialism probably goes back to the late 1960’s but it really took off in the 1990’s when the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil and others began funding campaigns to deliberately sow distrust of climate scientists among the public and discredit the scientific consensus on climate change).
However, what was new to me (in some odd way) is that all this actually preceded Trump. Donald Trump does not represent some new form of communication, the emergence of a “post-truth” society (although I agree strongly with many parts of the post-truth analysis, I think the repeated assertions of Trump followers that he “tells it like it is” is a sign that they care just as much as anyone else about the truth — it’s just that they’re constantly getting fed a stream of misinformation and propaganda) or a sudden breaking with a past based on ideas to a future based merely on instincts. Rather, Donald Trump represents the “highest,” or I should say lowest, form of development of this new culture of misinformation and propaganda that has been spread by the far right in the U.S. for several decades now. If you want a primer on how these misinformation campaigns work, see this excellent slide show by the Union of Concerned Scientists about the climate change denial movement. However the gist of it is this: these campaigns spread doubt as their “product” primarily through the spread of misinformation among the public in order to compete with the established “body of facts” (their quotes, not mine, although it also points out the subjective nature of beliefs about the truth) in the public mind. And that is exactly the tool and the culture that these corporate interests represent: it is a culture of misinformation, the purpose of which is to twist the minds of the American people out of shape and disconnect them from reality by feeding them a constant barrage of false information and stories that are framed from the outset to feed anger, contempt and distrust, and Donald Trump is the King of Misinformation.
Now I could go on for pages about how Donald Trump is the biggest liar ever to run for the office of President of the United States — such as his ratings on PolitiFact (71% of his statements being Mostly False, False or “Pants on Fire”), his repeated assertions during the campaign that the election was “gonna be rigged,” his completely fabricated assertion that “millions of illegal immigrants” voted in the Presidential election or his team’s most recent attempt to push “alternative” (i.e. fake) facts into the public’s mind, but I won’t. Instead, I will point out two things very quickly: the first is that Donald Trump’s lies fall perfectly in line with this culture of misinformation because their primary purpose is most often to spread doubt, e.g. saying “nobody really knows” if climate change is real (when in fact there is an overwhelming scientific consensus), questioning Obama’s origin of birth, stating that the U.S. is in a state of “carnage” with untold violence in our streets (when in reality the crime rate is near a 20-year low and or even a 45-year low for violent crimes if you go back further in the data), etc. And second, while it may seem odd that Trump is actually aligned with pro-corporate interests like the Koch Brothers and by extension groups like the Tea Party (this may seem strange since the Koch brothers explicitly did not endorse him during the campaign, much of the Republican party reacted with disgust to him at first, he sometimes railed against Wall Street, etc.), a cursory glance at his team shows that they represent the same old narrow-mind, “business-as-usual” self-centered corporate interests: Corey Lewandowski came from Americans for Prosperity (an advocacy organization founded and funded by the Koch brothers), Steve Bannon was a leading propagandist of the Tea Party and Myron Ebell (head of the EPA transition) came from the Competitive Enterprise Institute — a “thinktank” whose leading donors include ExxonMobil, two Koch brothers foundations and various coal, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies (all this comes from and is linked in the George Monbiot op-ed). In other words, new leader (Donald Trump), same old climate change denial machine.
Also, I will say that this was both an appalling and a hopeful realization for me — appalling because it shows how strong this culture of misinformation and propaganda has become (and where it has finally led us), but hopeful because this is actually a fight we (i.e. liberals, conservatives and people of conscience) have been fighting for decades, and it is one we are winning. How can I say we are winning it? We are winning it because the debate is no longer really about “whether climate change is real” (the biggest bullsh*! question I’ve ever heard; although Republicans no longer have the audacity deny climate change, their newest phrase seems to be “let us (i.e. Congress) debate it” — why in the h*!! would we trust our current Congress to debate about whether we should take action on climate change?!), but rather the majority of Americans know climate change is real and they want the government to act on it (although the percentage of Americans who understand the scientific consensus that climate change is man-made is abysmally low). I know we are winning because of the signing and entering into force of the Paris Climate Agreement which, although it will not do enough by itself to stop the worst effects of climate change, was absolutely unthinkable during the Clinton and Bush years due to conservative Americans and Chinese pointing the finger at each other and saying the other one had to act first. The facts that 194 nations of the world signed the Paris Agreement (and 121 countries so far have ratified it), that major developing countries like Mexico, China and Brazil took the lead to get other developing nations to the table and that the Paris Agreement has a process built into it to allow its signee nations to revise their commitments upward every four years are all tremendous progress. Additionally, the majority of Americans support staying in the Paris Agreement and Republican House members are beginning to get organized to call for action on climate change.
