Climate Denial on the Right and the Left

Climate change denial has several forms. Some are not as easy to recognize as Donald Trump’s. With the Donald, denial is obvious and even overt. “It’s just a Chinese hoax!” is, if not an exact quote, at least a very accurate paraphrase. Whether the other Republicans all blame the Chinese or not, many of them say they do not “believe in” climate change, or at least do not believe that it is caused by the actions of mankind.

There’s also a form that does not outright deny climate change, but ends up with exactly the same policy prescriptions as outright deniers. A good example of this is Rex Tillerson, current Chair of Exxon-Mobil and possibly the next United States Secretary of State. At the 2015 shareholder’s meeting, he explained his take on climate. He said that he did not think the results of climate models were sufficiently reliable for policy making and, in any case, his view is that technical and engineering solutions will be found to overcome all impacts, as has been the case in the past. In other words, with simple faith in scientific progress for the future, we can simply ignore climate change in the present. It’s not direct denial, it’s indirect. We can study the subject, but there’s no need to come to any conclusion or take any action based on that study.

From Trump’s point of view and from Tillerson’s, it makes sense to ignore climate change. They actually value economic growth, and the economy they want to grow is largely a fossil fuel economy. Whether we are talking about local, national or global economies, transportation in particular is overwhelmingly powered by liquid fuels made from oil and “unconventional oil.” These are oil substitutes such as tar sands syncrude and the liquid products of fracking, neither of which can be sold as oil in international markets. Barrel for barrel, they sell for less than actual oil. While it is possible to ship them to refineries and turn them into fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel, the refining process is less efficient and produces more waste product.

If this existing economy is to be revived, to produce more jobs by producing and selling more stuff, then more fossil fuel is going to be burned. With this goal, then any concern about climate change is an obstacle. Whether you attack the science, or insist such things should be in God’s hands, or (in a variation of the same thing) have faith that technical progress will create solutions not currently known, the conclusion is the same – full steam ahead on the economy.

When we do not deny either climate change or the role of mankind in causing it, then there’s a straightforward set of policies to address it. First, because leaving fossil fuels in the ground minimizes the future bad effects and scope of climate change, stop burning fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. This involves a combination of public education, increasing efficiency measures, a carbon tax and development of wind, solar and other clean sources. Clearly, this is going to shrink the fossil fuel economy while it is building up the clean energy economy.

There’s a long discussion to be had about whether nuclear power is a good energy source to develop. My conclusion is that it is not, largely because there are risks other than carbon dioxide emissions to be considered. In any case, besides the risk of permanently poisoning large areas of land and sea with inevitable meltdowns, nuclear power is too slow to develop, too expensive and too reliant on transportation and materials produced by the fossil fuel economy. Nuclear power is not a practical solution for climate change. It’s just another way to believe in the sort of technical and engineering fix that creates more problems than it solves.

Even with developing clean energy and limiting fossil fuel use, we’re also going to have to adapt to rising sea levels, an increased rate of extinction especially of sea life, extended and sever droughts in some regions, extended and severe flooding in others – and those are just the easily predicted consequences of emissions already in the atmosphere or absorbed in the oceans. It’s no wonder that it’s painful to think about this sort of future. It’s no wonder that so many people want to believe God or technology or something will save us from it.

It’s certainly not only Republicans who invent economic plans and policies that ignore climate change and depletion of resources essential to the fossil fuel economy. Here’s a current example from Bill Black, an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). (Click here to read the article.). It’s pretty apparent that his sympathies are with the traditional Democratic voter, and he’s horribly disappointed in the entrenched leadership of the Democratic Party. From the article, I believe this is the gist of the policy he wants to see:

Here is UMKC’s economics department’s long-standing proposal to every American political party:

Our party stands for full employment at all times. We will make the federal government the guaranteed employer of last resort for every American able and wanting to work. We recognize that the United States has a sovereign currency and can always afford to ensure full employment. We recognize that austerity typically constitutes economic malpractice and is never a valid excuse for rejecting full employment. The myth that we help our grandchildren by consigning their grandparents and parents to unemployment is obscene. The opposite is true.

This is essentially the idea of doing Roosevelt’s New Deal again, and doing it “right” this time, ideologically justified by modern monetary theory. The clue about modern monetary theory is mention of a “sovereign currency.” What’s absent entirely from Professor Black’s perspective is any consideration at all of climate change and resource depletion.

Just ignoring the subject entirely is another form of climate denial, in this case from a presumably left or progressive perspective. In the 1930’s the resources to make the New Deal successful existed. Today, they do not. Especially if we count the capacity of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb emissions as a resource, today the resources emphatically do not exist. That’s why the Green New Deal emphasizes investing in clean alternative energy.

Whether one wishes for a revival of the old New Deal or a revival of the economy with the benefits directed to big and influential corporations, reviving this economy to burn more fossil fuels is a plan that leads straight to disaster. For a sketch of disaster,  see above, about the predictable consequences of of past emissions, and understand that everything gets more extreme with more emissions. That’s a range of disasters which makes reviving the economy by any means a stupid short-term plan. Yet it is some plan for reviving the economy that both Democrats and Republicans want us to believe they can and should do. Their promises of full employment lead to an early grave for billions of people.


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