Trump’s Team Embraces Catastrophic Climate Change

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Trump administration has adopted a surprising new line of reasoning on climate change: acknowledge the likelihood of catastrophic global warming, and use this as rationale for doing nothing about it. Instead of arguing the problem is small or nonexistent, they argue that it’s too big.

The new logic showed up in an environmental impact statement on emissions standards by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Within the 500-page document is a section on climate science, the well-understood role greenhouse gas emissions play in changing the climate, and the scientists’ predictions that without curbing those emissions, the global temperature will rise about 4 degrees Celsius or 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. This much change in global temperatures would destroy agriculture and lead to widespread deaths from heat and famine.

The argument is not just that the problem is too big. It also involves a hypothetical situation: If the American auto industry has to further improve fuel mileage, and nobody else has to do anything, then the industry will suffer and the earth will still be facing environmental disaster.  

I talked to MIT professor John Sterman, who studies the sociology of climate change attitudes, and who was quoted in the Washington Post calling the NHTSA report “a textbook example of how to lie with statistics.” I asked him if the report’s admission of the gravity of the problem represents some sort of progress, given that admitting to a problem is the first step in solving it. He wasn’t sure. Emphasizing the enormity of the problem might make many people feel helpless, or take away their sense of agency, as he put it.

He said that his research shows that people across the political spectrum misunderstand the role of greenhouse gas emissions in climate change. In one survey he found that even MIT students, or at least the majority of them, thought that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will stabilize once the world stabilizes its rate of emissions. This is wrong, but the assumption has some precedent, because other forms of pollution do stabilize or drop once emissions slow down. People are still emitting smog over Los Angeles, but it looks cleaner now than it did in the 1980s.

The carbon dioxide problem is more analogous to filling a bathtub. CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for thousands of years, so even if you stabilize or lower emissions, the total amount will continue to go up, albeit more slowly. Understanding this should lead to the recognition that all CO2 emissions hurt.

But it’s easy to see the psychological power in arguing the problem is too big. It’s the same reasoning that people can use to justify one more drink when they have a liver problem, or one more cigarette. It’s a reason people don’t bother to vote. If everyone thought this way about the world’s problems, nobody would bother to do anything about anything.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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