Climate change denial, the Trump administration, and human rights ramifications

COMMENTARY – This past month, videos of Kathleen Hartnett White, the US nominee for the environmental quality council chair, struggling during an interrogation on climate science, circulated in international media outlets. Although they were met with derision by world citizens, these images of a potentially high-ranking individual demonstrating little to no concern over the question of global warming reveal the larger issue of climate change denial/skepticism we are facing today. This commentary aims to shed light on the meaning and origin of climate change skepticism, and its consequences on universal human rights. It will start by providing a brief definition of the concept, before examining in further detail the history of climate change denial in the US, and its notable presence within the current Trump administration. Then, the question of what this movement entails for human rights will be considered. 



Climate change skepticism and the Trump administration

British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar was the first to introduce the notion of climate change in the 1930s, and it has since then shifted from its status of ‘claim’ to an established scientific fact. Indeed, scientists have today successfully demonstrated that atmospheric Co2 and global temperature have increased. Political and ideological driven denial, however, emerged in the 1980s, at which time atmospheric changes had already become scientifically undeniable. [1]

Although those challenging the consensus on global warming identify as ‘climate change skepticals’ -implying a ‘truth seeking’ dimension -, most academics consider the term ‘climate change deniers’ to be more accurate, as it entails a refusal to believe something despite overwhelming evidence. [2]

Haydn Washington, an environmental scientist, writer and activist, argues that deniers can be classified into three distinct categories. He dubs the first ‘trend skeptics’, based on their refusal to recognize the very existence of a warming trend. The ‘attribution skeptics’ constitute another type of belief, which differentiates itself through the acceptance of the trend but its attribution to natural causes. Finally, Washington points to the existence of a last group, the ‘impact skeptics’, who accept human causation of the warming trend but claim the impact will most likely be beneficial or benign. [3] The techniques employed by these individuals to distort scientific evidence are manifold, and include ‘outright lies’, the removal of qualifiers (for instance, ‘no close correlation’ becomes ‘no correlation’), the twisting of phrasing (by misleading their readers with correct quotations) or the creation of guilt by association (most commonly achieved by comparing climate scientists to socialists or Marxists). [4] The author asserts that although science bases its claims on probability and is thus by definition always uncertain, “the poorly understood aspects of climate change (like the amount of cloud formation in a warmer world) do not invalidate the very well understood parts (like the basics of climate change) – yet this is what climate change deniers often claim”. [5]

Although climate change skepticism seems to be a global movement, its influence is particularly momentous in the USA, and has grown in recent years.

Jean-Daniel Collomb, researcher on environment radicalism in the United States, claims that “American climate change deniers have been remarkably successful in confusing public opinion and delaying decisive action” within their country, because they enjoy widespread media attention and have access to positions of power. [6] Indeed, the issue of global warming became highly politicized in the 1980s, when it was adopted as a cause by US Democratic politicians, and it is by virtue of this endorsement that distrust grew. Accordingly, founded interrogations about scientific evidence were then replaced by political climate change cynicism, or doubts about the motives of the people using said evidence. [7] In this sense, “political cynicism has weaponized climate skepticism”, leading to a Republican stance centered on portraying knowledge as ‘elite’ knowledge in the hopes of discrediting political adversaries. [8]

The reasons for US climate change deniers’ augmented influence are summed up by Collomb in two points: legal bribery and ideological controversy. [9]

The former is best illustrated through the idea of the ‘tobacco strategy’ - a term coined by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their book titled Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming -, that explains how corporations fund “independent” think tanks and hire experts to discredit scientific research justifying governmental regulations. [10] The example used to embody this tactic, as the name indicates, is of tobacco companies famously attempting to hinder research on the correlation between lung cancer and smoking. [11] In the case of environmental concerns, the climate change denial movement appears to be shaped by corporate efforts to obstruct ecological restrictions. For instance, former vice-president Al Gore asserted, referring to American multinational oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil, that “they issue one misleading ‘report’ after another, pretending that there is a significant disagreement in the legitimate scientific community in areas where there is actually a broad-based consensus.” [12] Furthermore, many have claimed that the American Senate is controlled by oil and coal industries, as presidential campaigns are largely funded by coal producers, allowing them to maintain a political grip and ensure elected officials remain sympathetic to their interests. [13] By way of illustration, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate to the 2008 presidential elections, received nearly five million dollars of funding from coal mining companies. [14]

Concerning ideological issues, Collomb explains that US politics are anchored in notions of free-market capitalism, for which environmental policies are fundamentally threatening. As Oreskes contends, “accepting that by-products of industrial civilization were irreparably damaging the global environment was to accept the reality of market failure. It was to acknowledge the limits of free market capitalism”. [15] Moreover, the ‘American way of life’, often described as expanding economic prosperity and consumption, is believed to be ideologically in opposition with environmental commitments. On the one hand, addressing environmental issues would lead to economic and social adjustments Americans seem unwilling to make, and on the other, it poses a perceived threat to US sovereignty, as a multilateral approach to the climate crisis would presumably lead to a loss of US autonomy. [16]

Under these circumstances, the US Republican Party has in recent years strongly drawn on climate change denial, and downplaying the impact of global warming seems to have become a prerequisite for potential Republican candidates. Mitt Romney’s political career bears witness to this assertion. Indeed, he is said to have been highly proactive on climate policy as Governor of Massachusetts, but noticeably distanced himself from his initial positions in the years leading to his presidential campaign in 2012, for example in his 2010 book titled No Apologies, in which he maintains climate legislation is a set of “feel-good policies”, and challenges common beliefs on the extent of human responsibility for global warming. [17] In this sense, the US Republican Party has over the years auto-proclaimed itself defender of full-fledged US political, economic, and social values, and has instrumentalized climate change denial to push forth Republican agendas threatened by scientific findings, additionally from being beholden to powerful corporate interests.         

