The Challenging Politics of Global Warming

Though global warming represents a grave danger, it received only passing notice in the first presidential debate, in part, because the politics of climate change are challenging, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Going into the first televised joint appearance (commonly called a debate) of the two major party presidential nominees, the 2016 election campaign had given disturbingly little attention to the looming long-term catastrophe represented by climate change.

Certainly the issue deserves much more attention as measured by the relative intrinsic importance of topics that do get discussed. This includes not only diversionary topics such as Hillary Clinton’s emails but also real policy issues such as ones involving the political future of Syria.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Photos by Gage Skidmore and derivative by Krassotkin, Wikipedia)

It’s not as if the candidates do not represent major differences in what they have said about climate change. Hillary Clinton considers it a serious problem and has presented a list of proposals and policies intended to address it. Donald Trump exhibits the sort of inconsistency he exhibits on many issues, but all that he has said on the topic is far removed from Clinton’s position.

The closest Trump comes even to acknowledging the issue is to say that he’s “not a big believer in man-made climate change” and that although “there could be some impact from climate change” it won’t be “devastating”. At other times he has said that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Besides Trump’s inconsistency, another major challenge in addressing the issue in this election year has been the same sort of challenge as on many issues on which Trump has emitted a flurry of falsehoods. One has to work to establish basic truths — however firmly established those truths may be outside the circle of Trump and his most committed followers — before even getting to debate about the best policy prescriptions.

With so many falsehoods to combat, there is hardly time left for real policy debate. And it is hard not to sound pedantic when talking about the scientifically recognized truths about man-made climate change.

That gets to one of the major obstacles, as Edward Luce notes, to effective public action on climate change: a widespread distrust of experts, including scientific experts. A second major obstacle Luce identifies is the fear among many people that doing something about climate change will make them poorer. This fear feeds opposition to something like a carbon tax, which sounds like it would increase the cost of living.

The political obstacles to effective action to arrest climate change persist as the technological obstacles have been diminishing. Technological advances involving renewable sources of energy have made cost comparisons with nonrenewables much more favorable than they were just a few years ago.

Trump’s campaign, even if he loses in November, obviously constitutes a negative regarding any hopes for a realistic and effective policy toward climate change that will have strong public support. But the political problem goes far beyond Trump. Powerful politicians were doing fatuous climate-change-denying stunts such as throwing snowballs in the Senate before Trump began his candidacy.

The current Republican Party platform does not call climate change a hoax but its policy proposals would hardly be different if it did make that call. It opposes any governmental encouragement of renewable energy (“This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.”), opposes any carbon tax, and opposes the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

Political Resistance

Clearly at least as much careful thought and effort must be devoted to overcoming the political resistance in the United States to effective action on climate change as to developing the most technically and economically effective solutions to global warming and to handling the also difficult international diplomatic issues. The political challenge involved is large, but some techniques such as the following might help.

Fierce storms like this "derecho" are expected to become more common due to global warming.

Fierce storms like this “derecho” are expected to become more common due to global warming.

One is to play off current natural disasters and other conspicuous climate-related problems that can command attention. This does not mean making the same kind of faulty argument as the climate change deniers who point to every winter cold snap as a refutation of global warming. One can be intellectually honest while still being politically astute in picking visible problems to highlight. Take, for example, the threat that the encroaching sea poses to military facilities in the Hampton Roads area and especially the U.S. Navy’s large presence in Norfolk, Virginia.

Defining climate change as a national security problem only insofar as it affects military facilities and operations reflects an overly narrow conception of national security — surely having a habitable planet is as much a part of our citizens’ security as anything else — but it may have greater attention-getting power. A rising sea level is not even the entire problem in this instance (the land is also sinking in Norfolk), but it certainly is part of the problem.

Another technique is to emphasize the immediate, short-term economic positives of action. Especially with the advances in renewable energy, there are ample opportunities to do so. The main story should not be coal miners losing jobs but rather the opportunities for new jobs and economic advancement, for them and for others, as part of a more sustainable economy.

A potential catastrophe still looms, but the best ways to avert it may involve talking not just about the catastrophe itself but about narrower concerns that have greater political resonance in the United States.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

20 comments for “The Challenging Politics of Global Warming

  1. Zachary Smith
    September 29, 2016 at 22:15

    The link is to an Arctic site, and the issue is how the Earth’s reflectivity is changing. This change is an example of bad news begetting worse news. In other words, as Global Warming increases, it begins to accelerate because of these ‘side effects’ and ‘feedbacks’.

