California can burn, but climate change is now a matter of opinion, not science

  • Robert Delaney says the environment was a neglected issue in the US midterm elections, even as wildfires devastate lives and property in California
  • With misinformation spreading easily via social media, scientific findings no longer carry as much weight with the public as in the past
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 1:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 2:42am

The wildfires that have killed more than two dozen people in California produced an appropriate backdrop for the US midterm elections. True to form, US President Donald Trump lashed out about the fires, blaming them on firefighters and political foes as the death toll continues to mount. 

With the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and the Republicans strengthening their hold on the Senate, Americans of both political persuasions could find reason to feel comfort and vindication.

Democrats, in particular, might surmise that Trumpism has reached its limits. Many of America’s moderate Republicans had had enough of the virulent anti-immigration messaging spewed as the party’s main strategy in key races.

The party might have at least cut their losses in the House by focusing on strong economic growth, spurred by their cuts in taxes and regulations, which the traditional Republican base and a large swathe of centrist Democrats approve of.

Concerns about health care, social security and other social benefits also figured prominently into the political ads and debates before the polling stations opened on November 6.

One issue largely absent from the discourse that fuelled the pitched political battles of the midterms was the environment, astonishing considering that, just weeks earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire warning.

Watch: Death toll rises as California battles wildfires

The IPCC’s most recent report said some of the worst effects of climate change, including uncontrollable wildfires, coastal flooding, food shortages and a mass die-off of coral reefs, could come to pass as soon as 2040 if human greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels. The IPCC’s analysis showed that scientists may have been underestimating the severity of the world’s present climate trajectory.

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That this crisis isn’t a priority for American voters is very bad news for the world, and the reasons for this apathy are as disturbing as the environmental scenarios laid out by the IPCC.

Simply put, objectively verifiable facts, such as the data IPCC scientists use to reach their conclusions, no longer carry as much weight with the general public.

When 19th-century scientists discovered that germs were responsible for the infections that killed so many people undergoing surgery, doctors made sterile operating environments mandatory. No one questioned the need to make these changes because the new imperative was rooted in science.

When scientists discovered an indisputable link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1970s, the tobacco industry faced strict regulations and taxes meant to reduce the prevalence of the habit.

A few years later, after scientists showed a link between chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere and damage to the Earth’s ozone layer, governments stepped in again, this time working together to ban CFCs.

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In recent years, however, science is no longer the province of scientists. The field has been commandeered by politicians working in concert with corporate interests.

The most egregious example is how the fossil fuel industry has worked to undermine the work of the IPCC. Fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch and other parties trying to undo initiatives meant to address climate change had other factors working in their favour.

The social media explosion created countless channels and platforms for this group to spread misinformation. In this environment, groups with an agenda can reach millions with dangerous blends of opinion and fact in a way that was impossible when the vast majority of voters got their information from a relatively small number of media outlets.

Suddenly, the influence of peer-reviewed science, delivered via news outlets where fact-checking and editing is standard practice, was diminished.

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Foes of environmental regulations had another, less tangible, factor working in their favour.

Social media has also served to make Americans, and everyone else for that matter, more status-conscious than ever, and corporations have perfected the art of making us think we need faster cars, better clothes, fancier homes and more exotic vacation plans.

In the meantime, the worst wildfires in California’s history have continued to burn there, a situation that science tells us has more to do with the hydrocarbons humans send into the atmosphere than mismanagement of forests.

Fortunately, Trump and his Republicans have spurred faster economic growth, which will allow Americans to speed away from the wildfires in nicer cars.

Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief, based in New York