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Trumpism and the ethics of climate change denial

Donald Trump
Levy criticizes the notion that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is a backlash against political correctness

In recent years, President Donald Trump has used his Twitter account @realDonalTrump to share his thoughts on climate change – for example, in December 2013 he tweeted: “…global warming is a total, and very expensive hoax.” And in January 2014, Trump asks: “Is our country still spending money on the GLOBAL WARMING HOAX?”

In September 2016, Kellyanne Conway clarified the administration’s position, suggesting that climate change exists but is “naturally occurring.” The administration’s official position, however, does not avoid the epistemic and moral pitfalls in adopting a hypothesis which the evidence overwhelmingly points against.

Epistemology (or the theory of knowledge) is concerned with, among other things, what right we have to the beliefs we hold – in other words, it is a normative enterprise: it asks not merely the descriptive-psychological question of how people happen to come to acquire their beliefs, but rather how they should do so.

The mathematician and philosopher William Clifford in “The Ethics of Belief”, famously argued that it is morally wrong to believe anything, anywhere, at any time on insufficient evidence. To make his point, Clifford uses the example of a ship-owner who allows himself to believe that his vessel is seaworthy without giving it the proper inspection – thereby dooming all the passengers aboard.

“He knew that she was old and not over-well built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy… Before the ship sailed, however he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections … he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy. He watched her departure with a light heart and benevolent wishes for the exiles and their strange new home which was to-be. And he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.”

First and foremost, Clifford contends that if a person is aware of evidence against a hypothesis and aware of no good evidence in support of it, and nevertheless allows himself to believe it because it provides him private satisfaction, he has done an epistemic and moral wrong. It is often pointed out that the philosopher William James attacked Clifford’s view (in his essay “The Will to Believe”), yet he agreed with this fundamental principle. What he rejected was Clifford’s secondary claim – namely, that if an individual has evidence neither for nor against a belief, it is wrong for him to either accept or reject it. Rather, his ‘epistemic duty’, so to speak, is to withhold judgment on the matter until further evidence comes to light; that is, to remain agnostic. In the second case James thought that with respect to religious belief, it was permissible to allow the passions (the will) to guide or determine belief.

Clifford’s ship-owner serves as an illustration for this administration’s attitude to our current environmental situation. Whether man-made climate change is occurring is no longer an object of serious scientific contention. The IPCC reports that: “Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reduction in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes… It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

We must begin to ask ourselves whether we have any epistemic right to the belief that anthropogenic global warming is not a reality when virtually all the scientific evidence points to the fact that this is a reality which has already begun to exact a devastating toll – in terms of climate refugees, desertification, and the rapid loss of biodiversity. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef reveals the far-reaching impacts of climate change, which has led to rising ocean temperatures and an increase in its acidity.

Last month, Trump pledged to break financial commitments to the United Nations Green Climate Fund (GCF) as pledged by former President Barack Obama in accordance with the multinational Paris Climate Agreement. Newly-appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has rolled back former President Barack Obama’s plans to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired plants, ending the former administration’s so-called “war on coal” – an industry which provides far fewer jobs than in tourism or renewable energy.

The Executive Order President Trump signed on March 28th, 2017 rolls back agreed-upon emission standards and repeals the initiatives outlined in The Clean Power Plan in several critical ways, including a reversal of its goal to replace coal- and gas-fire power plants with renewable energy power plants. This expresses not only a dogmatic faith that anthropogenic climate change is not real, but also a self-interested and tunnel-like vision of the world which repositions fiction as facts.

The essence of Trumpism lies in its tendency to create the conditions under which we recklessly fail to give due weight to things like justification, evidence and warrant — we enable ourselves to act in ways that are epistemically wrong. Nowhere is this more evident than in Trump’s disregard for man-made climate change.

Presently, Trump is behaving like Clifford’s ship-owner – he permits himself to believe whatever he wants, that which he finds most-convenient, expedient and desirable. The ultimate critique of Trumpism is not simply whether we still value basic principles including what defines truth, but whether we are able to perceive objective reality at all.

Trumpism, with its readiness to cling to unsubstantiated claims, hearsay, rumors, and conspiracies is in turn making it easier for all of us to behave – epistemically speaking – like Clifford’s ship-owner; we are becoming credulous for the sake of short-term economic self-interest. In the context of climate change, we should see Clifford’s doomed émigrés not simply as ourselves, but also our posterity. By not responding effectively and rapidly enough to address the looming threat of climate change, we may fail to prevent a geological tipping point, on the other side of which lies a vast unknown.

The real tragedy is not simply that Trump is not doing anything to combat climate change; the fact is that little was accomplished in this respect under the Obama administration as well. In speaking to the Guardian on December 12th, 2015, James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who did much to popularize the dangers of climate changes, dismissed the Paris talks as a “fraud” and “just worthless words.” Those were strong statements from someone who believes passionately in imposing carbon taxes. (“As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned,” Hansen added.)

Trump has avoided the prevalent hypocrisy of saying that we believe that man-made climate change exists while doing next to nothing to significantly address it; but he falls into a much graver error – namely in allowing himself to be persuaded that man-made climate change is not real – as this is a belief to which neither he, nor anyone, is epistemically entitled, given the massive evidence against it. And, as Clifford shows, to convince ourselves of propositions in a such an irresponsibly self-serving manner is also a moral wrong.

To really address Trumpism and the denial of man-made climate change, we have to assume moral responsibility, not only for our actions but for our beliefs themselves. Philosophy has a crucial role to play today in addressing the moral challenge we face in terms of the weakening of our normative commitments.  The antidote to Trumpism must involve recommitting ourselves to epistemic values, including especially the universality and value of truth. With its outright disdain for objective reality and its repeated assertion of “alternative facts”, Trumpism represents the dismissal of self-critical thought; which is not only extremely dangerous, given the precarious situation that is enfolding daily before our eyes, but the first fateful step towards a crude mental barbarism.

Sam Ben-Meir, PhD is an adjunct professor at Mercy College. His current research focuses on environmental ethics and animal studies. Web:

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