    As Professor Peter Wadhams, University of Cambridge, once calculated, a collapse of the sea ice would go hand in hand with dramatic loss of snow and ice cover on land in the Arctic. The albedo change resulting from the snowline retreat on land is similarly large as the retreat of sea ice, so the combined impact could be well over 2 W/sq m. To put this in context, albedo changes in the Arctic alone could more than double the net radiative forcing resulting from the emissions caused by all people of the world, estimated by the IPCC to be 1.6 W/sq m in 2007 and 2.29 W/sq m in 2013.

    I may live to see the day that this verse from the New Testament may be applied to our Professional Deniers:

    “Luke 17:1-3

    He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

    Hanging millstones around humanity’s neck and causing us to delay until it’s too late – that’s what the psychopath Fossil Fuel executives and their hired hands are doing. There may come a day when they seriously regret doing what they’re doing. And I’m not talking about Heavenly Punishment here…

  2. Manfred
    September 28, 2016 at 23:31

    The main reason ,the topic is now virtually dead, is science.

    Nic Lewis, an outsider and Cambridge (UK) trained mathematician, computed and published a peer reviewed new estimate for climate sensitivity (how much warming for doubling of CO2) which almost halved the previous result. He also discovered multiple errors in previous papers which showed much higher results.

    Lewis then published further papers together with mainstream scientists and they were all included in the latest IPCC report. Lewis was also awarded a reviewer’s position in this report.

    However, the IPCC did not yet confess the new, much lower estimate but instead mixed the new results with previous results, several of them proven flawed and others derived from much less reliable data

    However, even non-experts may realize, that the alarm has been turned down. Until recently, leading climate scientists set up the 2 deg maximum warming goal, but also said, it was already unachievable. Now they lowered the goal to 1.5 deg and think we can do it.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 29, 2016 at 10:25

      Frankly, I’d expected the Deniers to move directly from their “Warming Isn’t Happening At All” positions to “It’s Too Late To Do Anything”.

      Imagine my surprise when “a semiretired successful financier from Bath, England, with a strong mathematics and physics background” writes a real science paper which stakes out a middle position – “Global Warming Is Really Happening, But Its Nothing To Worry About”.

      Nic Lewis co authors a Global Warming Policy Foundation report that takes the most optimistic paper on predicted warming from doubling of CO2 [from pre industrial levels] and without feedback.
      Nic Lewis has taken the lowest range from the research papers used by the IPCC and then taken the lowest range in that- i.e. 1.75°C

      The net effect is that Big Fossil Fuel has a new tool to stall any effective measures to try to halt the destruction of Planet Earth as we know it. Not only do they have unlimited money, but some of their propagandists are rather clever too. Psychotic, but clever.

  3. John Doe II
    September 27, 2016 at 13:46

    Trump clubbed Mrs. Clinton over the head and dragged her off by the hair to his cave, in a neanderthal-style exhibition of testosterone vs. estrogen dominance. In the process, he likewise punked Bill on behalf of the conglomerate of right wingers who’ve scorned and condemned him since the 1992 election.

    He’s the guy the people want and he’s freely proclaiming and espousing The Agenda they want to hear – (Nationalism).

    • John Doe II
      September 27, 2016 at 14:04

      As for the politics of global warming, Kissinger’s NSSM 200 plan for population control remains in effect mode. Huxley gave fair warning concerning the administration of food and drug and now we have the amalgamation of Bayer & Monsanto.

      Oh Say Can You See???
      (by the dawns early light?)

      • Zachary Smith
        September 27, 2016 at 22:43

        I examined your link, and when I saw it was a bunch of ‘pro-life missionaries’ I suspected the worst. Since they carefully didn’t provide a link to the National Security Study Memorandum 200 they were dumping on, my suspicions jumped another couple of notches. Here were some central claims:

        the legalization of abortion;
        financial incentives for countries to increase their abortion, sterilization and contraception-use rates;
        indoctrination of children; and
        mandatory population control and coercion of other forms, such as withholding disaster and food aid unless an LDC implements population control programs.

        Now here IS a link to the National Security Study Memorandum 200 study.

        So far as I could determine with word searches of the document, every listed claim those good ‘Christians’ made was a direct lie. I’d invite you to demonstrate what I overlooked – how they actually did speak the truth a time or two.

        • John Doe II
          September 28, 2016 at 11:52

          Sorry Zachary, I generally link to the actual document. Yesterday I was in a rush to beat the clock on my edit and grabbed the first URL off Google. The international illegality and treachery of the approved document is appallingly brutal and speaks to our callous theories vis-a-vis human life.

          What the “evangelical christians” have to say has no influence at all on my view of US sickening foreign policy. Most of them are severely deceived, in my opinion.

          • John Doe II
            September 28, 2016 at 12:19

            The Purpose of NSSM-200 (from your link.)