Second, there is hope in that a growing number of people from all walks of life are calling for the government to act on climate change. 365 of the largest, most successful companies and investors in the U.S. sent an open letter to Donald Trump in December and re-sent it in January with over 600 signaturesasking him not to abandon the Paris Climate Agreement, because doing so would greatly endanger America’s prosperity. It is also widely known that Donald Trump met separtely with Al Gore and Leonardo Di Caprio in December to talk about climate change, but what is probably more surprising are reports that his daughter Ivanka Trump may want to focus on climate change as one of her primary issues and influence her father on the matter. Even Bill O’Reilly recently urged Trump not to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in order to “buy some goodwill overseas”! And then of course there are the 375 scientists of the National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel Laureates, who signed a letter re-affirming the reality of climate change, that humanity’s “fingerprints” on the climate are “visible everywhere” (i.e. there’s ample evidence it’s human-caused) and that pulling out of the Paris Agreement would have “severe and long-lasting” consequences to the planet’s climate and the U.S.’ international credibility. Now, the aforementioned conservative voices (Ivanka Trump and Bill O’Reilly) are certainly not representative of the far right as a whole (and Bill O’Reilly is not a voice of reason on climate change) or even of “mainstream” Republicans who hold power in our Congress. However, the fact remains that pressure is mounting from all sides for the U.S. government to take meaningful, decisive action on climate change. The voices are getting louder and growing in number from all corners of the U.S., and it is really only a matter of when and how much our government will listen.
Third and probably most importantly, there is hope in the fact that climate change is already here and more Americans are starting to become aware of the fact that climate change does affect the U.S. and their lives. 2016 was globally the hottest year ever recorded (and was part of an insane occurrence in which the global temperature record was broken three consecutive years in a row), and the evidence of climate change showed up all around us, including in the United States. In 2016 we saw abnormal wildfires like this one in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (which was exacerbated by a severe drought and warmer winter conditions, both likely caused or worsened by climate change) and in California, record-breaking storms and floods like this one in Louisiana(which was the second record-setting, billion dollar flooding event in LA in 2016), sea level rise and record-setting droughts (along with record-shattering heat) in the U.S. Southeast and in California (the conditions of which were likely exacerbated by climate change by 8 to 27%), to name a few instances. The odds of any one of these events occurring are extremely low, and the odds of multiple of them all occurring in a single year are even lower — except when you take climate change into account. What’s more, this is what scientists have been saying would happen as far back as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPPC) fourth report in 2007 (and probably even further back if you look at individual scientific papers), which predicted that climate change would likely lead to more severe and more frequent heat waves and heavy precipitation events, larger areas under drought, more intense tropical storms and more occurrences of extremely high sea levels. Confirming this, the U.S. NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index shows a sharp rise in extreme weather events over the past decade, and scientific studies have shown that the number of record-breaking hot days in the U.S. per year is now double that of record cold days, the rate of sea level rise has doubled in the last 24 years compared to the 1900–2010 average and areas of the Earth under “very dry” conditions have doubled since the 1970's.
While events like these are doing untold damage to American communities and forcing ordinary people to respond to conditions they have never before seen in their lives, the silver lining of this is that it is becoming harder for people to ignore the effects of climate change. In addition, climate change is going to be more on the tongues of the American people as local temperature, rainfall and other records are shattered. This is an unprecedented opportunity for us to act by making people aware that these temperature trends, extreme weather events, the drastic melting of the Arctic, etc. are exactly in line with what climate scientists have been predicting for decades. Now more than ever we need to connect the dots and convey the reality of climate change to Americans in ways that are simple, close-to-home and grounded just as much in American events and experiences as in the facts and scientific data. Now I recognize there is the scientific problem of “attribution” — i.e. any extreme weather event has multiple causes, and climate change is only one of them (if it has an effect at all), however we can make it clear to people that scientists have been predicting certain trends in extreme weather events for years (i.e. increases in their frequency, severity and/or duration and changes in their timing, depending on the extreme event in question), that these predictions vary by geographic region and that current extreme events are part of a larger pattern that is essentially exactly what scientists have predicted. This is going to become easier as annual temperatures rise, winter temperatures increase, seasons like spring and summer become drier, droughts become more common and more severe, extreme (and normally once-in-a-lifetime) storms and flooding occur more often and sea level rise claims more communities and individual properties. Americans are aware that these events are out of place and that something is changing with climatic conditions. We need to make it abundantly clear that this increase in extreme weather events is exactly what climate scientists have predicted, that it confirms the validity of current climate models and that it’s only expected to continue and get worse as climate change progresses.
Now more than ever we need to dig in our heels and fight back against the nauseating wave of disinformation, fabrications and “alternative reality” thinking that is coming from the Trump administration. Al Gore is right that we are facing a race against time. But in some strange way the natural world is our ally in that the signs of climate change are all around us. We need to connect the dots, we need to synthesize the science with people’s real-life experiences and we need to communicate climate change to the American public in ways that are simple, clear and that affect them at the gut level as well as the mental level. This is a form of fighting back. We fight doubt not just with facts but with human experience and with facts. This is perfectly within our capability. We have to do this to win — not to keep from sliding backward, not just to counter the amazing amount of mind-numbing fabrications that are coming out of the Trump administration, but to continue our tremendous progress on climate change so far and to ensure, at least in this one regard, that we have a healthy planet and healthy societies to pass on to the next generation.