Climate Change Denial And The Rise Of Authoritarianism

A view of the Blomstrand Glacier, on June 16, 2016, in Ny-Alesund, Norway. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Norwegian For
A view of the Blomstrand Glacier, on June 16, 2016, in Ny-Alesund, Norway. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende toured the glacier, and made remarks about climate change. Kerry is visiting Norway's extreme north to view areas impacted by climate change with melting ice and the opening of new sea lanes. / AFP / POOL / Evan Vucci (Photo credit should read EVAN VUCCI/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the strangest stories about totalitarian regimes comes from Romania. Under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the official temperature in Romania was never below 10 degree Celsius. No matter the snow and ice, the weather reports would always have temperatures above 10 degrees. The reason? Below that, the law required the heating to be turned on in public places, and Romania could not afford this.

It is hard to say what is stranger about the story. A dictator who feels so omnipotent that he pretends he could change the reality of the weather? Or a population so misled, misinformed, or disillusioned that it will put up with the weather reports over what it knows to be true?

Today, the story is not so strange anymore, nor do we need to look to countries far away. Today, the story is happening right here in the United States. Our Ceaușescu is the minority president-elect, Donald Trump. And our Romanian winter is climate change.

We know climate change to be true with as much certainty as we can know things. We know it as the Romanians knew how cold it was. We know it not only because we see wildfires in Tennessee and flooding in Louisiana. We know it not only because we have to turn on the air conditioning on Christmas. No, we have seen the science reports that temperatures rise faster than they ever have. We have seen data suggesting that the arctic ice sheet is collapsing. We know not only that nearly all scientists agree that climate change is man-made; we also know why they agree.

It is not just scientists who know this. The US military knows it and considers a great stability risk. Companies know it and are beginning to adapt. Exxon knows it and has known it since at least 1977.

Trump must know too, but he pretends otherwise. Before being elected, he repeatedly called climate change a hoax. After the election, despite occasional signals that he had an open mind, he named a man to run the EPA who has so far demonstrated his opposition to the institution and its mission.

What goes through his mind? An answer may come from an article he linked to on Facebook. Among that article's many absurd statements, the worst may be the suggestion that "a broad array of climate activists ... continue to argue that increased solar activity, not rising carbon dioxide, has driven recent climate trends" and that therefore Obama's endorsement of man-made climate change is "a potentially flawed ideology."

Yes, the idea that climate change is man-made is still disputed by some (though the article tellingly talks of activists, not scientist). Many things are disputed. Some believe that Auschwitz was not a death camp. Some believe that Neil Armstrong did not walk on the moon in 1969. Some believe that the Egyptian pyramids were built to hold grain. Science needs dissent, but it insists on ways to test it. The idea that increased solar energy caused our climate change came up in the 1980s; it has long been refuted. Calling the near-consensus of scientists a "flawed ideology" is nothing short of scandalous; it is itself purely ideological.

It is one thing for a paid hack to write nonsense. (The author's online profile includes "website content, promotional articles, and ghost-written op-eds and editorials," for $ 44.00/hr. Below the article, we are told that he "has served as "media director for both the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) and the U.S. Business & Industry Council (USBIC)"). It is quite another thing for the man bound to become President of the US to endorse it.

Yes, Presidents lie about many things, from mistresses to weapons of mass destruction. But Trump's lying is of a different kind entirely. Trump lies against facts that are clear for us to see. Trump pretends the facts are not facts. And his supporters willingly go along with him.

This is bad for more than for the environment. Trump's open disdain for truthful speech shows clear signs of authoritarianism, as Jacob Levy points out. Trump's lies in the face of clear facts are a demonstration of power, characteristic of totalitarian leaders.

As Levy writes:
"Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It's something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid "2+2=5."'

So what is stranger? A President-elect, soon-to-be head of state of the most powerful country in the world, who pretends he can change the realities of the climate? Or a population so mislead and misinformed, or disillusioned that it will put up with the lies over what we know to be true?

It is important for us to not put up. We need to point out that such false statements are not just lies. They are efforts to break the foundations of society. They are efforts to establish a system in which the truth is determined by those in power. We must deny this.

Or we will face a long Romanian winter.

[Thank you to Joseph Biello for valuable suggestions.]