Belief in Climate Change in the Age of Trump

Will more evidence affect climate action, or are we entering a new Dark Age characterized by willful ignorance? Scott Vaughan reflects as COP24 struggles to make the necessary progress.

By Scott Vaughan on December 13, 2018

I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump, Thomas Aquinas and The Monkees a lot lately — especially with the lack of progress coming out of the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland (COP24).

Let me start with Aquinas. Six hundred years ago, his work explored the relationship between faith and reason and showed they were not contradictory, but indeed complementary. This turned the page on the centuries that preceded him, a time we now know as the Dark Ages.

Climate change belief

Aquinas’ work helped set the stage for subsequent schools of philosophy—including Kant, Hegel and the British empiricists—that probed questions such as “How do we know what we know?” and “What underlies the relationship between belief and evidence?”

Aquinas noted belief (specifically the medieval world of religious belief) came first, but was not contradictory to the world of evidence:

We can't have full knowledge all at once. We must start by believing; then afterwards we may be led on to master the evidence for ourselves.

Fast forward to Donald Trump.

Asked about the findings of his own federal interagency task force, which examined the effects of climate change on the United States, he replied: “I don’t believe it.” 

Rather than disagreeing with the contents of the report—for example, disputing key findings—his lack of “belief” silences hundreds of experts who worked to summarize the state of empirical knowledge about climate change and America.

This U.S. report—released the day after Thanksgiving, no doubt in an effort to bury the headline—is the latest in a sobering string of reports tracking climate trends and projected impacts:

These three topics—observed greenhouse gas emissions and projections, observed changes in global average temperatures and the consequences of temperature increases—represent the evidentiary foundations of climate change.

Climate change

The recent report of the United States federal inter-agency work on climate change—the Fourth National Climate Assessment—similarly examined these areas and looked at consequences at the national level.

The U.S report is significant for three reasons. First, it focuses climate analysis at the country level, examining issues like public health, infrastructure, national security and economic livelihoods. Second, it includes agencies beyond the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA or the Interior, also bringing in the Pentagon, Commerce, Energy, Transportation and State departments. And third, Trump’s own White House signed off on the findings.

The report notes, factually, global average temperatures have already increased by one degree Celsius in the past century. The last few years have seen “record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, and the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe.” Heatwaves are expected to become more common. Large forest fires in the Western United States and Alaska are expected to increase.

With these warming trends, sea levels globally have already risen by seven to eight inches in the past century. They’re expected to continue rising by at least several inches in the next 15 years, by one to four feet by the end of the century, and potentially by eight feet by the year 2100.

COP24 delegates in Katowice, Poland

The report also unpacks deepening risks from these trends; notably, climate change is expected to cause substantial losses to infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century, unless there are significant measures to mitigate climate trends. This core finding showing the economic costs of climate change builds on earlier work, including that of Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus, who warned climate impacts can be compared to more familiar economic shocks, including recessions and depressions.

So, in the face of all these detailed analyses, and all the economic predictions, Trump’s “I don’t believe it” raises a basic question: Will more evidence have people saying "I'm a believer," or are we moving closer to a new Dark Age characterized both by accelerating climate impacts and wilful ignorance called beliefs?

As Katowice flounders, the latter seems to be the case.