Boston University

Is Climate Change (and Trump’s Attitude) Threatening to Democracy? by Julia Banas @ Boston University

Climate change and democracy are not often thought of as topics that go together, but the two intertwine more than one would expect.

The United States is currently the only country that is not in the Paris climate agreement, after Syria recently joined. President Donald Trump has said that he does not believe in climate change, and he especially does not believe that there are manmade causes of it. His environmental plan is to promote coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy, believing that American energy, “particularly fossil fuels, can help poor countries meet electricity needs and drive down greenhouse gas emissions,” but many experts agree that fossil fuels do more harm than good and cleaner alternatives are needed.

Trump has been unmoving in his beliefs, regardless of what experts say. His appointees in the Environmental Protection Agency share his views, with Scott Pruitt in charge. Pruitt has been using industry findings to review and challenge policies rather than information from the EPA’s own scientists. This is a severe shift in policy from the last administration.

Kayleigh Rogers sums up what many Americans are thinking when she asks “How can we build sustainable, long-term climate change policy when every democracy around the world changes leaders, and ideology, every few years?” Can democracy sustain commitments to fighting climate change, and can climate change policy and democracy even coexist? While nondemocratic regimes would be more effective in enforcing policy, they do not “have the cosmopolitan or long-range perspective necessary for taking climate change seriously enough,” and democratic solutions do exist, such as British Columbia’s carbon tax and California’s cap-and-trade plan.

This was found when evaluating countries’ sustainability policies and their democracy rankings: countries that focused on environmental sustainability ranked higher on the Democracy Index. One of the reasons for this could be public support, which would have different impacts in democracies and authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes prioritize energy security, not sustainability, and control the media, so public concerns would not be a strong force. In democracies, however, the public has more power, so if the public is supportive of policies to combat climate change, they are more likely to happen.

The United States is a curious case. Seven out of ten Americans did not want to withdraw from the Paris agreement, including Republicans. Trump ignores this and continues to spread his beliefs about climate change. Critics say that Trump’s lies in the face of scientific evidence are “a demonstration of power, characteristic of totalitarian leaders,” and that democracy is about power given to the people but “the well-being of the people has largely been ignored when it comes to making substantial environmental legislation and reforms.” While it is true that the majority of Americans did not want this outcome, many citizens still voted for Trump either in support of or despite his misinformation about climate change.

Trump’s climate change propaganda could have more sinister intentions than it appears. Hannah Arendt discusses how in totalitarian regimes, “extreme contempt for facts” is one of the markers for propaganda, and “the gullibility of sympathizers makes lies credible to the outside world.” Trump’s remarks about climate change would certainly fall under this category, as he has called it a “hoax” despite a great deal of scientific evidence that proves its existence and influence by manmade causes. While this alone is not an indicator for democratic breakdown, as Arendt stresses more factors that are not relevant to climate change, it is important to remember that Trump’s statements about climate change, whether truthful or not, will stay in people’s minds.

Trump’s comments about climate change bring attention to the issue and push his beliefs to the public, even when his comments are wrong, and even if they are fact checked. Oscar David Barrera Rodriguez et al. explain that fact checking actually backfires because this can bring attention to the importance of an issue and cause the citizens to vote for a candidate focused on that issue. They also find that it increases support for right wing candidates. The fact checking may correct the public on the fact itself, but it does not change their beliefs. When Trump discusses climate change, his ideas are spread among the citizens, regardless of truthfulness.

Even though this propaganda can advocate dangerous ideas, it seems unlikely that Trump’s attitude towards climate change will result in democratic breakdown. This singular stance alone is not enough evidence of authoritarian tendencies, though these tendencies are certainly present. Within the United States’ climate change discussions there is another factor preventing Trump’s descent into authoritarianism: resistance.

Heather Gerken says that when states, cities, and towns refuse to cooperate with policies, there is little that the federal government can do. Many states, cities, businesses, and universities are still going to fight against global warming even though Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement. In order to accomplish their goals, they will eventually need help from the national level, but they wanted to get things done without waiting for the administration’s mind to change or the next election.

Gerken also says that the bureaucracy can resist federal rules, but in the EPA, Trump has appointed people that follow his mindset, and they are doing their best to ignore bureaucratic experts. Still, scientists continue to do their jobs, even when it can be discouraging, and correct information can spread in this way.

With resistance, there is still hope for environmentalists. Climate change alone may not put democracy at stake, especially with this resistance, but it is important to be mindful of what Trump does and pay attention if his actions become increasingly undemocratic. If his moves on climate change are warning signs, we must be prepared for the possible outcomes.


*Photo by Jason Blackeye, “Lost in the Clouds” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license

1 Comment

  1. Rachel Risoleo

    November 30, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    The link between climate change and democracy is an interesting one to draw – they are, indeed, two seemingly distinct issues. Your point that Trump’s actions with regard to the environment are at risk of growing increasingly undemocratic is also valid, particularly if these actions do not, in fact, represent the will of the majority. However, it would be interesting to consider the extent to which Trump’s actions carry symbolic rather than concrete meaning and consequences, and consequently to what degree democracy is affected under these circumstances. You cite President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. This is an interesting example to draw on because, although Trump’s decision to withdraw did not, as you mention, reflect the popular opinion of his constituents, the withdrawal was essentially completely symbolic – the Paris agreement does not commit the United States to any concrete action until at least 2020, by which time we could potentially have a new administration in office. However, this does not necessarily negate your point that Trump’s behavior towards climate change may be problematic for the state of US democracy. Perhaps this instance – and the issue of climate change, in general – demonstrates that, in some ways, democracy can be threatened without any concrete action ever being taken. To take this one step further, perhaps there is even more hope for environmentalists, as you point out. If Trump’s environmental “propaganda” is concretely no more than symbolism, then perhaps concrete action taken by environmentalists in retaliation will be all the more effective.

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