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Column: Rhetoric of Reaction to Climate Change



For The Washington Post
Thursday, November 29, 2018

I hope you and yours had a good Thanksgiving break. Everyone needs some time to pay attention to family, friends, turkey-induced naps, holiday sales and whatnot. One cannot spend every day focused on current events, lest one go mad with information overload.

In case you’re just starting to check the news, however, let me just quote the first few sentences from a federal government report that happened to be released the Friday after Thanksgiving:

“Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future — but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.”

That is from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report that the Trump administration released on one of the slowest news days of the year. Here’s part of The Washington Post’s write-up of the report:

“The report’s authors, who represent numerous federal agencies, say they are more certain than ever that climate change poses a severe threat to Americans’ health and pocketbooks, as well as to the country’s infrastructure and natural resources. And while it avoids policy recommendations, the report’s sense of urgency and alarm stands in stark contrast to the lack of any apparent plan from President Trump to tackle the problems, which, according to the government he runs, are increasingly dire.

“The congressionally mandated document — the first of its kind issued during the Trump administration — details how climate-fueled disasters and other types of worrisome changes are becoming more commonplace throughout the country and how much worse they could become in the absence of efforts to combat global warming.”

The assessment makes clear that policy responses can mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. Will this report trigger any serious policy response from the Trump administration?

Before I answer that, let’s remember two important facts about Donald Trump. The first is that he has recently tweeted about climate change: “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS — Whatever happened to Global Warming?” The second thing is that Trump does not know a lot about most areas of public policy. On Nov. 25, The Post’s Josh Dawsey and Damian Paletta related the following anecdote: “Trump also is often not versed in the particulars of the federal budget.

“Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has told others about watching television with Trump and asking the president how much the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff earns. Trump guessed $5 million, according to people who were told the story by Kelly, startling the chief of staff. Kelly responded that he made less than $200,000. The president suggested he get a large raise and noted the number of stars on his uniform.”

So no, do not expect an actual response from the Trump White House when the president believes that “the climate will change back again.”

I would also not expect a particularly vigorous reaction from the congressional wing of the GOP either. For one thing, the midterm elections wiped out a lot of moderate Republicans, who are the GOP officials willing to acknowledge that man-made climate change is real and require some responses. As The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer noted earlier this month, “The 2018 midterm election dramatically shrank the small group of House Republicans who have painted themselves as moderates on climate change.”

Albert Hirschman wrote a great and depressing book, The Rhetoric of Reaction, in which he detailed three tropes that reactionaries deploy in response to proposals for progressive action: The “perversity thesis” is the argument that any willful action to address the problem will have counterproductive effects. The “jeopardy thesis” warns that any action taken will sacrifice hard-won gains. That has been the standard GOP response to climate change, which is that any response is not worth risking U.S. living standards (doing nothing, on the other hand, seems guaranteed to threaten U.S. living standards). The more dire the warnings get, however, the more I anticipate Trump’s GOP pivot to the “futility thesis” — that the problem is so massive, it’s folly to expect any public policy to make a dent in the problem. Or, as Trump would put it, “have fun, everybody.”

In Washington, the urgent tends to crowd out the important in policymaking. In the case of climate change, it would be great if officials could take action before matters become urgent.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.