Last month, the Trump administration provided the United Nations with formal notice of America's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. That treaty, adopted less than five years ago, represents perhaps the global community's most ambitious attempt yet to meaningfully reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions and prevent large swaths of this fragile planet from transforming into a series of post-apocalyptic desertscapes. At the conclusion of a mandatory one-year withdrawal period, the United States will officially no longer be a part of that effort.
Whether you think moves like this one are prudent at this juncture in human history depends a lot on your political leanings, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center published in November. On the whole, a majority of Americans—67 percent—believe the federal government is doing too little to address the disastrous projected impact of climate change. But a breakdown of this figure by partisan identity reveals a startling divide: 90 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents agree the government needs to be more active, but only 39 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the same. And among conservative Republicans—a group that, Pew notes, constitutes around two-thirds of Republicans—the proportion of climate-concerned citizens is even smaller: only 24 percent.
Voters also disagree sharply about the causes of climate change. Democrats are far likelier to believe human activity contributes "a great deal" to this phenomenon: 84 percent of liberal Democrats and 64 percent of self-described moderate or conservative Democrats, compared to just 14 percent of conservative Republicans, according to Pew's November survey results. By contrast, almost half of conservative Republicans—45 percent—think human activity has little to no effect on the planet's rapidly evolving climate. An additional 39 percent acknowledge that human activity has only "some" impact.
This skepticism, of course, is fundamentally at odds with the scientific consensus on the rapidly accelerating pace and intensity of climate change: that human activity is causing it, and that precious little time remains for us to do much about it. Studies have shown that some 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are culpable for recent trends in global warming, and that the number of scientists who reject this worldview is "vanishingly small." In late 2018, the UN released a report predicting that global warming would yield a new reality of widespread droughts, famines, flooding, and wildfires as soon as 2040 if current emissions levels persist. Yet Republican voters, according to the Pew survey's results, are apparently not too concerned about the prospect of living in this world in the not-so-distant future.
This lack of urgency can be attributed in part to the alarming fact that across the board, Republicans do not believe scientists are right and do not put much stock in their alleged expertise. A separate Pew survey from 2016 found that only 11 percent of conservative Republicans think scientists understand the causes of climate change "very well," and 15 percent trust scientists "a lot" to deliver accurate information about the root causes of climate change.
These figures are especially troubling because on the whole, Americans do trust the scientific community: 86 percent, according to an August 2019 Pew survey, are at least fairly sure that scientists act in the public's best interest. But Democrats are more likely than Republicans to be confident in scientists' conclusions, particularly when it comes to the environment. In the midst of what experts warn is an unprecedented and existential threat to life as we know it, the political party that holds the White House and the Senate is controlled by a faction that just isn't buying it.
The value of environmental stewardship and climate science was not always a partisan flashpoint. It was Republican president Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order in 1970. President George H. W. Bush wanted to be the "environmental president," and signed legislation that created a cap-and-trade system to reduce the impact of acid rain—a precursor to an ambitious Obama-era proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions some two decades later. During congressional testimony this past June, Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey whom President George W. Bush appointed as his first EPA administrator in 2001, blasted the Trump administration for "hamstringing" the scientific community's vital climate-related research.
But fully accepting the urgency of global warming would require drastic intervention, and drastic intervention imperils the bottom line of giant corporate interests—especially those that depend on the ability to emit greenhouse gases with impunity. At every opportunity, stakeholder corporations and the billionaires who control them have responded to reform efforts exactly as you'd expect. A 2015 InsideClimate News investigation detailed how fossil-fuel behemoth ExxonMobil made drastic cuts to its in-house climate-research funding in the 1980s, even as it boosted spending on PR campaigns that sought to quell well-founded fears about global warming. As Jane Mayer documented in The New Yorker and in her book Dark Money, David and Charles Koch, whose eponymous conglomerate is among America's top air polluters, are among America's most vigorous climate-denialism financiers, too. For decades, they have funded think tanks and nonprofits that obediently recast the crisis as overblown, uncertain, or nonexistent. The Koch brothers' influence and activism played a key role in killing cap-and-trade legislation during the Obama administration, all in the name of keeping taxes low and protecting freedom, America's most precious resource.
By cloaking their self-interested anti-regulatory agenda as part of the fight for individual rights and libertarian principles, the Kochs and others like them helped intertwine the maximization of corporate profits and the promotion of conservative ideology. Much of this sort of giving, as noted in a 2013 Drexel University study, now comes in the form of dark money—untraceable donations to groups with anodyne-sounding names like DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which can pass money along to professional science-questioners while keeping the source of the funding private. The failure of campaign-finance reform and the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened up the door to unlimited corporate spending in U.S. elections, has allowed fossil-fuel interests to invest more heavily than ever in electing Republicans who will do their bidding.
Today, climate skepticism is part of the bedrock of mainstream Republican politics. (As GOP strategist Whit Ayres told The New York Times in 2017, “In some ways, it’s become yet another of the long list of litmus test issues that determine whether or not you’re a good Republican.”) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now says he believes humans cause climate change, but also dismissed a Green New Deal proposal earlier this year as "nonsense." Texas senator Ted Cruz struck a conspiratorial note during his 2016 presidential campaign, calling climate change a "pseudoscientific theory" and blaming modern concerns on "liberal politicians who want government power over the economy, the energy sector, and every aspect of our lives." Donald Trump may or may not believe climate change is a hoax created by China to sabotage the U.S. manufacturing sector. Trump's first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, believes more "review and analysis" is necessary before we can draw any real conclusions about its causes, and personally instructed staffers to memory-hole climate change information on the EPA's website when he took office. Right-wing media routinely treats global warming as a hilarious joke, if it covers global warming at all.
The result of all this is the emergence of an alternate reality on the right, and especially among conservative Republicans in power—one in which an overwhelming scientific consensus can be safely ignored, because so-called experts cannot be trusted to say or do what is in the public's best interest. This is not an accident; it is the product of a massive, well-funded effort to preserve corporate wealth and power at the expense of meaningful action. Even though most Americans want their government to do more to tackle the challenges posed by climate change, the conservative movement's successful hijacking of reality ensures that elected officials in Washington cannot do anything about it.
It was one of the most arresting viral photos of the year: a horde of climbers clogged atop Mount Everest. But it only begins to capture the deadly realities of what transpired that day at 29,000 feet. These are the untold accounts of the people who were there.
Originally Appeared on GQ