It’s been a dispiriting few weeks in Washington, as we’ve seen demonstrated once again the immense power that privilege holds over our political system, and the peculiar potency of denial in maintaining that privilege. In the face of the selfless courage of Christine Blasey Ford in telling her painful story of a sexual assault, President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE and the U.S. senators intent on getting approval of their choice for Supreme Court justice allowed that her story was “credible” but that she may have been “mistaken” about her attacker’s identity.
The playbook is depressingly familiar. It’s the same denial playbook that has been deployed for generations on behalf of the powerful to quiet voices that would challenge their continued dominance.
Over the past few decades, climate deniers have moved through a number of positions. First, scientists were wrong and warming wasn’t happening at all, then it was happening but it was just natural variation. Then the lie became scientists were “cooking the books” as a part of some global conspiracy to generate research grants (why challenging the richest and most powerful industry in human history was somehow good for getting research dollars is left unexplained). Now, as events around us make willful blindness untenable, the Trump administration seems to have moved to perhaps the most troubling stage of denial — “we’re better off not doing anything about it.”
Like the Republican senators who claimed to generally believe Ford, but not in the particulars that might disqualify Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh MORE as their nominee, this new breed of deniers claims to believe the climate is changing and our actions are a “contributing cause” but that we shouldn’t do anything because it’s not going to be that bad — and, besides, future generations will be wealthier and thus able to deal with the consequences.
Why would we think that the next generation would be richer, given the mounting costs we already are seeing? Sure, you have to pay someone to rebuild houses and clean up flood-ravaged towns, which may temporarily boost employment, but wouldn’t we rather build new houses or contribute in a way that advances society than to rectify destruction and ruin?
More fundamentally, who’s going to be richer in the next generation? Obviously, the fossil fuel barons who are on top today will keep making money. Why would we think they would be any more inclined to share power and wealth with the most vulnerable tomorrow than they are today?
Recently, researchers released the latest country-by-country estimates of the likely costs of climate damage we can expect to see in the coming decades. Coupled with the recent release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report showing the stunning level of damage done by exceeding 1.5 C of warming, it exposes the lie at the heart of the latest climate action-deniers. It’s not at all clear we can keep getting richer in the face of this, and there’s no reason to think that wealth will be anything but massively unequally distributed if it does arrive.
The people who are most vulnerable to climate damages are the same people that lack political power to force action to avert a crisis. Young people, low income populations, and communities of color all lack sufficient political power to hold politicians accountable for ignoring them today — why would they suddenly have power tomorrow? Fossil fuel industries have grown rich and powerful by ignoring the real-world costs of their actions — why would continuing to enrich them at the expense of vulnerable communities for another few decades do anything but widen the gulf?
While previously insulated communities along the Gulf Coast currently are experiencing the worst hurricane damage of their lives, we are barely a year removed from a catastrophic storm that, magnified by the failure of the political system in the response, cost over 3,000 American lives. While North Carolina bore the brunt of a “1,000-year” flood event two years after the last “500 year” flood, people in Lumberton suffer again because they lack the political power to get their leaders to protect them from the inevitable. While their federal officials deny what’s happening to them and stymie political action, they get the familiar platitudes: “We’re going to bring coal back and everyone will share in the economy.”
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel company CEOs get richer, the politicians fund their campaigns on their money, and they clean up the storm damage, again, hoping there won’t be another 1,000 year storm event next year.
Mike Carr is the executive director of New Energy America, an organization that promotes clean energy jobs in rural America. Previously, he served as principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy.