Beyond Denial: Bridging Divides on Climate Change with Global Awareness
DESIGN BY RACHEL LI
Despite the overwhelmingly visible effects of the Lahaina fires, the hurricanes threatening Southern California, the Canadian wildfires impacting air quality in Boston and the greater New England area, and most recently the NYC flooding, 2023 has seen its fair share of continued Republican skepticism toward climate change. From Vivek Ramaswamy declaring in the first 2023 GOP presidential debate that “the climate change agenda is a hoax” to Republican Senator Markwayne Mullin from Oklahoma recently chalking up increased wildfires to forests naturally burning themselves off “every 11 years,” there is a world of facts selectively entertained by party elites.
At Tufts, many of us have the privilege of adequate media literacy and faith in the scientific consensus that drives us to take action on climate change. This intellectual unity is extremely helpful for initiating shared actions in our school community, like reducing waste and pollution when we can. But beyond Tufts’ campus, we must ask how we fit into the wider discourse surrounding climate change when it seems like there is little to do other than repeat talking points at those who deny basic facts of the matter. There should be a consensus at Tufts—and similar universities—that climate change denial be approached with a vision of shared action, such that conservatives are forced to think about environmental issues in a depolarized context. By reframing the climate change conversation around the countless environmental crises occurring outside of the purview of American media, this recentering of dialogue could move toward neutralizing biases.
At the bottom of conservative climate change denial is an incompatibility between traditional conservative values, namely freedom of choice, and the inherent need to limit choice by regulating human behavior regarding the environment. In contrast to other issues in which conservative norms fundamentally object to certain practices—like that of abortion and those of the LGBT community—the only conservative value invoked in regard to climate change is the issue of individual freedom in response to liberal solutions. As a result, climate change deniers simply reject proposed solutions without even needing to engage with the facts, since doing so would generally not provide an opportunity to appeal to a conservative value.
Undisputedly, adherence to conservative values does not produce solutions to climate change, leaving most Republicans with no alternative but to deny that the problem needs a solution or even exists in the first place. Without a unified stance on the descriptive facts of the issue, the average US citizen is now confused on how much of what’s in front of them they should believe. They must ask themself, to what extent should the “true” conservative accept the vague traditional values that prevent the existence of necessarily transformative solutions to climate change?
Depending on the individual’s engagement with climate-related issues, one might outright reject the conclusions of the scientific consensus, while others might opt for a lower-commitment soft denial related to the supposed inevitability of climate change. Of course, this soft denial is also in opposition to the scientific consensus and is surely an easier stance to hold for the many politicians who are paid to protect the interests of oil and gas companies while lying to their constituents’ faces.
The point of understanding that climate change denial is not a monolithic belief structure is not to entertain the nuance of Trump-infested mental gymnastics, but rather to recenter the discourse on shared responsibility among those who can recognize a common problem. It is much harder to meet someone on the science-denial end of the spectrum in the middle with a compromise when the water is muddied with the unspoken agreement that you two are adhering to different systems of facts. Rather, pointing to an issue that appeals to a shared worldview makes progress in the direction of tangible action and subsequent rescue of trust in science.
Unfortunately, this approach of neutralized discourse in the direction of shared action is increasingly difficult in the context of post-2016 polarization in the United States. Indeed, trust in Trump has been found to be a “top determinant” for subscribing to soft climate change denial and, if we are allowed to take intuitive liberties beyond the scope of the research, any other similarly sensationalized topic. Then, to avoid tripping the alarm of American conservative norms about freedom of choice when liberal solutions threaten the fossil fuel industry, we should make an increased effort to move discussions on climate change away from purely American perspectives and to include crises in other countries in our advocacy against climate change denial.
There are fewer opportunities for worldview biases to factor in when the focus of the discourse is further away from the polarization that causes deniers to, for example, speculate that the source of the Lahaina fires were high-energy laser weapons used by government officials. This skepticism of government institutions, rather than being thrown at the wall as an absurd last-resort for climate issues in the US, can be positively harnessed positively by drawing attention to the impacts of climate change in countries where there are little to no democratic avenues to remedy environmental crises.
The impact here is two-fold: by using global examples outside of American politics, climate change deniers will be compelled to view environmental issues in a more neutral context, hopefully detangling some biases, while simultaneously supporting action on severe environmental crises occurring outside the United States. Within Tufts specifically, its identity as a school for “global citizens” ought to encourage the institution to embrace a more global perspective on the climate crisis. This perspective carries the advantage of providing neutral examples when discourse in the United States is too sensationalized.
For example, the environmental crisis facing the surrounding communities of Lake Valencia, Venezuela exemplifies the need for discourse about climate change to focus on situations where remedies are currently most unlikely. For decades, residents of Lake Valencia’s surrounding regions have endured severe health risks due to unchecked pollution and lack of necessary infrastructure to control rising water levels from increased rainy seasons. The contamination of Venezuelan water bodies, like the Pao-Cachinche reservoir, with wastewater from Lake Valencia is caused by the same flooding that threatens the homes of at least 4,000 families living in the south of Maracay.
In 2021, the lake reached the maximum safety level of 414 meters above sea level, threatening further contamination of Pao-Cachinche and subsequently the water quality of four million residents relying on the reservoir. Crucially, affected communities have repeatedly requested assistance from the Venezuelan government to no avail. In 2007, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ratified Sentence 1,632, which ordered the relocation and compensation of affected residents by the Ministry of Environment. However, for 16 years, no action has been taken by the state to adhere to the decision. Among other complications, more than 300 houses were flooded in these regions during a three-month period in 2020, with the number only increasing each year as rainy seasons become more severe.
Such negligence by the state after repeated requests for assistance should be a
significant call to action for anyone that values strengthening democratic principles. Conservatives, if given the opportunity for this sort of media engagement, would be jumping at the bit to critique authoritarian governments like Maduro’s in their flagrant disrespect for the rule of law. Unfortunately, though, American media sources would rather give attention to political figures publicly and heatedly denying climate change than use that airtime to foster bipartisan unity.
Tufts students already recognize the problem with such sensationalization, which is why climate-aware students and environmentally-focused student organizations on campus, such as Tufts Climate Action, tend to focus more on direct action than getting caught up in conversations about climate change denial. To truly emphasize Tufts’ dedication to making its student body “global citizens,” students concerned with climate advocacy should focus on awareness of international environmental crises in addition to domestic ones. The Lake Valencia crisis is just one of many under-reported crises outside of the United States that rarely receive attention unless the issue is a massively visible one. And even for heavily covered climate change-related disasters, such as the bushfires in Australia, there is still a tendency for the public to listen more to arguments from pundits than warnings from emergency services.
To this end, the student organizations and publications at Tufts that emphasize media literacy are engaging in crucial work. In the end though, regardless of how muddied the water may be with accusations of laser weapons and other climate conspiracies, we can attempt to transcend some of the polarizing influences that limit action by giving less media attention and space in private discourse to climate change deniers and more time to under-reported environmental crises occurring around the world.