Then and Now: The Development of Climate Change Denial (1970-2017)

By Sonia Mahajan

President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 2016 reflects a growingand alarminglack of concern about climate change. Pruitt, who was previously Attorney General of Oklahoma, attempted to sue the EPA a total of fourteen times before being nominated to head the agency. He is a climate change denier who firmly believes that human activity does not negatively impact the environment. Pruitt’s refusal to support the EPA’s basic goals of protecting the environment poses a serious threat to Earth.

There was not always so much opposition to the concept of climate change. Democrats and Republicans alike celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Two years later, then-president Richard Nixon, a Republican, officially established the EPA. While official archives do not mention “climate change” in Nixon’s original goals for the agency, they note that the EPA was responsible for researching “the adverse effects of pollution” in order to “[strengthen] environmental protection programs.” Nixon’s proposal for the creation of the EPA was met with very little opposition from Congress. In fact, the Congressman who “presented the most serious alternatives” to the EPA asked for a more far-reaching environmental protection agency instead.

Unfortunately, Pruitt’s view on climate change is now commonplace. Although climate change deniers have been a prominent part of American politics since the 1990s, it was not until recently the White House endorsed their ideology. Since the early 2000s, the GOP has increasingly supported climate change deniers. In 2004, the Republican Platform stated, “Republicans are committed to meeting the challenge of long-term global climate change by relying on markets and new technologies to improve energy efficiency.” Yet just four years later, the GOP’s attitude towards climate change shifted dramatically. The 2008 and 2016 Republican Platforms stated, “Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.”  The 2016 Republican Platform went so far as to say that “the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution.”  The IPCC assesses climate change and publishes reports based on research from the leading scientists in the world. While the GOP has historically refused to address climate change through economic mechanisms that call for increased government regulation, including the Kyoto Protocol, this outright denial of climate change seems to have grown significantly over a relatively short period of time.

There are many theories as to why climate change denial has grown so rapidly. Some believe that fossil fuel giants, such as Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Institute, are spreading false and misleading information about the low environmental impact of fossil fuels. (The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, is currently Trump’s Secretary of State.) A paper by Jean-Daniel Collomb in the European Journal of American Studies noted that fossil fuel companies often donate large amounts of money to politicians. In 2012, donations to Republican candidates were significantly higher than donations to Democratic ones. Collomb also cited a study by Peter J. Jacques, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman that reported “of 141 environmentally-sceptic books written between 1972 and 2005, only 11 were not linked to corporate-funded conservative think tanks.” Additionally, Collomb suggested that while conservative opposition to climate change began because of economic policy, many Americans who are opposed to climate change now view increased environmental and economic regulation and the subsequent decrease in consumerism as a threat to “the American way of life.”

Just this year, we have already seen the signs of climate change in the form of record-breaking hurricanes in Florida and Texas and a barely-contained wildfire in Northern California. But change denial has far-reaching consequences that impact more than just the United States. In June 2017, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, which then-President Obama signed in 2015. The Paris Climate Agreement called to limit the global temperature increase for this century under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  The U.S.’s withdrawal from the agreement is a significant blow to worldwide efforts to curb climate change. Scientists estimate that a global temperature increase of another mere 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit may cause “runaway climate change”, leading to irreversible consequences.

As of right now, the U.S. is the second-largest contributor to pollution in the world. If we expect to leave behind a clean and sustainable Earth for future generations, we must accept climate change as a grave reality. If the Trump administration continues to deny climate change and prevent the EPA from implementing environmentally sound policies, the effects of global warming and climate change will certainly become even more pronounced. Only time will tell if the EPA will one day return to its original purpose of protecting the environment. If it does not, we run the risk of causing climate change that can’t be stopped.

Sonia Mahajan is a Columbia College freshman studying sustainable development and political science. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review. 

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