Current US president Donald Trump is no exception to this rule. To start with, he and the candidates who ran alongside him during the Republican presidential nomination were not divided whatsoever on the question of climate change. [18] On the contrary, there seemed to be a consensus that environmental considerations were a non-issue that should be relegated to the sidelines in favor of more ‘pressing’ matters such as terrorism: “a beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn” joked Mike Huckabee in 2015. [19] In other words, Donald Trump did not create the discourse of climate skepticism, but has certainly been exploiting it thus far, and continues to do so in his capacity as President of the United States.

Since his election, Trump has withdrawn the USA from the Paris accord - making him the poster politician for an era of climate change denial -, and has appointed controversial figures of US politics to crucial Cabinet positions. Most notably was Scott Pruitt, a well-known climate change skeptic, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). [20] It has been reported that Pruitt has spent his career as a lawyer suing the EPA, in alliance with oil and gas lobbyists. [21] Likewise, Rick Perry was put in charge of the Department of Energy, although he lacks the qualifications of nuclear engineer, is presumed to be looking to defund data collection on global warming, and expected to protect his interests in fossil fuels. [22] More recently, the previously mentioned videos of Kathleen Hartnett White struggling to answer questions on climate change following her nomination for environmental quality council chair not only point to her unfitness in occupying a position of the sort, but also demonstrate Trump’s overall disdain for climate issues and unwillingness to consider environmental concerns a priority for the US government. [23] Despite international outrage, his stance does not seem to upset the entirety of the US population, because of the prevalence of climate change denial and its role in delegitimizing scientific warnings on global warming.  


What this entails for universal human rights

It is an undeniable fact that climate change and human rights are connected, as the developments of one have a tangible impact on the other. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 7/23 on human rights and climate change, thus recognizing that environmental issues have “implications for the full enjoyment of human rights”. [24] Indeed, natural disasters caused by environmental changes have in the past decade had immense human consequences, and will continue to do so in the future. [25] As Mary Robinson, former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argues, “slowly and incrementally, land will become too dry to till, crops will wither, rising sea levels will undermine coastal dwellings and spoil freshwater, species will disappear, livelihoods will vanish.” [26] In this sense, human rights law is relevant because of the violations resulting from climate change. The freedoms global warming undermine range from rights to health, life, food, water, shelter or property, to rights to livelihood and culture, caused by migration, resettlement and lack of security in the event of conflict. [27] Building on the possibility of climate change-related discord, environmental researchers Jon Barnett and W. Neil Adger suggest that global warming has become a security problem, and speculate that it will increase the risk of violent conflict due to restricted access to natural resources essential to livelihoods, fostering a competition for survival. [28]     

Populations in regions such as North Alaska and the Pacific Islands are already threatened, and experts concur that the “people who are already vulnerable will be disproportionately affected”. [29] In effect, the worst consequences of climate change are most likely to occur in the world’s poorest countries, as a ‘vicious circle’ ties vulnerability to global warming-related damage to weak rights protection – which have economic roots - and unreliable access to natural resources. [30] Furthermore, the capacity to adapt to the consequences of climate change are highly unequal, thus deepening the existing global social and economic inequalities. [31] This consideration adds to the connections between human rights and global warming, as it represents a violation of a crucial dimension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): the equal enjoyment of rights and freedoms for all members of the human family.   

Although the UDHR is not a legally binding text, treaties like the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and on Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) ensure the respect of human right, and could be useful resources to legally guarantee that states having participated in their ratification honor their commitments in the context of global warming. [32] Nonetheless, the duties outlined in these covenants lie with states towards their citizens, and in spite of the treaties’ encouraging of wealthier states to assist poorer countries in protecting these rights, they present no obligation. [33] This element thus complicates the enforcement of international responsibility and hinders global cooperation in the protection of human rights threatened by climate change.      


Along these lines, it is safe to say that the issue of climate change points to the urgent need for a reconceptualization of human rights. In parallel, a rights-based approach on climate change could be beneficial. However, legally binding treaties that incorporate notions of international cooperation need to be ratified to ensure both the respect of universal human rights and that the efforts against global warming are enacted collectively.

In light of the arguments presented in this article, we can therefore convene that climate change denial and the USA’s unwillingness to prioritize climate change policy-making does not represent a human rights violation on paper, but has immense ramifications on the future of both the environment, and livelihoods around the world. In other words, the politicization of climate science, which began as a fight for economic interests and state autonomy, has become a human rights issue, and should be recognized as such.

By Manon Arundhati Fabre – Research Assistant at CIPADH




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