Greg Dennis: Trump and the climate change narative
Liberals everywhere are gnashing their teeth over what will happen under President Donald Trump and the GOP Congress.
Will Trump abolish Obamacare and deprive 22 million Americans of the healthcare coverage they just got? Will he cancel the Iran deal and move the world closer to nuclear war? Will he really try to deport 11 million immigrants, slash the Medicaid safety net, and penalize women who get an abortion?
Whatever the outcome of those worries, it’s clear that Trump plans to reverse the Obama Administration’s efforts to confront the dangers of climate change.
This is, after all, a president-elect who has said that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to steal American jobs.
Trump did recently tell The New York Times he thinks there might be “some” connection between human activity and climate change.
That’s like saying he thinks there might be some connection between the Colorado River and formation of the Grand Canyon.
Would Trump consider doing something to combat climate change?
It “depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies,” he told the Times.
Myron Ebell, who is heading up the Environmental Protection Agency element of the Trump transition, is a well-known climate denier. In the face of scientific certainty that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, destabilizes weather patterns, and will cause food shortages and the flooding of land where hundreds of millions of people live — Ebell says that global warming has actually been good for humanity.
How did we get here?
The quick answer is that most voters don’t really worry about climate change — and that Donald Trump won a large majority of electoral votes, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular election by 2.5 million votes.
And how did Trump do that?
One key is that he controlled the narrative — creating a convincing enough story about why he was the better candidate.
After all, what does “Stronger Together” really mean, in the face of the much more powerful “Make America Great Again.”
While liberal intellectuals were snarkily asking when Trump thought America had previously been “great,” enough voters got his real message: “Make America White Again.”
As I was reminded last week while standing in the TSA line at the San Francisco airport, the electorate in states like California is now less than 50 percent white. Demography is eventually on side of the Democrats. But in the meantime we are stuck with Trump.
That’s got me thinking about how to change the narrative about climate change.
How might we change what we say about climate change so it becomes a more pressure issue for voters — and they support candidates such as Hillary Clinton who promised to do something about it?
I asked several of my thoughtful friends about that.
“I’ve always wondered why (climate change) didn’t get more traction,” Middlebury College sociology professor Jamie McCallum told me. “It seems that all those red staters appreciate national parks and monuments carved into stone. Why can’t ‘climate change’ be like ‘protecting the natural beauty of America’ or ‘safeguarding our habitat’ in a way that appeals to sport hunters, for example?
“I think the main sticking point is that the logic of climate change sort of ends up telling people we have to do with less. Or at least that’s what they hear. Less plastic cups, less gasoline, less consumption of everything.
“Plenty of people are already doing with less,” McCallum continued, “and they’d like to do with a lot more. So they resent the accusation that it is their turn to sacrifice when they have already been asked to cut back in terms of wages and benefits…
“Alternately, I suppose you could think of climate change like my grandma used to say about God: ‘It is real whether you believe in it or not, so you had better act accordingly.’”
There’s something to what McCallum’s grandmother said when it’s applied to climate change.
We can argue all we want about how serious a problem it is — but the physics are not favorable. The planet is getting hotter, and it’s starting to have a real effect.
Kathy Blume, who heads the 350Vermont.org board, has this perspective of how to change the narrative:
“It’s about using the arts as an integral part of putting your vision/communications forward, because they’re already designed to engage the head and the heart simultaneously, and because they understand the power of quality storytelling.
“It’s also about the coalition-building that was, for example, the reason the People’s Climate March in NYC was so successful. We’re learning about embedded racism, embedded sexism, embedded patriarchy, embedded class/economic inequities. The list goes on…
“I don’t think it’s ultimately about better slogans,” she added. “It’s about more equitable, more heterogeneous, more resilient communities and deeper relationships with everyone in those communities.”
Jon Isham, a Middlebury College economist who focuses much of his work in environmental issues, noted one recent small victory in Florida. There, a grassroots campaign “that included solar manufacturers, environmental organizations and Tea Party groups stood up for low-cost, decentralized solar power. Monopolists and their backers lost; consumers and small businesses won.”
I’m with Isham on this. I think the most persuasive argument we have is economic.
Pointing to Elon Musk, who is developing solar batteries, cars and other technologies that promote clean energy, Isham said, “Musk is the new Thomas Edison. Whose side are you on? Musk, or those who are profiting from the old ways? What Vermonters would not prefer a house with solar roof shingles, a battery pack in the garage, an electric heat pump, and an electric car or two — which would all be less expensive than their current fossil-fuel powered household?
“Green Mountain Power is in the forefront of this clean energy revolution,” Isham noted. “Are Vermonters with these Rutland-based innovators or with D.C.-based monopolists who don’t want to ‘drain the swamp’?”
We’re facing at least four years of policy out of Washington that will reward the fossil fuel industry and push us closer to climate chaos.
So it’s time those of us in the environmental movement started talking more about the economy and the effects of climate change. Especially if the main worry is “how much it’s going to cost our companies.”
We need to better connect the dots between climate change and weather catastrophes like Katrina and Irene. We need to be talking to people whose jobs are tied up with the military industrial complex. To point out, for example, that America’s largest naval base in Norfolk, Va., will one day be underwater unless we stop melting the ice caps.
We need to be talking to insurance companies about the huge losses they will bear from increasingly out-of-control weather events.
Real estate people understand money. Let’s start talking more about how flooding along our coasts is going to wipe out billions of dollars in value — to the point that this factor alone could destabilize the economy.
“A warming planet has already forced a number of industries — coal, oil, agriculture and utilities among them — to account for potential future costs of a changed climate,” The New York Times reports.
Now its real estate’s turn.
The chief economist for mortgage giant Freddie Mac recently said it’s only a matter of time before the rise in sea level is catastrophic. We’re approaching a point, he said, when many residents will simply abandon the coastlines — leaving their mortgages unpaid and prompting another meltdown in the housing market.
And this time around, he said, those housing prices might never recover.
The environmental movement will find little solace in Washington for the next four years. But we can find receptive ears among those who care about the economy.
So here’s my suggestion for the new narrative:
“Climate Change: We Can’t Afford It.”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.GregDennis.WordPress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: #greengregdennis.