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How the White House’s newest climate change deniers are helping our environment

guest column

In 1953, it was already pretty clear that cigarettes caused cancer and other negative health effects. So that year, cigarette makers got together and came up with a way to keep regulation of the industry at bay—they simply would say that it had not been “proved” that cigarettes really cause disease, diverting attention and regulation by creating doubt about the science saying otherwise. They pulled this off with giant advertising campaigns, like Camel’s which said that “doctors gravitate towards Camel products.” Big Tobacco also bankrolled think tanks and research to help fend off any significant regulation that would put their profits in jeopardy. Their strategy was even unveiled in a Brown & Williamson memo from July 17, 1963, which states that “doubt is in our product,” but little was done against the tobacco industry. This same strategy is now being employed at an even greater scale (and an even greater risk) by the climate change counter-movement.

Myron Ebell and Scott Pruitt are two of the most outspoken global warming critics in America. Ebell is currently head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank bankrolled by Marathon Petroleum and Koch Industries, and Pruitt has spent the past 6 years fighting EPA climate change regulations. Thanks to our president-elect Donald Trump, Ebell now heads the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team. And just a few days ago, Pruitt was appointed administrator of the EPA.

However, we shouldn’t rush to say this is the end to all climate progress we have made in the past decade. Their appointment gives our country the opportunity to put the anti-climate argument in the forefront of our minds and recognize why it is so compelling on the surface, and further, how it is really built on misleading facts and misdirections meant to divert our attention, just as the tobacco industry did for so long. Bringing light to the delay of action the anti-climate movement uses is where their appointments could perhaps have a greater impact than having a stout environmentalist in their position.So how does the climate change counter-movement operate?

Global warming is the lung cancer to our planet, caused by the inhalation (well actually, exhalation) of greenhouse gasses. That is a scientifically-proven fact, and even Ebell openly accepts the fact that the planet is warming due to the anthropogenic release of greenhouse gasses. So instead, he diverts our attention to reasoning that seems logical on the surface–perhaps this warming won’t cause more devastating weather events, and maybe a few degrees isn’t enough to cause melting and mass flooding of land. It is much more difficult to see a correlation between the warming of our planet and these drastic scenarios, just as it is difficult to see the correlation between smoking a few cigarettes and the lung cancer that may come years later.

Because of these efforts, the climate change counter-movement has been quite successful in delaying significant action against global warming. This is amplified because the movement for climate change is focusing on research and remedies for current environmental problems, while the movement against focuses on media publications, and commercials promoting coal and natural gas, like Peabody Coal’s 2014 campaign called “Advanced Energy for Life,” which claimed global energy poverty to be the “World's Number One Human and Environmental Crisis,” and the way to solve the problem is increasing coal production. There are endless well-funded focus groups, think tanks, and corporations crafting ways trying to manipulate public opinion, getting money from big-budget coal and natural gas corporations, being pitted against grassroots, non-profit organizations like the Sierra Club. A lopsided battle is exactly what big corporate polluters want so they can keep their businesses profitable.

It took us decades to realize that Big Tobacco has been manipulating public opinion and legislative action for the sake of profits. In the case of climate change, however, there is more at stake. We are at a tipping point: facing worldwide flooding, more intense heat waves and volatile weather patterns, and we are quickly running out of time to hide our heads in the sand.

However, there are reasons to think we are headed in the right direction. In the past election cycle, Florida proposed Amendment 1. On the surface, the language of the amendment seemed to be pro-solar and straightforward - it claimed to allow more homes to install solar panels, and give solar companies an opportunity to take a larger market share of providing electricity. But a policy director at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee revealed that Amendment 1 is really “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road” by actually restricting the expansion of solar and perhaps even reducing solar subsidies. Because of this, and media coverage about the misdirection, people recognized the misleading nature of the amendment and overwhelmingly voted against it.

Amendment 1 is a microcosm for the entire climate change counter-movement, and what must be done to stop it. Just as the amendment was posed to harm the environment by reducing the capacity of renewable energy in Florida, Myron Ebell and Scott Pruitt are posed to set back progress made on climate policy. But just as heavy advertising by big utility companies such as Florida Power and Light (who generate electricity from mainly coal) to promote the solar amendment backfired by making people realize that electricity from solar is both available and easily attained in Florida, Ebell’s and Pruitt’s current positions could have the same backfiring effect on climate deniers. If those who care about climate change can expose their arguments and undermine the legitimacy of their claim against climate change (or lack thereof), we can do a greater good than just repealing a poorly worded solar amendment; we can repeal the entire climate change counter-movement for the fraud that it is. 

Matthew Treiber is a Trinity freshman.