Trump/Putin at War with Public Understanding of Climate Science

April 5, 2018

Above, shocking to see archival footage of scientists predicting, in the early 80s, what we are now seeing emerge in global climate.

Still, with the Presidential bully pulpit and an international network of anti-science megaphones, the Trump/Putin administration has been pushing public understanding of science downward, again.


Climate scientists say an internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo on how officials should talk to the public about global warming doesn’t reflect reality.

EPA’s public affairs office put out “a set of talking points about climate change” to help the agency have a consistent message, the Huffington Post reported this week.

The Associated Press, which also obtained the memo, contacted 15 climate scientists. They all said EPA wasn’t accurately portraying the degree of knowledge that researchers know about climate change and humanity’s role. For decades, scientists have being saying that the burning of fossil fuels increases greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which trap heat and change the planet’s climate in many ways.



“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”


“To say that ’human activity impacts our changing climate ‘in some manner’, is analogous to saying the Germans were involved in WW II ‘in some manner’,” David Titley, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and retired U.S. Navy admiral, said in an email.

The EPA memo contradicts a November 2017 federal science report, signed off by 13 government agencies, including the EPA. That report says the world has warmed 1.2 degrees (0.65 Celsius) since 1950 and that the likely human contribution to this was between 92 and 123 percent.

It’s more than 100 percent on one end, because some natural forces — such as volcanoes and orbital cycle — are working to cool Earth, but are being overwhelmed by the effects of greenhouse gases, said study co-author Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech.

Hayhoe, one of the scientists who criticized the EPA memo, said the debate now is more about whether humanity’s role is merely close to 100 percent of the warming or if it is it much more and offsetting natural cooling.


“While there has been extensive research and a host of published reports regarding climate change, clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”


Two scientists, Jonathan Overpeck, dean of environmental science at the University of Michigan, and Michael Oppenheimer at Princeton University each described the idea of gaps in scientific knowledge as “flat out wrong.” Scientists said there are some details that aren’t completely known, but not gaps in knowledge about what is causing the problem and humanity’s role.

“Suggesting that there are gaps that remain in our understanding of the role of human activity and possible solutions to the problem is false equivalence at its finest,” said Kathie Dello, an Oregon State University climate scientist. “We know it’s us and we know what we have to do about it.”

Asked to provide any sources for the agency’s contention that the contribution of man-made carbon emissions in climate change is unsettled, EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones issued this statement:

“The talking points were developed by the Office of Public Affairs. The Agency’s work on climate adaptation continues under the leadership of Dr. (Joel) Scheraga.”

Meanwhile, steady anti-science drumbeat from the Trump/Putin Administration is degrading American’s understanding of science. (again)

John Cook is the author of the famous “97 percent” study, which shows the overwhelming scientific consensus on global climate change.

John Cook in the Huffington Post:

A new Gallup survey shows that independent voters are less concerned about climate change than they were a year ago. In the last year, independents have become less likely to accept that global warming is happening and that humans are the cause, and less likely to perceive that there’s a scientific consensus about global warming.

In 2017, 71 percent of independent voters were aware that most scientists believe global warming is occurring; this year it’s 65 percent.

There has long been a significant gap between public perception of global warming and the scientific consensus: Between 90 percent and 100 percent of climate scientists agree humans are causing global warming, with studies converging on 97-percent consensus. But surveys since 2010 offered hope that the “consensus gap” had been shrinking over the last eight years. Gallup’s new data indicates this trend has reversed. The consensus gap widened over the last year.

Independents aren’t the only ones on the move. The American public has become more polarized on climate change in the last year: Climate concern and acceptance has dropped among Republicans, and Democrats have become more accepting of climate change.


There are a few ways to account for these shifts in public opinion. One is the cues we’ve heard from our political leaders, which are a leading driver of people’s concerns and perceptions about climate change.

