We don’t know if President Trump believes in climate change. He just won’t say. And although we desperately want him to admit (while weeping for mercy, ideally) that he was wrong in 2012 to tweet that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese,” that’s not going to happen. The president will never say he was wrong. Reporters who continue to interrogate him and his spokespeople about the climate must give this catechism a rest.
That said, it’s well worth confronting the broader roots of climate change denial. As environmentalists become ever more ferocious in their quest to call out deniers, the deniers become ever more ferocious in their refusal to give in to the plainest facts. Why?
I hate to do this, but I’m going to drag my environmentalist father into this. In the 1980s, when the major problems of note were acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, there was one issue my father refused to tangle with: overpopulation. I remember raising the subject with him at the dinner table. Had he seen the numbers that showed that the population of the world would exceed the natural resources necessary to support it?
My usually voluble father fell silent. His face was stony. Eager for debate, I tried in vain to show him some stats I’d gotten in high school. He wouldn’t even look.
Finally, he found his usual self-awareness. “I sometimes think the people who go on about ‘overpopulation’ are secretly anti-Catholic.”
Whoa. To my father, the youngest of nine children in a big Irish American brood, overpopulation was not an empirical term. It didn’t live in resource economics and dry census figures where one might study it. It was, instead, almost an ethnic epithet — an extension of the anger some people in his childhood in the ’40s and ’50s bore toward families like his own. He never denied overpopulation, I must say; he just felt the word was too fraught for him, and he refused to engage with it.
Climate change — as a watchword — may have similar associations for those who would deny it or refuse to address it. On the one hand, the phenomenon it denotes lives as clear as day in evidence, studies, measurements, photographs. On the other, the phrase has been loaded with blame. Its real meaning on the thermometer and in the melting ice has gotten lost in a cloud of class associations and insinuations about who exactly are the “anthro” in anthropogenic climate change.
The anthro in anthropogenic is not the lean professor on his bicycle. Despite being a human, this creature is, in popular imagery, anyway, not the cause of climate change. Nor is the New Yorker who lives in a tiny apartment, or the Angeleno who keeps an organic garden and composts.
Instead, the face of climate change is the gas-guzzling, fly-over-country suburbanite, Joe Consumer, whose overconsumption of resources is no longer signified by his large family but by his large body — and attendant cars, furniture and house. In 2012, a study in BMC Public Health showed that, as Scientific American summarized it, “Expanding waistlines are not just tipping scales but may also push the mercury higher around the world.” News outlets everywhere took that study and made hay of it, illustrating their stories with accusatory images of overweight people. As if the usual moral pressure on the overweight weren’t enough, now the whole apocalypse was said to be their fault.
No wonder some people put their fingers in their ears. Just as my dad heard in those decrying “overpopulation” a group of bigots with Catholics in their sights, so some portion of the 30 percent of Americans who are considered obese may now hear “it’s your fault” in the words “climate change.”
Certainly, Trump — a hyper-consumer of resources from junk food to airplane fuel to water for golf courses and hotels — knows on some level there’s a complex reproof for him in the words “climate change.” Signing onto it would be like signing a confession — and, as every day shows us with more clarity, the president would rather do anything than come clean or admit wrongdoing.
Trump’s reasoning is a dark vortex best avoided. But others who are reticent on climate change may become less so if the blame for the problem is not laid at their feet.
Blaming a small subset of the species for climate change — obese people, Catholics, smokers, golfers — is a quick way to ensure that group’s non-cooperation and self-protective denial. It’s also gravely inaccurate. No one person, nor group of people, nor political party, nor social class is responsible for climate change. We all are. As a species. And that’s why, as a species, we are responsible for finding solutions.
Virginia Heffernan cohosts the “Trumpcast” podcast and is the author of “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.” She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.