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An Inconvenient Post-Truth
When it comes to climate change, politicians and scientists get along like the Titanic and a (rapidly shrinking) iceberg. Climate scientists have historically been ignored or had their findings downplayed by legislators, and now politicians are facing the consequences of downplaying a threat that can’t be debated or easily scapegoated. In a time where every previous year has been the Hottest On Record, that deliberate ignorance could have grave consequences for the people they govern.
The day Trump took office saw the removal of the Climate Change page from the White House website, as well as any mention of renewable energy. His 2018 budget plan is also set to cut around US$7 billion from federal science research programs, including US$3 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is currently being run by climate skeptic Scott Pruitt. Trump has also committed to making the most of America’s oil and natural gas reserves, perhaps feeling some kindred association with major sources of hot air.
Some scientists have taken matters into their own hands to preserve their work. The day before Trump’s inauguration, a group of 60 hackers, scientists, and librarians got together at the University of Pennsylvania and gathered as many EPA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) web pages and data sets as they could find to be archived on the internet. This included important climate data like the yearly CO2 content of Antarctic ice core samples and the entire library of the EPA’s air monitoring history. The data was then all put into a digital “bag” to be archived at datarefuge.org and the Internet Archive, where it would be safe from Orwellian alterations by the incoming administration. Basically, a refuge for facts, should anyone want to believe in them.
Speaking of refuge, there is evidence to suggest that social instability, population movement, and climate change are linked. Man-made climate change was thought to be one of the major stressors behind the political unrest in Syria, as record-long regional droughts forced rural farmers to abandon their livelihoods and move into the cities, bringing them into direct conflict with the Assad regime. In 2015, the governments of islands on low-lying atolls such as Samoa, Fiji, and Tokelau came together to petition larger countries to create an international body to coordinate mass population movement in the wake of rising sea levels. The term “climate refugee” has started to come into use, especially as climate change is as much the fault of humans as any war or civil strife.
But the advent of that term creates two problems. First, the governments being petitioned to accept these displaced people have to acknowledge that climate change is indeed a pressing issue that they will have to take steps and spend money to resolve. Second, the people fleeing their country for reasons beyond their control will have to live with the label of refugee, which is still seen by the international community as a negative term connoting victimhood and an inability to contribute to society. Presently the term “climate refugee” has no legal meaning, but Immigration New Zealand reports that in the past five years, 11 people from island nations such as Kiribati, Samoa, and Tuvalu have petitioned the government to let them stay in the country on climate change-related grounds.
While legally dubious, there is some sense in recognising the role climate change will play in global population movement going forward. Especially since 250 million people worldwide are expected to be displaced from their homes for climate change-related reasons by 2050. Not enough time to evolve gills, but perhaps enough to propose tax credits on an aqualung.