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Political denial is a story primarily of incentives. President Trump doesn’t believe in climate change. Then again, most of the Republican party do not believe in climate change. The issue prioritised by the DNC for this year’s midterm campaign has been the Republican rollback on healthcare, not the Republican rollback on environmental regulation. Then again, most of the Democratic party care more about healthcare policy than they do about climate change policy.

Rightly or wrongly, this abdication on the part of the US to make any substantive effort towards a political solution to climate change has set a global precedent for policy aversion and denial. And with the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report delivering the clear message that time is running out, the US’s failure to not just act, but accept the existence of this issue certainly begs the question of when the worlds largest economy might finally start to change its tone on climate change. Although the US is not solely responsible for changing the global outlook on green policy, understanding the firm culture of denial that is embedded within US politics can shed some light on the global trend of inaction.

A poll conducted by Gallup showed the majority of Americans perceive climate change to be a ‘distant’ issue. Despite the sharp rise in extreme weather events, like wildfires, droughts and hurricanes, most American are not affected enough on a day-to-day basis to truly recognise the urgency of the threat. This “no effect, no problem” doctrine, whilst being factually dubious, has put climate policy very far down the agenda. None of the most closely contested races in the upcoming midterms will be won on the candidates’ position on climate policy.

Looking at climate policy along partisan lines adds another complication to the issue of inaction. The Republican party has quite an obvious problem with accepting responsibility for climate change: whilst only 50% of registered Republicans believe in Climate Change at all, only 31% believe it is caused by human activity (Gallup). A notable exception from that 31% is President Trump who responded to the IPCC report by claiming

I don’t think there’s a hoax. I do think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made.”

Yet, there is an argument to be made that the Democratic party has as much of issue, maybe not in terms of convincing its members that the threat exists, but at least in terms of its willingness to accept the issue as urgent. It’s quite telling that while this response of President Trump would constitute a political car crash with at least some capacity for campaign leverage in most countries in Europe, the DNC were struggling to determine whether anyone would care, should they put climate policy on the midterm agenda. Moreover, while the Obama era did make significant advances in terms of environmental regulation and working towards a more globally orientated solution, this legacy was not defended from rollbacks with anywhere near the same force as the protection of the Affordable Care Act.

This gloomy picture for “Green America” should not strike anyone as surprising, however. The incentives simply do not exist to make the politicians act on this issue.

The most typical Republican justification for any rollback of environmental regulation is an economic one. Responding to climate change in a way deemed necessary to counter the issue, they argue, would destroy the economy. Such a line presents an easy hit on Democrats. Texan Senator Ted Cruz dubbed his opponent and challenger Beto O’Rourke’s concern for climate change as a plan to control the economy and nothing more. The problem with this line is that it simply is not true.

The negative effects of climate change are already becoming very apparent. Hurricane Florence for instance is estimated to have caused up to $22 billion worth of damages, and that is not to mention the loss of human life. Furthermore, the potential for future economic growth that lies in green technology is massive. It is thought that by becoming more energy efficient alone, the US economy could save $26 trillion. While the US has typically looked to take the lead in technological advancement, it has been left behind by China in pursuing renewable energy strategies. What this points to is that even with an increasing economic incentive to change the course of climate policy, the electoral pull against such changes is simply too strong.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed by 196 nations in 2015 (Photo: UNFCCC)

Finally, the glaring omission from this discussion of the status quo position of denial and evasion surrounding US climate policy is the global picture . Whilst many on the right were critical of the Obama administration’s 2011 rejection of the Keystone Pipeline, which would have brought 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day into the US from Canada, it did mark at the least a step forward in ending the reliance on carbon fuelled energy. Yet this progress was hampered when in 2015, just days after the Paris climate accord was reached, Congress passed a decision to lift the decades old embargo on US oil exports. Whilst proponents argued lifting this ban would help to ease then historic lows in oil prices, they failed to assess the political impact a taste for the global export market might have. Since the ban was lifted US exports of oil to countries such as China and the United Kingdom have skyrocketed, fully integrating the US into the global export market for oil. For this reason, the likelihood of the US looking to rollback its share in the global market due to the warnings of a group of scientists is increasingly unlikely (trade wars aside that is). And with the Trump administration increasingly pursuing the idea that the US should be the ‘energy capital’ of the world this isn’t going to change anytime soon. The problem again comes down to the fact that, while treating economic incentives as a key actor in terms of energy policy is the status quo, political incentives within the policy process that could potentially anchor in policy positions and create reliance that could last for decades are all but ignored.

Former Vice President Al Gore predicted a literal change in the winds however. He argues that ‘mother nature will force climate change onto the agenda by the 2020 presidential election’ as the number and scale of natural disasters becomes far worse. Yet this view quite nicely sums up the problem that surrounds climate change policy in the US. On its current course, the incentive to act simply will not exist until its too late.  

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