Like millions of people all over the world, I’ve spent the last almost two weeks in a state of shock and disbelief. I had sat up with friends late on the evening of Tuesday November 8th into the early hours of the following morning. It started well enough. Preliminary polling numbers had Clinton ahead in both Ohio and Florida. Clinton winning either of these would seal off any possible path to victory for Trump, the TV pundits opined reassuringly.
As it transpired, and rather like the visit of Mr and Mrs Lincoln to the Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, this night too was not to end well. I crashed into an agitated, dreamless sleep sometime around 6.30am on Wednesday, and on waking some three hours later, for a few blessed moments my addled brain actually fooled me into thinking I had imagined the whole wretched event.
No such luck. As the Nightmare-Elect unveiled his chorus of bigots, crooks, crypto-fascists and religious zealots to stuff into the critical positions in his new administration, the feeling of dread was all-encompassing. I sat down more than once to write up a blog post on how I felt this would play out, but abandoned each effort.
The announcement of an energy industry lickspittle with zero scientific qualifications or training who cheerfully told Vanity Fair back in 2007 that NASA “cooked the data” to show an Arctic warming trend is now heading the transition team at the US EPA begs a very important question: transitioning to what, exactly? It would take a far longer article than this one to count the ways in which this incoming administration is the worst news imaginable, at the worst imaginable time. (There’s more here about the terrifying consequences of post-truth politics and policy (un)making).
Let’s hear what two actual experts (aaah, experts: remember them?) have to say: “A Trump presidency might be game over for the climate,” said Michael Mann, a prominent climate researcher. “It might make it impossible to stabilize planetary warming below dangerous levels…this is an unmitigated disaster for the planet”, according to Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Only a hopeless optimist could see anything but despair ahead. Cue Al Gore: “President-elect Trump said he wanted to be a president for all Americans. In that spirit, I hope that he will work with the overwhelming majority of us who believe that the climate crisis is the greatest threat we face as a nation.” That stunning piece of bipartisan Panglossianism neatly encapsulates why a streetwise shyster like Trump succeeded where decent-but-naive Gore failed.
Having let sufficient time elapse to have a slightly cooler outlook, I offered the Irish Times a comment piece for their Weekend section, which ran on Saturday (link here). I quite liked the headline placed in the online version: ‘Trump pick tips climate-change anxiety into full-blown panic’. The newspaper version went with: Donald Trump and the fox with the keys to the eco-henhouse’. I had been commissioned to write an 800-word piece but was warned post-submission that pressure on space meant it had been cut back (the version the paper ran amounted to c.640 words).
I’m not going to pretend to be completely happy with the version that ended up in the paper, for a variety of reasons that go beyond just editing for brevity, but I’m probably not the first and unlikely to be the last scribe who’s been a bit hacked off at the best efforts of the subs’ desk to conjure up a proverbial sow’s ear from the undoubted silk purse presented below!
THOSE WHOM the gods would destroy, first, they make mad. When a little-known energy industry shill whose sole qualification was a BA in philosophy rounded on the UK’s then Chief Scientist David King, calling him “an alarmist with ridiculous views who knows nothing about climate change”, people laughed.
They’re not laughing now. The dunderhead in question, Myron Ebell, has been named by president-elect Donald Trump to head his transition team at the US Environmental Protection Agency. The fox has just been handed the keys of the ecological henhouse. Where normal people see an overwhelming expert scientific consensus, Ebell scents a conspiracy. He clumped climate scientists and environmentalists together as what he memorably called “the forces of darkness”.
Trump’s ever-pivoting positions on a range of issues could be likened to a Rorschach test, where what you see depends largely on what you choose to see. One major exception is his consistent hostility to environmental regulation of almost any kind. He has pedalled the inane theory that global warming was a hoax “invented by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.
With a presidency won on a shabby ticket of bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, deception and nativism set to take over the White from January 20th next, why should climate change be anything other than just one more thing to fret about for the next four years of the Trump insurgency?
This week at the UN’s COP22 conference in Marrakesh, outgoing US Secretary of State, John Kerry, just back from a fact-finding mission to Antarctica, stressed the deadly consequences of inaction. “2016 is going to be the warmest year of all. Every month so far has broken a record. At some point, even the strongest skeptic has to acknowledge that something disturbing is happening.”
The world, he added, stands at a critical juncture. “If we lose this moment for action, there’s no speech decades from now that will put these ice sheets back together again”, Kerry warned.
While routinely dismissing the “bullshit” science of global warming, Trump quietly bowed to reality when his own Doonbeg golf course in Co. Clare applied for planning permission to build a massive sea wall, after eight metres of frontage on the course fell into the sea during a recent storm. His application to Clare County Council explicitly cited the threat of global warming and rising sea levels.
Clearly, the only ideology that ultimately animates the president-elect is self-interest. However, the same cannot be said of his team. Vice president-elect Mike Pence is a Creationist, believing that the Earth is just a few thousand years old, and that a billion years of geological evidence is presumably another branch of the vast scientific conspiracy against his belief in the literal truth of the Bible.
We have been here before. Back in 2002, a reporter for the New York Times was berated by a Bush advisor, Karl Rove for being part of the “reality-based community…we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. Bending reality to your ideology may work in politics, but physics is less pliable.
What if Trump turns for counsel to his new Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon? The reality-warping Breitbart News website he runs has personally targeted climate scientists for years, smearing them as “scum-sucking slime balls…eco Nazis…corrupt, mendacious, bullying, fascistic, misanthropic, greedy, totalitarian and rotten to the very core”. This is the violent rhetoric that presages a new age of endarkenment.
While Trump has often been at odds with the Republican Party, they stand shoulder to shoulder in their shared ambition to wipe out half a century of environmental regulations by gutting the EPA and doing their best to sabotage the fragile international consensus of the Paris Treaty on tackling climate change. This ensures four years of back-sliding and sabotage at the very moment the global climate system may be tipping ever-closer to irreversible catastrophe.
Even before November 8th, many scientists and activists were experiencing significant personal stress at the dire news emanating almost daily from climate science. For many, this has now tipped over into full-blown panic. “The reality is that we’re talking about anxiety disorder, but this is not a disorder,” said Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist based in Washington. “Civilization is on the tracks and you can see the train coming. That’s not a disorder, that’s responding to reality”.
Like many others, I too now find myself anxious in a way I’ve never quite experienced before, and earnestly wish these fears were irrational. In the words of philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, “it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. The real-world consequences of an ecological collapse are beyond our worst imaginings.
If there’s a shaft of light amid the gathering darkness, it’s that the global environmental movement must now unite – and fight – as if our very lives depend on it.
- John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and is online @think_or_swim