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Climate Change

The Climate Crisis: How Ideology Replaced Reason Under Trump

How did we come to a place in the US government in which science is so readily disregarded? It’s all about language.

As sentient beings, humans are able to use a combination of thought and language to understand our worlds. Usually, persuasive language, called rhetoric, in politics is concerned with strategies used to create effective arguments in formal public debates and political ordeals. That’s all changed with the Trump presidency. No longer are science and federal agencies companions in the quest to create sensible, pragmatic governing. The existential crisis of climate change that presses on us is subsumed by a leader who is concerned strictly with self-image. Ideology replaced reason under the Trump administration.

Trump’s demeanor in the first debate, a former senior intelligence official told the New York Times, is indicative of his authentic self. The official affirmed that, when the president offered “one of the most astonishing performances of any leader in modern American history — bullying, ridiculing, manic, boasting, fabricating, relentlessly interrupting and talking over his opponent — ‘That’s really him. Not the myth that’s been created. That’s Trump.’”

Two-thirds of Americans say the Trump government isn’t doing enough to reduce the effects of global warming, according to a June survey from the Pew Research Center. But is the public outcry too little, too late? Has conservative rhetoric around the climate crisis diminished its importance to voters? Why have science and federal agencies found themselves at such odds over these last 4 years?

Ideology Replaced Reason

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Variously describing it as a “Chinese hoax,” a “big scam,” a “make-believe problem,” and — more recently — “ a very serious subject,” Donald Trump has used targeted language about the climate crisis for specific political purposes over his political career. In 2009, he signed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times expressing support for climate action legislation. Since then, he’s created more than 120 Tweets in which he’s questioned or made light of climate change. He’s fired the chief scientist at NOAA. Now, as the US presidential election nears, he’s seeing firsthand in my state of Florida — the country’s largest swing state — that a majority of residents understand the impacts of the climate crisis and want action.

The climate crisis brings together some of the most important issues of our time, including what it means to govern, the role of industrialization and capitalism in degrading the environment, the relationship between humans and ecosystems, fiscal inequalities among nations, and how to reconcile the switch to clean energy with commonly-accepted lifestyle norms.

Lots of scientific analysis of the climate crisis has arisen from physical scientists who study anthropogenic-created greenhouse gases and their impact on human life, including transportation, agriculture, air, and water supplies. But there’s more to tackling the climate crisis than listening to science-based guidance — at least these days. In fact, impactful social pressures influence the language associated with global climate and the resulting (in)action to mitigate it in what is now clear: ideology replaced reason in the last 4 years in the US.

The climate crisis has become a political issue that is intertwined with discussions of what contemporary societies should look like, how capitalism creates meritocratic opportunities, and ways that globalization makes taking responsibility for emissions as a cross-border conundrum. Macro issues collide and exacerbate the climate crisis debate today. Donald Trump and the anti-environment forces behind him are keenly aware of the pulse of the US nation. Recent Trump campaign public statements supporting climate action directly contradict the administration’s policy actions as regulatory rules are quickly amended.

Joe Bonfiglio, president of the EDF Action, the advocacy partner of the Environmental Defense Fund, asks us to “call President Trump’s newfound religion on climate what it is — political lip service.” And that hypocrisy is grounded in very specific language choices that tell conservative voters what life should look like as a result of climate. So, too, is the Supreme Court’s first and most important ruling on rising global temperatures, the landmark 2007 decision, Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency — which conferred to the federal government the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — at risk with new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett now seated.

As we look to ways that ideology replaced reason in our current political era, we need to understand more fully how rhetoric allowed it to happen.

Ideology Replaced Reason– The Language of Climate Denial

Conservative thought frames the climate crisis as illusory, concocted, and biased. To figure out how that ideology has weighed so heavily on the climate and other environmental policies that have emerged from the Trump administration, let’s look at the power of language, shall we? We’ll draw upon a research framework about science, reason, ideology, and rhetoric to do so. Here are some rhetorical strategies commonly used to persuade audiences, and we’ll apply them to current discourse around the climate crisis.

Assertion of consensus: This rhetorical strategy suggests world-wide consensus as a justifying concept without acknowledging the controversy about this consensus. However, this “consensus” is achieved by ignoring, dismissing, or trivializing significant opposition. While misleading rhetoric may indeed have contributed to world-wide acceptance of the concept among some groups and organizations, it fails to provide solid, credible research proving the concept’s fundamental premises.

