POLITICS

Are Drought Truthers The New Climate Change Deniers?

Donald Trump's denial of the California drought flies in the face of science, but it could gain traction.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally with supporters in Fresno, California, May 27, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally with supporters in Fresno, California, May 27, 2016.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has said some incredibly questionable and inaccurate things over the course of his campaign for the White House. But his comments last month on the California drought may have hit a new low, at least as far as science is concerned.

At a rally in Fresno on May 27, Trump suggested that he had the answer to California’s water problem: to simply "open up the water" for farmers because “there is no drought.”

Trump’s remarks might be the most high-profile example of drought trutherism yet. So could Trump, who has described climate change as a “man-made” “hoax” despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, help spur a new breed of drought deniers?

Peter Gleick, a water and climate analyst and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, is doubtful, and in an email said he anticipated Trump's remarks “will be seen by most as nonsense -- as I think they have."

“Even climate deniers have trouble denying drought when they see parched hills, empty reservoirs, dying salmon, dead forests, and blistering hot weather,” Gleick added.

Trump's comments, Gleick noted, repeated a refrain similar to those expressed by a “small number” of California farming interests claiming that environmentalists’ protection of the near-extinction Delta smelt — which Trump referred to in his Fresno speech as "a certain kind of three-inch fish"— carries more blame for their water shortage than any drought.

Still, David Sedlak, co-director of the University of California Berkeley Water Center, described the remarks as in line with a larger trend of politicians rendering their opinions about climate and the environment without regard to what the scientific community says.

“It’s one thing [for politicians] to rely on advisers and have a different approach in terms of the policies they think we should take,” Sedlak said. “But it’s another thing entirely to ignore the science and decide that your opinion is more important than the facts on the ground. It’s pretty detrimental as part of a larger pattern of ignoring facts that are just not convenient to your political view of the world.”

Such a vehement denial from a high-profile individual can have a major impact on public opinion, research has shown.

A study released last year by Michigan State University environmental scientists found that when participants were presented with messages that expressed skepticism about climate change, both their belief in and concern about climate change fell. Positive messages further legitimizing climate change failed to have as large of an impact as the skeptical messages.

But recent polling of California residents on the drought shows evidence that scientists' messaging — that the drought, and California's water troubles, are from over — are still resonating.

As the state’s drought has stretched into its fifth year, Californians remain deeply concerned about the state’s water shortage. The most recent poll commissioned by the Field Research Corporation, which is tracking Californians’ attitudes on the drought, found that 62 percent of respondents deemed the drought an “extremely serious” issue, on par with the level on concern recorded two years prior.

Respondents to a separate poll commissioned last fall ranked California’s water problems as the state’s largest policy concern, ahead of strengthening the state’s economy, improving the job market and balancing the state’s budget.

And if there’s another positive to take away from Trump’s drought denial, Gleick added, it’s that, much like Flint’s water safety crisis, it's re-introducing national water issues to the conversation surrounding the presidential race. That has rarely been the case in the past.

“Water is rarely mentioned at all by national candidates,” Gleick wrote. “We can call it a new low, but it’s a low bar. If anything good comes out of it, perhaps it will spur more, and better attention to national water issues by political candidates.”

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Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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