Trump and climate change – looking at the big lies

Posted in: Comment
Date posted: 20 January 2017

The full impact of Donald Trump’s election on America’s commitment to climate change, in the US and internationally, is yet to be seen. But embedding big oil and climate denial in the heart of the US government, in the guise of Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State and Scott Pruitt, a man who has spent years suing the Environmental Protection Agency, as its head, is deeply concerning. The web of connections between fossil fuels and the US government is nothing new, but it has never been more blatant.

The fossil fuel sector regards climate change – and the rise of cheap, clean, renewable energy – as an existential threat. Trump’s victory is a lifeline which it has no intention of letting slip. Interviews with key advisors to the new administration – lobbyists for the fossil fuel sector – broadcast since the election, suggest that we are in a new era. In the quest to shift public opinion and define a new ‘normal’ on climate change and fossil fuels, anything goes.
It’s essential that we recognise this change. As in Trump’s campaign, the accepted rules of debate, discourse, science and reason do not apply. In their place come half-truths, manipulation of public opinion and outright lies.

Here are three lines of attack, drawn from the campaign itself and interviews since 9th November.

The big lie – if you are going to lie, make it big and tell it often

A favourite of despots and dictators through history, the big lie is the linguistic equivalent of hiding a pile-driver in plain sight: crude, yes, but also effective. Trump’s assertion that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese is a big lie par excellence.

It works by operating on many levels at once. Firstly, almost by default it is so absurd that we assume that others, like us, will see it for what it is and dismiss it. Why call it out when it is so obviously a lie? For this reason big lies frequently go unchallenged. It also plays on a common discomfort of accusing anyone, even strangers, and often those in authority, of telling an untruth. Saying nothing is often less uncomfortable than speaking out.

Secondly, it builds on an innate and human love of narrative. Stories are more persuasive than facts, something Trump understands implicitly. The Chinese hoax narrative is powerful because it has three recognisable protagonists – villains, victims and heroes.

The ‘villains’ in this story are the Chinese. Trump could just as well have picked the British, who did after all pass the Climate Change Act and were until recently regarded as global leaders on climate change. But the Chinese fit better with other pet narratives – fear of foreigners and the unknown.

The victims here are the intended audience, those whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened by the closure of industries such as coal and steel. These threats are real (and need to be taken seriously), which is why this resonates so powerfully with so many voters in the US.

And the heroes? Also the audience. No one likes to have the wool pulled over their eyes and we all like to think we can spot a hoax, so by identifying with this story, and sussing out the villains, the listener is rewarded by being made to feel smart.

Thirdly, it is difficult to challenge the big lie without lending it credibility. Engaging with the argument line by line implies that it is in some way valid. But as the tactic here is to repeat the lie again and again, not challenging it can feel equally unsatisfactory.

It is crucial to recognise the big lie for what it is: a deliberate untruth, and a deception perpetrated with the specific intention of changing public opinion and making fact and opinion appear to be equivalent.

We just can’t be sure – let’s wait until we really understand what’s going on

Again there is nothing new here. This was used extensively by the tobacco industry and enthusiastically adopted by the fossil fuel lobby. It’s effective because it plays to a natural human tendency to put off difficult decisions. Given the choice of doing your homework now or being told you can leave it till later without any consequences, most of us will take the second option.

It plays particularly well with those who regard themselves as socially responsible. ‘Of course I am concerned about climate change, but let’s not rush in until we are really sure what’s going on.’

The dishonesty is implying that there is uncertainty where there is not. It also plays strongly to the narrative that climate change is not an urgent problem and addressing it can be put off until later: very comforting but completely at odds with the science. We should expect to see this deployed extensively in the coming months.

Yes, climate change is a problem, but let’s deal with poverty first

Perhaps the most subtle and cynical of the three, this is intended for a specific audience, meaning those who care about climate change and poverty, including Christians and other faith communities. Importantly, there is no denial of climate change here, only a reprioritisation. It deliberately ignores the multiple and well-documented connections between climate change and poverty, including evidence that the poorer you are the less able you are to respond to the impacts of climate change. We should expect to see this targeted at faith communities, and the use of high-profile supporters to make the case.

However casually these ‘arguments’ are presented they are not off-the-cuff. In fact, they have been tailored, honed and tested, each for a specific audience and to have the greatest possible impact. Expect them to be repeated ad nauseam. The objective is not to win the argument but rather to shift the ‘normal’, to make the unacceptable credible and to create space and time for fossil fuels.

We shouldn’t, however, expect the fossil fuel companies themselves to make these statements, not in the first instance at least. Most if not all companies have been working hard to detoxify their image. So the messengers will be once removed (to allow for plausible deniability), and the dirty work left to the lobbyists and ‘advisory bodies’.
Spotting these distortions is one thing, knowing how to respond is quite another. We’ve learned a great deal since the Copenhagen summit in 2009 about why communications on climate change have worked well with some audiences and failed with others. Different people hear the same message differently. What is persuasive to you or me may simply confirm a pre-held belief of someone else, that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
It’s why the work of Climate Outreach, Greenfaith and others is so crucial to understand how to communicate messages about climate change to different audiences. It is also why Operation Noah is using funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to build connections with new audiences and connect climate change and Christian faith.

What is not in doubt is that we must respond clearly, loudly and often. The biggest risk, and the biggest gift to those who want to halt progress towards solving the climate crisis, is that we do not speak up. To paraphrase Burke: ‘All a reversal of progress on climate change needs is for people of good conscience to remain silent.’

For more on Donald Trump and climate change, read this briefing paper from the John Ray Initiative.

An oil rig.
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