Why does Donald Trump refute the climate crisis? At first glance, he would appear not to understand the science behind it. I wrote my MSc dissertation on this very topic, exploring his use of Twitter to express his rejection of the science and scientists, politicians and activists who insist it is very real and happening now. I spent months collecting any reference he had made to climate change or global warming on Twitter, as far back as I could, and analysed them for trends in word use or sentiment. In the end, I concluded three main things.
- He makes frequent use of incivility, targeted towards anyone who represents climate action or science
- He uses specific weather events to refute the existence or severity of ‘global warming’
- His reasoning in interpreting climate science is flawed.
I was probably wrong about the last one.
Let me explain. On the surface, now-president of the USA, Mr Donald Trump, would appear to misunderstand the distinction between weather and climate, the cautious language with which scientists approach results and conclusions, or the links drawn between fuel emissions and rising global temperatures. His public opinions appears to have changed somewhat over the years, moving from staunch denial to tentative acknowledgement but even now he makes it clear that he will not be buying into the fear that the end is nigh and that fossil fuels are probably not the best source of energy. His frequent refusal to refer to phenomena as anything but ‘global warming’ and suggestions that snow or cold weather disprove said warming, would – from the perspective of climate scientists, activists and a general public whose interest is in continuing to live on a planet that is not bereft of resources – appear to be informed by ignorance.
But that is to look at it from only one point of view. I would now argue that he is not looking at the situation from the same perspective as those he opposes. His argument is not truly that the climate crisis is not happening. It is that it is not his priority. He does not argue that things are not as bad as they seem simply for the sake of doing so. Trump argues that they are not important because he does not look at the situation from the perspective of climate science, agriculture or environmental activism. He is not a rival scientist who claims to have evidence contrary to the consensus. He is not a farmer trying to tend land in a climate that has grown inhospitable. He is not a young man who will grow up in a world where resources are scarce, space is a luxury and water is fought over. He is an old, rich businessman. He is president of the USA. He won’t see that world. He doesn’t see the damage that is already done; the loss of wildlife, the climate refugees, the food and water shortages. He is somewhat shielded from those things, living in relative comfort and a position of power. What he does see is an industry he is invested in suffer losses under new restrictions and quotas. He sees the country he is president of spend more money than he thinks it should on something he does not deem to be as important as another. He sees rivals thrive because they are not limited by those restrictions. He sees a solution; remove the restrictions.
We could argue against the morality of this, but likewise, he can argue against the morality of damaging someone’s business and livelihood. Some of you will argue that the future is more important but others disagree. Perhaps they are wrong if there is a wrong. It’s hard to say. That particular kind of debate has been going on as long as humans have been debating.
And it is a solution. It works, right? It isn’t flawed reasoning. If you remove the barrier from the thing you think is important you solve the problem you saw. Moral values aside, an issue was addressed.
So does Trump understand the climate crisis? Possibly not. But he isn’t talking about science or the environment, he is talking about business. He isn’t arguing against saving the planet, he is arguing for saving an industry. It just happens that his solution goes against the moral viewpoint of those advocating for climate action. Trying to convince him of the existence or severity of climate change won’t work because that isn’t the issue he is really trying to address. Should he be? Yes, I think so. I think we should all be very worried about where things are headed but we’ve all heard that before. But if he engages with that issue, if he really takes that on board and tries to find solutions, he abandons the value he placed in the industry he is trying to maintain. No one wants to abandon their values.
So why is this important? Because this is an issue in all science communication and engagement. We need to recognise that when we communicate science, we have assessed a subject and decided it is of enough value to us to be worth telling others about. We have decided it is an important topic or issue and that we feel others need to be aware of it, understand it and engage with it. We have done so based on our own values. The people we choose to engage with may not share in them and will try to communicate their own to us. In that case, we are both participating in the same endeavour to change a person’s mind. If we do not listen to what is really being said, we may never be heard.