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The Cost of Denial

News & Features | February 3, 2015

It’s official: 2014 was the hottest year on record. Of course, this information should not come as a surprise to anybody. 15 of the 20 hottest years have occurred from 2000 – 2015; the odds of this happening by chance are 1.5 quadrillion to 1.

97% of scientists believe that humans are causing or contributing significantly to global climate change. In other words, scientists are as sure about climate change as they are about the dangers of cigarettes and the age of the universe. And yet, climate change is still debated among American politicians, especially members of the GOP, who repeat misinformation about “incomplete” climate science and insist that anything pro-environment is inherently anti-job. This debate is perpetuated by many mainstream, corporate media sources, which continue to depict climate change as open for interpretation.

How did we get to this state of routinely denying scientific evidence and politicizing issues that should not be contested, and when will we wake up and effect real change to save ourselves from climate change’s disastrous consequences?
According to Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, climate change has entered the political realm, subjecting the issue to the same polarizing effects that drive Republicans and Democrats apart on other political issues. Perhaps, the growing political influence of large corporations is part of the reason why the issue is being heavily politicized. Corporate influence on political elections was heightened by the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision, which widely expanded the ability of corporations to contribute cash to the political process.

Nonetheless, polarized attitudes toward environmental issues—and many other political issues, for that matter—did not always hinder Congress as they do today. President Nixon, a conservative Republican in his day, created the EPA in 1970 to address environmental issues negatively impacting people and wildlife in the United States. Nixon received bipartisan support for the new agency and passed environmental laws during his term, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Not only did Nixon champion environmental causes, but he also recognized that unregulated capitalism and economic activities were partly to blame for environmental problems. In 1970, after signing the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Nixon acknowledged: “…In the highly industrialized, richest countries, we have the greatest danger. Because of our wealth we can afford the automobiles, we can afford all the things that pollute the air, pollute the water, and make this really a poisonous world in which to live.”

The environmental trends among both Democratic and Republican politicians continued for the few decades that followed. In 1987, only 13 years after the hole in the ozone layer caused by a group of pollutants called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was discovered, an international treaty to ban CFCs called the Montreal Protocol was developed and successfully implemented. President Ronald Reagan signed the treaty, calling it “an important milestone for the future quality of the global environment and for the health and well-being of all peoples of the world.” Today, thanks to the success of the treaty, the size of the hole in the ozone layer has decreased dramatically.

When the concept of climate change entered the public lexicon in 1988, the media responded the way it normally did to scientific discoveries—by trusting the scientists who spoke about the issue. The New York Times ran this headline in 1988: “Global Warming Has Begun, Experts Tell Senate.” And rather than honor a “Person of the Year,” Time magazine declared Earth the “Planet of the Year” in 1988 due to the recognition of global warming as a serious scientific concern.

Thus, the first few decades of the environmental movement were met with environmental success stories, largely due to bipartisan efforts in the United States. Journalists reported on climate change the same way they reported on anything else: by interviewing the experts and reporting back what they said.

Today, scientists better understand the anthropogenic causes of climate change, and climate change’s impacts are known to be more severe and happening sooner than predicted. Yet as we now face perhaps the most dangerous and widespread environmental problem in history, the power, wealth, and influence of the fossil fuel industry has made it impossible for many members of Congress to even discuss climate change. After Obama addressed the heavily-debated Keystone XL Pipeline project in his recent State of the Union Address, GOP.gov edited out his comments about the Republican Party’s climate denial in their transcript of his speech as if the problem did not exist.

Can we really blame them? In 2004, oil and gas companies contributed over $25 million to political campaigns, 80% of which went to Republican candidates. In 2005, it was revealed that the Bush administration had consulted Exxon Mobile before deciding not to participate in the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that called for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from some of the biggest polluting nations, including the U.S.

Overall, the fossil fuel lobby is among the ten highest-spending industrial lobbyists in the U.S. In 2014, the annual lobbying on oil and gas totaled at $140 million.

Perhaps this helps explain why the new Republican-led Congress has pledged to put an end to Obama’s environmental legislation, to get rid of new power plant emission standards he implemented last June, and to pass legislation to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. Their reelection depends on support from dirty energy. Moreover, for many conservatives, to admit the need for action on climate change would mean to denounce their conception of America as a staunchly capitalist, free market country that primarily values the “job creators.”

In the words of Ron Paul during his 2009 speech opposing cap and trade, “While it is evident that the human right to produce and use energy does not extend to activities that actually endanger the climate of the Earth upon which we all depend, bogus claims about climate dangers should not be used as a justification to further limit the American people’s freedom.”

Some of the GOP’s most recent bills have been especially alarming to environmentalists and people who trust scientists. In November, the House passed the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014, which “prohibits the EPA from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating a covered action unless all scientific and technical information relied on to support such action is specifically identified and publicly available online in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” The bill would drastically reduce the number of studies the EPA could rely on, and ultimately lead to fewer environmental regulations. Another bill, passed around the same time last year called the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, would make it easier for scientists with financial ties to corporations to serve on the Science Advisory Board for the EPA.

Neither of these bills became laws, but they reveal that many politicians in this country believe that scientists cannot be trusted, and that American lives are less important than preserving their unwavering perception of free-market capitalism.

In particular, when it comes to the Keystone XL Pipeline, it seems that the facts no longer matter to the GOP. Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) gave the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union Address, insisting that Obama must approve and build the Keystone XL Pipeline (Obama threatened to veto all bills that call for construction of the project). Ernst referred to the issue as the “Keystone jobs bill,” calling it a “bipartisan” project that “could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact.”

The “jobs bill,” however, would ultimately only lead to 35 permanent jobs—far from “thousands—and 15 temporary jobs once construction is complete, according to a report released by the State Department in early 2014. Moreover, public support for the bill is decreasing and becoming more partisan: only 43% of Democrats want to see it built (compared to 54% in 2013), while 83% of Republicans support Keystone XL. Significantly, 61% of Americans want to see a complete review of the project before it is approved.

Furthermore, Keystone XL is shaping up to have a much more serious environmental impact than previously thought. A study released in August by scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute finds that the pipeline could produce four times more carbon emissions than the State Department had calculated, increasing global emissions by up to 121 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

To put that number in context, 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide were released globally in 2013. Relatively, 121 million tons per year is a small increase. However, as it is becoming increasingly likely that temperatures will increase by more than two degrees Celsius—which scientists warn could cause irreversible and catastrophic damage to humans—any increase in emissions seems risky and foolish.

As climate scientist James Hansen asserts in a 2012 op-ed published in the Washington Post, our time should be devoted to taxing carbon emitters and transitioning to renewables, not building new fossil fuel infrastructure. “It is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change,” Hansen said. “To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

Yet, as American politicians continue to deprioritize these warnings, mainstream media sources are also subject to corporate influence from environmental polluters.

Environmental coverage in the United States quickly turned skeptical towards climate change after a few years of fair coverage of the subject in the early 1990s. Climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben recalls: “It wasn’t long before the fossil fuel industry did a good job of turning [climate change] into a political issue, a partisan thing they could exploit, when they started rolling out all the tools that we now understand as an effort to overcome the science. And their main target was the media.”

The corporation with the biggest influence on media is General Electric, an energy company that has been involved in multiple environmental scandals; GE had designed the nuclear reactors in place during the 2011 Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant catastrophe and faced criticism for their design as early as 1972. Beginning in 1947, the company heavily polluted the Hudson River with PCBS waste  for 30 years. GE owns outstanding stock in major media sources such as NBC, Universal Pictures, and 26 TV stations in the U.S., just to name a few.

Similar corporate media influence is on the rise. Ben Bagdikian, former editor of the Washington Post, estimated that 50 national and multinational conglomerates owned most of the major media in 1983. Two decades later, he found that media was consolidated into the hands of only five national and multinational conglomerates.

Frequently, multinational mass media companies such as News Corp, which owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, cover climate change in the same “fair and balanced” manner in which political issues are covered. Newspapers and news channels often interview someone from both sides of the “debate” when covering the subject, usually a climate scientist whose belief in human-induced climate change is backed by the scientific community, and a climate change skeptic. For political issues, this type of even-handed coverage seems reasonable. Climate change, however, is not a subjective political issue—it is a scientific fact.

From the GOP to the media, the fossil fuel industry has helped shape the misconception that the science behind climate change is muddy and incomplete. With only 65% of Americans believing in man-made global warming as of early 2014, and only 36% believing that it will pose a serious threat to their way of life, the industry’s efforts are working. 35% believe that there is not enough evidence to prove that man-made global warming is happening. However, some hope remains, as paradoxically, 75% of Americans want our government to devote more resources to producing solar energy, and 71% favor further development of wind power.

So what will it take for conservative politicians to acknowledge that we need to stop burning fossil fuels in order to limit the negative impacts of climate change? So far, thorough, unbiased science has been unable to influence their environmental policies.

In November 2014, the IPCC released its most recent report on climate change, insisting that we have locked ourselves into inevitable (and some irreversible) damage caused by climate change.

An example of an “irreversible impact” would be passing the point of no return for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, resulting in a 10- to 13-foot rise in sea level. Another example would be mass extinction. “A large fraction of species faces increased extinction risk due to climate change,” the new report says.

One contributor to the report, Michael Oppenheimer, noted that the economic impacts of climate change will be huge.

“The window of opportunity for acting in a cost-effective way—or in an effective way—is closing fast,” said Oppenheimer, a geosciences professor at Princeton University.

If only the GOP could head Oppenheimer’s warning. Perhaps, if they knew about the economic damages climate change will cause in the not-so-distant future, the very thing that is driving climate denial—economic incentives—would also get us off this self-destructive course.

Header by Bernita Ling.