In a 2017 study about climate change and consensus-building, Sander van der Linden, study lead author from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, describes, “Our findings suggest that presenting people with a social fact, a consensus of opinion among experts, rather than challenging them with blunt scientific data, encourages a shift towards mainstream scientific belief — particularly among conservatives.”

Labeling: Labeling is a misleading rhetorical device because it denotes one noun to signify a particular known thing. A label implies that the criteria and techniques to identify a specific phenomenon have been validated and can be applied accurately to a specific case based upon research evidence — an untruth.

Facebook blocked Katharine Hayhoe, of Texas Tech University and a lead author of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, from promoting videos related to climate research. As a result, she was limited in her efforts to refute false claims. Facebook had previously labeled Hayhoe’s educational climate videos as “political.”

Renaming: The terms used to refer to the concept  have changed over the years. The multiple names suggest more wide-spread support than a single name would suggest, particularly discredited names. Legitimacy by association avoids the substantive issue. Renaming a phenomenon without changing it is a rhetorical strategy that attempts to legitimize by rhetoric what cannot be legitimized by reasoned argument or research.

As early as 2011, research indicated that Republicans were less likely to endorse that the phenomenon is real when it was referred to as “global warming” (44.0%) rather than “climate change” (60.2%), whereas Democrats were unaffected by question wording (86.9% vs. 86.4%). As a result, the partisan divide on the issue dropped from 42.9 percentage points under a “global warming” frame to 26.2 percentage points under a “climate change” frame.

Asserting that anecdotes are evidence: Renaming a phenomenon without changing it is a rhetorical strategy that attempts to legitimize by rhetoric what cannot be legitimized by reasoned argument or research. Empirical and scientific research is necessary to distinguish one similar-appearing but different phenomena from another.

As he announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Trump claimed that it would cost the nation millions of jobs and would do next to nothing for the climate. Government rules intended to slow climate change are “making people’s lives worse rather than better,” Charles Koch explained in a rare interview with Fortune, arguing that despite the costs, these efforts would make “very little difference in the future on what the temperature or the weather will be.”

Asserting that agreement is evidence: Climate deniers assert the fact that, because so many people and organizations accept their view proves, it exists — regardless of research studies. Scientific validity means accuracy, which cannot be determined by a popular vote.

Collumb points to the ideology of climate denial as stemming from 2 areas: 1) the strong ideological commitment of small-government conservatives and libertarians to laissez-faire and their strong opposition to regulation; 2) the defense of the US way of life, defined by high consumption and ever-expanding material prosperity. The result is that career politicians like Marco Rubio suggest we don’t really know how much humans are contributing to climate change, so there’s no sense in trying hard to reduce our emissions.

Asserting that attention is evidence: Use of proof by assertion is also implied when it’s claimed that numerous individuals or organizations have “considered” or “discussed it extensively,” as if the frequency of discussion indicates acceptance and acceptance indicates validity. Of course, people and organizations can discuss an idea frequently whether or not they agree with it.

As a result of broad social media use, people selectively expose themselves to news media that is consistent with their existing motivations and beliefs. Conservatives may seek evidence that challenges the scientific knowledge regarding climate change, which aligns with their existing knowledge acquired from political leaders whom they trust. Fox News is a much-watched news information source for conservatives, and climate denial claims dominated 86% of climate change segments on Fox News in 2018, according to a Public Citizen analysis.

Ad Personam attacks: Some conservatives make ad personam attacks to diminish the strength of climate crisis activists. These types of attacks, rather than relying on reason, are simply a rhetorical strategy used to humiliate and smear critics in the eyes of the public and professional communities. They are merely concealed forms of name-calling, a time-honored form of insult, a rhetorical strategy to distract from the merits of an argument.

Nowhere was this more evident recently than when the leader of what has been called the strongest nation of the world called out a teenage climate action activist in a blatant example of how ideology replaced reason in our political times. On more than one occasion, Trump publicly mocked teen climate crisis activist Greta Thunberg, tweeting that the 17-year-old Swede who has inspired protesters worldwide has “anger management” issues. Thunberg has sternly lectured world leaders for not doing enough to combat the climate crisis and stared down Trump at a UN General Assembly. She was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year over Trump.

What are some examples that you can relate in which ideology replaced reason and science in our turbulent political times?

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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