Climate Change: Denialism, or Realism?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 6, June 2017

EU-China Summit, Brussels, 2017. Source: European Council President via Flickr.

Dave Schroeder
University of Wisconsin-Madison/Naval Officer

Climate change.

This issue is a lot more complex than people suspect for many deemed to be denying the facts.

What many people disagree on in good faith with respect to climate change is not that it’s occurring, nor what the impacts are, or what they may be in the future. Rather, it is what the collective response of the United States should be, and what other concerns — economic, national security, energy policy, diplomatic, etc. — that response should rightly be weighed against.

Should it be a response that decimates our economy and cripples us as a nation, while serving no discernible purpose, because China, India, Russia, and Brazil do essentially nothing, with the excuse that they are developing nations?

Should it be a response that continues to irresponsibly ignore the fact we should be aggressively pursuing nuclear power, which is provably the safest form of energy, in terms of deaths/TWh generated, that mankind has ever known? [1]

Should it be a response rooted in emotion, and a desire to look down one’s nose at fellow citizens because they don’t drive the right kind of car, or consume what is arbitrarily judged to be too much, or ideological self-righteousness?

Or should it be a response that actually weighs the multitude of valid considerations, concerns, and cost vs. benefit that go into a US response, and precisely what and to what level such a response should be, and how much we should hold other nations that already emit more greenhouse gasses than the US — irrespective of their population — to account?

Here’s the elephant in the room: China (and to a lesser, but still significant, extent, the rest of the BRIC nations: India, Russia, and Brazil). China is already a greater fossil fuel consumer, and greater greenhouse gas producer. [2] India is not far behind. In the context of environmental harm, the amount of people China and India have is irrelevant — the damage to the environment and the Earth, whatever that damage may be — is the same.

If the climate situation is at as dire a tipping point as some say, to justify precisely the kind of US action some urgently call for, then all of the excuses about why China is able to ignore environmental realities simply because their economy is still developing don’t hold any water. Nor does, “The US did it, too,” nor any of the moral relativism justifications that go along with it. We didn’t know then what we know now. China now does, and their actions do not reflect that knowledge. [3]

On the subject of the action we should take, if urgent action is called for, it’s not just the danger of “US” inaction: it’s world inaction. And that’s not an excuse for us to do nothing, but it’s also not an excuse to say that we urgently need to do something that people cannot see has any immediate or tangible benefit, and simply accept that our economic and national sacrifice will be happening over precisely the time period that China hopes to take its seat is the preeminent world power.

We should seek to prevent that, or, if it is inevitable, deny or delay that as long as possible. Why? Because China, as a global steward, would not share any of our values. Not only would they not share them, they would actively work against them, and it’s not correct to say that they’ll ultimately have to let people have more freedom. They do not have to do any such thing, armchair idealists aside, and all evidence indicates they won’t.

If we want the US and West, and our principles and ideals, to come out on top, we should not accept ideas that are antithetical to personal freedom and liberal democracy as “just different ways of doing things”, that are somehow just as valid as our own. Nor should we buy into per capita arguments about consumption or emissions, because the impacts to the environment — the basis for the calls to action — is the same.

It is these sorts of things that underlie the climate change issue for a large contingent of individuals who are intensely aware of the issues, scientific and otherwise, but seem outwardly resistant to taking major action — or taking that action alone, or with the deepest sacrifice.

This is also illustrative of why entering into treaties or treaty-like agreements without the consent of the Senate [4] is a self-defeating and counterproductive way of entering into such agreements, and which can result in unexpected consequences — as we have just witnessed.

On top of this, we have all of the more run-of-the-mill political realities, infighting, and posturing, and climate change being just another hot-button issue that people can attack one another over. But for many, views on climate change are often a lot more nuanced, and cannot be distilled down to something as simple as “climate change denial”, save for use as a fallacious rhetorical device.

Dave Schroeder, MS, MA, is a strategist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Naval Officer. Follow him @daveschroeder.[5] The views presented herein are the author’s own and do not represent those of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the U.S. Navy.


JPR Status: Opinion.