An analysis of 74 studies from 2002 to 2010 showed that when congressional Republicans issued public statements opposing climate action or voted against environmental bills, public concern about climate change tended to drop. It should come as no surprise that under President Donald Trump’s administration, Republicans have become less accepting of climate change. Political cues, such as the Environmental Protection Agency head arguing that global warming is beneficial, or the energy secretary claiming that global warming is caused by “ocean waters,” are large, loud signposts pointing the way for the conservative community.

We’ve been here before. From 2009 to 2010, public concern about climate change plummeted. To investigate possible causes, Yale University researchers analyzed changes in climate belief from surveys taken in 2008 and 2011. They explored possible factors, such as local economic conditions, local climate conditions and the environmental record of local politicians. They found that changes in political cues, such as a congressional representative’s environmental record, were the main cause of the drop in climate concern.

It matters who the political cues come from, though: One comprehensive survey-of-surveys found that the single biggest driver of climate concern was political affiliation. People are tribal. When our social group believes something, we’re more likely to believe the same. When our tribal leaders stake a position, we tend to change our beliefs accordingly.

That Republicans are less likely to believe global warming is real is hardly surprising, but the drop in concern among independents is worrying. When I give presentations about climate communication and science denial, I’m always asked, “What do we say to convince a climate denier?” My answer is that the better question isn’t what but whom? Who is our target audience? The energy expended on convincing the 10 percent of Americans who are dismissive of climate change is largely wasted.

There are a number of climate communicators doing a wonderful job reaching out to conservative communities, and lots of interesting research into ways to depolarize the issue. But with limited resources, we have to pick our battles and push the levers that make the biggest difference. Our efforts are better spent communicating the reality of climate change to the large, undecided majority, including independent voters, who are still receptive to facts.

However, being open to facts also means being vulnerable to misinformation, and the former can be canceled out by the latter. When people are confronted with conflicting messages, with no way to distinguish fact from fiction, they tend to disengage and believe neither. The greatest danger of “fake news” is not that it convinces people to believe lies, but that its mere existence causes people to stop accepting facts. This also explains why we see Republicans and Democrats moving in opposite directions on climate change. Misinformation polarizes.

The solution? My own research, and the work of others, finds that inoculation is the key to neutralizing misinformation. We need to explain the techniques used to mislead, so that people can identify misinformation when it comes their way and avoid getting duped. A combination of media literacy and critical thinking is essential.

My research into inoculation offers one gleam of hope. When I talked to respondents about the techniques used to mislead people, climate misinformation was neutralized for respondents across the political spectrum. This indicates that, regardless of political views, no one wants to be deceived. It may not be possible to prevent the Trump administration from disseminating misinformation. But it is possible to arm people, particularly independents who are vulnerable to misinformation, with the critical thinking to see through the administration’s false arguments.


4 Responses to “Trump/Putin at War with Public Understanding of Climate Science”

  1. L RACINE Says:

    At first I took exception of the following statement you made:

    “When people are confronted with conflicting messages, with no way to distinguish fact from fiction, they tend to disengage and believe neither. ”

    My initial reaction was that people were just to lazy to get off their butts, dig into the matter, do a little reading and research… As the issue rattled around in the gray matter, these are some of the thoughts that lead me to concur with your statement.

    The ability to “think critically” is usually taught at a young age.

    I can remember sitting in a “logic class” in high school, being taught by a Jesuit priest, it entailed simple logic proofs, we had a whole semester of this… of course having been given this new found tool, it was then applied (with great enthusiasm on my part) to the religious doctrine being taught… lol

    I do not believe that our school curriculum is teaching our children how to think critically. And why should they, it is much easier to control/manipulate a ignorant/uneducated population, then one who is neither.

    In 2015, only 34% were classified as “reading Proficient”, that means 66% of 8th graders were functionally illiterate.

    There are other numbers that indicate that over 60% if our adult population in the US are “Functionally illiterate”, they can read but do not have the ability to comprehend what they read.

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