            The primary purpose of U.S.-funded population control efforts is to maintain access to the mineral resources of less-developed countries, or LDCs. NSSM-200 says that the U.S. economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries … That fact gives the U.S. enhanced interest in the political, economic, and social stability of the supplying countries. Wherever a lessening of population pressures through reduced birth rates can increase the prospects for such stability, population policy becomes relevant to resource supplies and to the economic interests of the United States.

            In order to protect U.S. commercial interests, NSSM-200 cited a number of factors that could interrupt the smooth flow of materials from LDCs to the United States, including a large population of anti-imperialist youth, whose numbers must be limited by population control. The document identified 13 nations by name that would be the primary targets of U.S.-funded population control efforts.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 27, 2016 at 22:22

      I made it a point to ignore the “debate”, but have paid some attention to the evaluations. When the right-wing radio hosts are making non-stop excuses for Trump, I figure he lost soundly. I’m continuing with my theory that for reasons of his own, Trump doesn’t want to win the election this fall. He could have prepared for the debate, but didn’t. He could have whacked Hillary with obvious replies (which the radio talk boys ranted about) but didn’t. He doesn’t want to win, and the neocons don’t want him to win. Whether the man has been bought off, or whether he’s just lazy doesn’t really matter. Trump could have taken this election in a breeze – as Kerry could have in 2004 – but like Kerry he is playing to lose.

      A side note on 2004: despite his worst efforts, Kerry probably actually “won” that year, and it took the uncontested and unreported theft of Ohio to give it to Bush. Which is probably for the best in practical terms, for Kerry is one of the few folks in the US who would have likely been worse than Bush.

      • John Doe II
        September 28, 2016 at 12:07

        Zachary,here’s one bottom line on their reasoning — economic growth is much more important than the health and safety of humanity.

        15. The universal objective of increasing the world’s standard of living dictates that economic growth outpace population growth. In many high population growth areas of the world, the largest proportion of GNP is consumed, with only a small amount saved. Thus, a small proportion of GNP is available for investment – the “engine” of economic growth. Most experts agree that, with fairly constant costs per acceptor, expenditures on effective family planning services are generally one of the most cost effective investments for an LDC country seeking to improve overall welfare and per capita economic growth.

        We cannot wait for overall modernization and development to produce lower fertility rates naturally since this will undoubtedly take many decades in most developing countries, during which time rapid population growth will tend to slow development and widen even more the gap between rich and poor.

        What does that mean, “we cannot wait… ?” The alternative is — what?

  4. Zachary Smith
    September 27, 2016 at 12:12

    Trump is certainly a jackass regarding climate change, but pretending Hillary isn’t just as awful is a bad mistake. Mouthing platitudes about how she ‘cares’ about the issue is simply a political strategy. (Sort of like her new-found conversion on the TPP issue.) Even the Texas Torturer managed to say (once!) that carbon dioxide was a real issue. From the May 10, 2001 Rolling Stone:

    Last fall, it seemed that George W. Bush had found religion on global warming, declaring in his campaign that he favored putting mandatory limits on carbon-dioxide emissions. He promised to act – if not out of personal conviction, then at least to outflank Al Gore on the issue. After he took office in January, his Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Christie Whitman, traveled the world assuring America’s allies that the Bush administration was committed to reducing the U.S. share of world CO2 emissions.

    Then, on March 13th, President Bush announced that he does not believe the science on global warming. He threw out his carbon-dioxide promise and reiterated his opposition to the Kyoto protocol, the only international process aimed at averting a potential climate disaster. Two weeks later, Whitman announced that, so far as the Bush administration was concerned, the Kyoto agreement was dead.

    Bush was a lying politician who would say anything. Hillary is a lying politician who will say anything. You don’t have to be a politician to be a serial liar; something Trump demonstrates very well. Neither of the latter two will do anything. Now a bit more on Hillary:

    We’re out of time on climate change. And Hillary Clinton helped get us here


    Yes, it’s an opinion piece, but the author supports her views by providing examples of what Hillary ‘Has Said’ vs what the dreadful woman ‘Has Done’.

    Many older people remember the first Space Shuttle disaster. NASA had rules about the minimum launch-site temperature, but they started bending those rules. First time, they got away with it. So the ‘cheat’ temperature became the new norm. So they ‘cheated’ on that too. And got away with it again. This continued until they reached a point where the seals were too brittle to hold, and the shuttle was destroyed and all the people aboard died. In the days before anti-lock brakes and when Indiana winter roads were routinely ice sheets, I’d push the limits on driving speeds. I’d usually get away with doing this, but eventually I’d get too cocky and suddenly lose control of both steering and brakes and end up in the field beside the road.

    A few years ago I was on a ladder cleaning a roof gutter. A large stepladder was what I needed, but that wasn’t what I had handy, so I was using a standard ladder. Wanting to avoid moving it so much, I started stretching and reaching out more and more. Finally I reached a “tipping point” where I made a reach too far and the ladder began falling over. At that point there was nothing I could do except wait for the impact.

