New Republican Strategy: Acknowledge Climate Change, Obscure Human Role
Professor Chris Williams says the definition of climate denial should not be limited to Republican’s rejection of scientific fact; it should include the refusal to take the necessary course of action, as exemplified by the Obama presidency
KIM BROWN: Welcome back to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
If not a sea change, there has been a marked evolution in Republican talking points about climate change, and with us to discuss climate change denialism in all of its various forms, we’re joined by author, activist and educator Chris Williams. Chris, welcome back to The Real News.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me on.
KIM BROWN: Well, let’s first take a look at Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s now famous or infamous, rather, snowball on the Senate floor. This clip from 2015.
JAMES INHOFF: …of national attention and in case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair: you know what this is? It’s a snowball. And that’s just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable. So, here, Mr. President, catch this. Mm-hmm.
KIM BROWN: Alrighty. Well, now let’s take a look at Scott Pruitt during his nomination hearings to head the Environment Protection Agency.
SCOTT PRUITT: Science tells us that the climate is changing and then human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be.
KIM BROWN: And, let’s also take a look at a listen from the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, during his nomination hearing to be Secretary of State.
REX TILLERSON: The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.
KIM BROWN: So, Chris, we can see that there is now a shift in acknowledgement about climate change, that it is indeed a real actual thing, but there is an attempt to blur the connection between it and human activity. What are your thoughts?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think that… I mean, the Republicans in particular, but even the Democrats really are way out of step with not just the rest of the world but ordinary Americans. Majorities now, including majorities of registered Republicans, say that not only is climate change a real thing, not only are we causing it, but they are really worried and would like the government to do more about it. So, in a recognition of that… in recognition of the fact that there is no debate whatsoever within the scientific community about, A, the reality of climate change, and, B, that humans are the majority cause of it, and through our actions, mostly through burning fossil fuels, that even some of the most intransigent Republicans have had to shift somewhat their position from saying, well, okay, climate change is happening. We really cannot any longer deny that, but we deny that it has anything to do with us. We’ll all… if we don’t deny it outright, we say we aren’t sure. Let’s do some more checking into that, even though it’s a well-established fact going back at this point, actually, many decades of scientific research showing that we are the cause of it and actually it’s far worse. I mean, we may already be approaching or are approaching irreversible tipping points with regard to what we’re doing with climate and all the various ramifications on species extinction rates and so on and so forth.
So I think they have changed under the force of the weight of scientific evidence, but even more so on ordinary people’s actually experience of the climate is just not the same as it was when they were younger.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Especially it’s interesting to hear that from Senator Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma. Obviously, Oklahoma experiencing a record number of earthquakes due to fracking, which is obviously a man-made activity. So why do you think that the Republicans have made this shift? Is evidence just so overwhelming in terms of people in the United States who were experiencing the effects of climate change first hand, that now these individuals who have been long climate change deniers, they can longer deny that it’s happening?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, there is quite a bit of research done on stages of denial and different forms of denial, sociologist Stanley Cohen(?) has talked about this, really three types of denial. One, being literal denial. You just outright deny the facts, so Trump would be essentially within that camp, as would many Republicans. But there is another form of denial, interpretive denial, under that schema, whereby you don’t deny the facts, you just interpret them differently, and so they’re not denying climate change, they’re just saying, well, there are different reasons why that might happen, and we interpret it to mean that the climate is just changing for reasons that we don’t fully know the reason for. It’s kind of like what the military does when they talk about collateral damage. They are deliberately obscure the fact that this is not some accidental outcome of dropping bombs on people, but it distances what people think about when they refer to collateral damage as opposed to killing people. So this is another form of denialism, but it does represent something of a shift to, like you were saying, bring them more in line with actually the concerns of ordinary Americans.
KIM BROWN: Talk about other degrees of deniability, because President Obama was clear that climate change was real and now people are really romanticizing his efforts to tackle climate change, yet fracking and natural gas had all boomed under his leadership. So is this a form of denial, as well?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Certainly, according to Cohen’s framework it is the third and I would argue that it is because I actually think we need to redefine what climate denial is at this point. Because it’s easy to rail against Trump and other aerialists as idiots. They’re obviously not idiots. They’re protecting vested interests within the fossil fuel industry, of which he is now a direct representative by putting Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon, into his Cabinet.
