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Trumping the Climate

What the Trump administration might mean for climate change.

There are so many uncertainties and questions ahead of President-Elect Donald Trump’s inauguration as to what course the new administration may take. Yet none are perhaps as pressing and concerning as the fate of America’s policy and strategy on climate change.

Trump’s views on and plans for climate change couldn’t be more different to those of President Barack Obama’s. While we all expect a new administration, particularly one of a rival political party, to do things differently, the seismic shift that Trump has articulated to date makes it very difficult for the corporate and financial sectors to anticipate.

Instability and change are dirty words in today’s global economy. And this comes after a degree of certainty generated by the 2015 Paris Agreement. While leaving more to be desired, the Paris Agreement at least provided a new and better-defined direction for renewables and decarbonization of global economies.

Please Reconsider

According to The Independent, “more than 630 companies and investors have called on Donald Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress to continue the move to a low-carbon economy, warning that failing to do so would put American prosperity at risk.”

While we wait for details, Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax, talked about scrapping America’s commitment to tackle global warming, including the Paris Agreement, and appointed a climate-science denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His election has been described by Nick Hurd, UK minister for climate change, as a “very big challenge” to the world’s efforts to address climate change.

Recently, in a joint statement, leading companies such as Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Unilever appealed to Trump to reconsider his views. Altogether, over 530 companies with collective annual revenue of over $1 trillion employing nearly 2 million people, signed the statement.

In a tweet some years ago, Trump said: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” If that’s the case, why would these major US based manufacturers with so much at stake urge the incoming president to reconsider?

But as I have summarized in my upcoming book, A Climate for Denial, views and attitudes on climate change have less to do with facts and logic and more with ideology and a number of other cognitive barriers such as anti-authoritarianism. Those who reject the science of climate change tend to be saying: “Don’t tell us what to do and how to live our lives.” It is also about a number of cognitive barriers and personal perceptions, some of which are described below. Unfortunately, perceptions are unlikely to be enough for running a powerful nation such as the US.

It is difficult to predict the policies, strategies and actions of the Trump administration relating to climate change. And it’s even more difficult to predict the outcomes and national and global ramifications of those strategies. What is easier to talk about are the reasons for Trump’s attitude toward climate change, which may give us a clue as to what his leadership may do. Based on my research into the cognitive reasons for climate change denial, there are a number of factors, with Trump and his supporters tick all the boxes.

Climate Psychology

First of all, there is ideology and politics. This has been found to be by far the most influential factor in someone’s acceptance (or not) of climate change science. A comprehensive study recently published in Nature found that belief in climate change is neatly divided along political and ideological lines. Researchers from the University of Queensland examined 27 variables by synthesising 25 polls and 171 academic studies from 56 nations. They found that the biggest demographic factor in climate change belief is political affiliation. People who intend to vote for more left-wing political parties are more likely to believe in climate change than those who see themselves as conservative.

Highly religious people have also been shown to be more likely to reject climate change science. A study carried out in the US by the Pew Research Center concludes that:

Views about climate change vary by religious affiliation and level of religious observance. Hispanic Catholics (77%), like Hispanics overall (70%), are particularly likely to say the Earth is warming due to human activity. Most of the religiously unaffiliated (64%) and 56% of black protestants say that climate change is mostly due to human activity.

By comparison, fewer white mainline Protestants (41%) view climate change as primarily due to human activity. White evangelical Protestants are least likely to hold this view; 28% among this group say the Earth is warming primarily due to human activity, 33% say that the Earth’s warming is mostly due to natural patterns, and 37% say there is no solid evidence that climate change is occurring.

This is mainly due to the notion that God is omniscient and omnipotent and humans are incapable of changing something as large as the climate. Ironically, as expressed in the encyclical by Pope Francis, our attitude should really be to protect and defend the world that has been created for us.

It turns out that the less we all know about a complex topic, the higher our own assessment of our capability or knowledge about it is. Known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a highly regarded psychological survey attested to the adage that “a little knowledge is dangerous.” The authors suggest this occurs mostly because people who are unskilled in certain pursuits not only reach wrong conclusions and make inappropriate choices and decisions, but their incompetence prevents them realizing it. The authors found that participants scoring low on humor, grammar and logic significantly overestimated their test performance and ability.

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For example, I might know a thing or two about making wine, and when asked to rate my knowledge of wine making, I might score myself say eight out of 10. But in reality, my knowledge may only rate me a five at the most. The tests proved that people usually don’t know enough about a topic to realize that they don’t know enough about it to make appropriate and rational decisions. Paradoxically, improving their skills and increasing their competence helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities and knowledge. In other words, people who know very little, think they know more than they actually do; while those who know a lot, think that they know less than they actually do.

A current global anti-authoritarianism trend against the elite, against politics, globalization and government has also been a factor in the Brexit vote. We are going through a phase of fake news and post-truth. We are often presented with perceptions rather than facts. Trump openly admitted that at least some of the things he said during his election campaign were simply not true and that was acceptable because it helped him win. Some people may also be seeing climate change as political correctness gone too far.

Cognitive dissonance involves the mental discomfort we feel when conflicted between our belief and evidence and when there is contradiction or inconsistency between our actions and our belief. People in a state of cognitive dissonance will cling more strongly to their views, despite ever-increasing scientific evidence.

Sometimes a perception can be formed that there is a relationship between events, actions and behaviors when, in fact, very weak relations exist or, at times, no relationship at all. We sometime use these illusory correlations when faced with complex issues and it’s a lazy and quick way to form connections or joining the dots to make decisions easier.

When it comes to cultural cognition, studies indicate that individuals go through a variety of psychological processes to form beliefs about risky activities that match their cultural evaluation of them. People such as Trump, who have fairly individualistic values tend to value commerce and industry and are inclined to disbelieve that such activities pose serious environmental risks. In contrast, those who have fairly egalitarian and communitarian values readily accept claims of environmental harm.

There is also a solutions aversion: Studies have shown that even if we accept the scientific evidence on climate change, we may not like the solutions needed to mitigate it. A recent study from Duke University found that people evaluate scientific evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as desirable. If they don’t, then they tend to deny the problem even exists. The researchers concluded that “the cure can be more immediately threatening than the problem.”

Which leads us to the confirmation bias. This is to do with our tendency to confirm rather than falsify our own belief system. We all do this to some degree, when we look for evidence that challenges our belief.

A combination of the above markers may give us a glimpse into the policies and strategies the incoming administration may develop and implement. Ultimately, it remains to be seen what the Trump White House will do about climate change and investment in low carbon technologies and renewables.

If climate change is seen as an economic opportunity for a new era of low carbon technologies and energy efficiency rather than a threat, then Donald Trump will be able to mobilize investment and create jobs in America and, at the same time, show international leadership in tackling climate change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: halbergman