    We’re coming up on such a tipping point in Climate Change. It can be one of many, and nobody knows which will be the first one to be set off. One of the larger dangers is probably the least known.


    Buried in the lands and oceans of the north are enormous deposits of methane. The land and water has been cold enough to hold these deposits immobile for ages, but the recent Warming is beginning to turn them loose. The scenario is so ugly that even genuine scientists are trying not to admit to themselves what may be starting to happen. If the methane finally begins blasting into the atmosphere in gigaton lots, It’ll be like me when my ladder reached its “tipping point”. No, the Earth isn’t likely to turn into a 800 degree copy of Venus, but I’d expect climate to become incompatible with our agriculture. If that happens, there will probably be nothing to do except to wait to die.

  5. Drew Hunkins
    September 27, 2016 at 11:01

    After last night I’m even more set on voting for Jill Stein.

    Trump was good on bashing the “free trade” (read investor rights agreements), he gets points for this. His denunciations of NAFTA and TPP and Killary’s support for these monstrosities were most welcome. He was also great when he went after NATO, though he could’ve brought a more forceful critique to the table than simply a “they don’t pay their fair share” argument. Trump was good on questioning whether it was Russia at all that’s doing all the “state sponsored” hacking. Trump was decent on essentially coming out against the Iraq war and hammering Killary on it.

    Trump was terrible as it comes to his position on tearing up the Iran nuke agreement and cutting taxes for the multinationals and the ruling class, of course this latter bit is just a bunch of trickle down Ayn Randian nonsense. He was also terrible as it comes to his view on buttressing the police-state in America and his apparent hostility to the Bill of Rights.

    Killary was good on her desire to raise the minimum wage and her support for the Iran nuke agreement. She was also good on lambasting trickle down baloney. It was also very nice to hear her bring up the obvious problem of global warming.

    Killary was at her worst when she tried to peddle the unlikely notion that it was “state sponsored” Russian hacking that was responsible for the DNC breach. It’s this kind of smear that puts the world on edge since it’s obviously targeted toward a nuclear armed super power, and more importantly, there appears to be scant evidence that it was indeed a Russian state sponsored hack.

    One mildly pleasant surprise: almost a full hour went by before Israel or Netanyahu were ever mentioned. And the genuflecting to the Zionist racist state was kept to a somewhat medium boil. One has to think for the next debate the two will get their marching orders from AIPAC and CPMAJO and forthrightly commence with the profuse praise.

    After last night I’m even more determined to pull the lever for Jill Stein in Nov.

  6. Lolita
    September 27, 2016 at 10:57

    “Fierce storms like this “derecho” are expected to become more common due to global warming.”

    This author will have to explain meteorologists and climatologists how with a reduced temperature gradient between polar regions and equatorial regions, the signature of a warming that is global, he expects fierce storms to become more common…

    • Bart in Virginia
      September 28, 2016 at 13:47

      Part of it is that warmer oceans and warmer air over the land both produce more moisture that feeds and strengthens storms. Warmer surface water also speeds up rising air that will make for stronger winds. This could be what is bedeviling places like Taiwan recently.

      • Lolita
        September 29, 2016 at 21:51

        Unfortunately paleoclimatology is not kind with these kind of explanations. In particular the idea of stronger winds is disproved among other findings by the weakening of upwellings along the African coast during the HCO.

  7. Brad Owen
    September 27, 2016 at 10:27

    Well said, Mr. Pillar. Packaging the message is all-important. Coal miners become solar panel assemblers/installers and techs, losing the black lung disease, coming up into the light-of-day, avoiding the cave-ins, etc…
    Right-Wingers need to hear spokesmen from their cherished military services about how they’re responding to the rising Oceans and problems relating to carbon-based technology.
    Spokesmen from the New Energy Movement need to speak to the broad public about the more advanced, cutting-edge technologies being researched by various brilliant inventors around the World.
    The only Party speaking comprehensively about this problem, and how to pay for it, is the Green Party. Their time has come to step onto the World Stage.

  8. Joe Tedesky
    September 27, 2016 at 10:14

    The definition of ‘Climate Change’ to an American politician is called, all show, and no go.

    • John Doe II
      September 27, 2016 at 14:21

      Detective Roy Tedeschi in “VICE” artificial intelligence and the now age of robotics?

      (just curious)

      • Joe Tedesky
        September 27, 2016 at 14:42

        Interestingly my last name in Italian is Tedeschi. In the Italian version the ‘chi’ is pronounced sounding like ‘ski’ more Polish looking, but my forefather who came here went with Tedesky.

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