But there is another form, a third form, of denial, which is implicatory – or implacatory – denial which I would say that Obama clearly – and other world leaders for that matter – clearly fall into. What does that mean? That means that you don’t deny any of the facts or the causes, you just deny their implications. In other words, you agree that the oceans are rising, the earth is getting hotter. All of these horrendous changes are going on. You also agree that we are the cause – the primary cause – of those changes. But then you deny taking the kind of action, the implcations, of those facts. So you don’t, for example, stop drilling or fracking your way around the world, or if you’re Hillary Clinton making sure the rest of the world takes up fracking. On the contrary, you actually expand oil and gas drilling faster and in larger quantities than any other president in US history. That happened under Obama where the US is now rivaling Saudi Arabia for its production of oil and gas. And just on the question of Oklahoma, last year they had more earthquakes in 2015, they had more earthquakes in one year than they’d had in the previous 1,000, and so it’s a little hard to distance that from the burying of waste water at high pressure underground in Oklahoma, but the broader reasons for climate change, and the way in which we are changing the planet to our detriment and the detriment of all other species that have evolved over the last few million years, is to not take the action required. And I think that that is therefore also a form of climate denial and we should see it as such, and hold anybody who denies climate change as a reality due to human causes and therefore the actions that we would need to take to stop it as actually on the wrong side of history.
KIM BROWN: It sounds like really you’re describing Exxon Mobil’s approach to climate science and obviously they had their in-house scientists conducting all of this research, the company itself was aware of climate change and aware of its impact on climate change, at least according to the state’s Attorney Generals who are trying to gain emails and collect evidence and information about what Exxon knew. Obviously this is a campaign to hold Exxon accountable, and now their former CEO is now Secretary of State. So it seems like these things certainly overlap regardless of whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah. And including the military. I mean, one of the reasons we know so much about climate is because much of the research in the 1950s to do with what was going on with climate was related to needing to know if there was a nuclear war then where would the radiation blow? And so the research into climate, wind currents and so on was conducted by the military and that’s a large part of the reason that we have so much information and then following on from that, out of the Cold War, the launch of satellites and so on which can then study the earth in greater and greater detail, and so Earth Science has made some huge leaps forward over the last few decades as a result of the military interest, which obviously goes on under any president.
So, there’s a huge amount of overlap. I think what’s different is that the Trump administration essentially decided to get rid of the middle man, with the politicians in place and the corporations behind their backs, and just put the corporations right in the White House. So, Rex Tillerson, Trump, any number of other people he’s appointing to his Cabinet are CEOs, former CEOs, director representatives of capital. So there’s no more veil behind who runs the country anymore, and I think that that is one of the reasons that people are so… I mean, we’re in a new era, not only in terms of Trump, but also in terms of rebellion, resistance, revolution, I think, and so it’s a state of emergency, but people are rallying around from all sectors of society to protect and show solidarity with the most oppressed and the people who are most being attacked most severely like immigrants, like people of color, LGBT and other groups, and so I think it’s also a time when we should be out in the streets and organizing for marches of all sorts, and talking about wider things that we can do beyond the marches to organize and make the resistance so great that we don’t have to wait four years to get rid of Trump from the White House because maybe the people can force him out before that.
KIM BROWN: One has to admit that we are certainly in a new era with the most fossil fuel-friendly Cabinet since Bush and Cheney, and even with all of its flaws, isn’t Trump killing the Clean Power Plan and the possibility of the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, aren’t those things extremely dangerous?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Well, I think everything that Trump is doing is extremely dangerous and we should oppose him absolutely vigorously, but if it starts a new conversation, and we need the EPA. Ronald Reagan famously tried to gut the EPA, and did so to a certain extent, restricted its access, defunded certain things. Trump is doing the same thing in overdrive. But maybe it will start up a more serious conversation about the kind of action we need to take more than Paris, because, I mean, James Hanson(?) of NASA described Paris as a fraud, as just words, really. In fact, he used more colorful language than that. And so I think that maybe we should be talking about the fact that Paris, even if they did everything they said they were going to do, which would be historically unprecedented – for governments – then we’d still be warming up by almost 4 degrees Celsius, which is completely untenable. So, we need to be talking about what we’re doing now. And actually coming up with a genuine plan of action to combat climate change, and I think the kind of resistance and organizing that’s been stimulated by the Trump presidency is one way of helping us move forward on that question. So, yes, everything that he does should be opposed, but we should also be talking about not just what we’re stopping him doing, but what would we like to have done. How can we move from defensive battles, actually, to offensive battles where we end up with not just keeping the status quo as it is but having more? I mean, we should be thinking about how do we scare the living daylights out of these people in power? How can we organize ourselves to be that powerful? I think that that is a very exciting prospect, and we’re at the dawn of a new era in both respects. And that’s terrifying, but it’s also, on the flip side of that, an exciting time to be an activist.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. We’ve been speaking with Chris Williams. He is an author, activist and educator. He’s been joining us today from Amherst, Massachusetts, talking about how members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet and including his soon-to-be EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have changed their language, modified it some to at least acknowledge the existence of climate change but still remain unconvinced, at least publicly, about humans linked to this phenomena.
Chris, we really appreciate you taking some time to speak with us. Thank you so much.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you very much. Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.