Denying climate change is evil

Donald Trump's administration is, it goes without saying, deeply anti-science. In fact, it is anti-objective reality. But its control of the government remains limited; it didn't extend far enough to prevent the release of the latest National Climate Assessment, which details current and expected future impacts of global warming on the United States.

True, the report was released on the day of Thanksgiving, clearly in the hope it would get lost in the shuffle. The good news is that the ploy didn't work.

Abandoned vehicles line a road after a fire tore through the Californian town of Paradise last month.Credit:Noah Berger

The best recent book I've read on all this is The Madhouse Effect by Michael E. Mann, a leading climate scientist, with cartoons by Tom Toles. As Mann explains, climate denial actually follows in the footsteps of earlier science denial, beginning with the long campaign by tobacco companies to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking.

The shocking truth is that, by the 1950s, these companies knew that smoking caused lung cancer, but they spent large sums propping up the appearance that there was a real controversy about this link. In other words, they were aware their product was killing people, but they tried to keep the public from understanding this fact so they could keep earning profits. That qualifies as depravity, doesn't it?

In many ways, climate denialism resembles cancer denialism. Businesses with a financial interest in confusing the public – in this case, fossil-fuel companies – are prime movers. As far as I can tell, every one of the handful of well-known scientists who have expressed climate scepticism has received large sums of money from these companies or from dark-money conduits like Donors Trust.

But climate denial has sunk deeper political roots than cancer denial ever did. In practice, you can't be a modern Republican in good standing unless you deny the reality of global warming, assert that it has natural causes or insist that nothing can be done about it without destroying the economy. You also have to either accept or acquiesce in wild claims that the overwhelming evidence for climate change is a hoax, that it has been fabricated by a vast global conspiracy of scientists.

Why would anyone go along with such things? Money is still the main answer: almost all prominent climate deniers are on the fossil-fuel take. However, ideology is also a factor: if you take environmental issues seriously, you are led to the need for government regulation of some kind, so rigid free-market ideologues don't want to believe that environmental concerns are real (although apparently forcing consumers to subsidise coal is fine).

Finally, I have the impression that there's an element of tough-guy posturing involved: real men don't use renewable energy, or something.

And these motives matter. If important players opposed climate action out of good-faith disagreement with the science, that would be a shame but not a sin, calling for better efforts at persuasion. As it is, however, climate denial is rooted in greed, opportunism, and ego. And opposing action for those reasons is a sin.

Indeed, it's depravity, on a scale that makes cancer denial seem trivial. Smoking kills people, and tobacco companies that tried to confuse the public about that reality were being evil. But climate change isn't just killing people; it may well kill civilisation. Trying to confuse the public about that is evil on a whole different level. Don't some of these people have children?

And let's be clear: while Trump is a prime example of the depravity of climate denial, this is an issue on which his whole party went over to the dark side years ago. Republicans don't just have bad ideas; at this point, they are, necessarily, bad people.

Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times, in which this article first appeared, is a Nobel prize-winning professor of economics at the City University of New York.

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