Did Americans’ fear of climate change and its repercussions help Donald Trump become president?


From MacArthur Foundation’s Weekly Climate Review Oct. 26, 2018:

Climate change may be a convenient truth for Trump
The faux newscasters on “Saturday Night Live” joked about the general public’s impassive response to the grave forecast this month from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Scientists basically published an obituary for the earth…, and people were like, ‘Yeah, but what does Taylor Swift think about that?'” said co-anchor Colin Jost. Unfortunately, that wasn’t far from the truth.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump was fomenting fear of imaginary “people from the Middle East” he claimed were hiding in the caravan of 7,000 Central American migrants marching toward the U.S. border.

In related news, National Geographic turned its spotlight on climate change as an impetus for the exodus north by Guatemalans. Diego Recalde, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Guatemala, pointed a finger at a series of extreme droughts beginning in 2014. “This is a national disaster,” he said. “There should be red flags going off all over the place.” Severe changes in rainfall patterns were predicted in climate change models, but decades in the future, according to Edwin Castellanos, director of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Biodiversity at Guatemala’s Universidad del Valle. “…[W]hat the models are showing should be happening in 2050 is already happening now,” he said.

However, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Americans are more concerned about health care than they are about immigration. Curiously, that concern does not seem to extend to worry over the health effects of climate change. The only places where climate-related worries seem likely to sway voters appear to be those recently visited by climate-linked disasters such as Florida and North Carolina.

Still, the latest Chapman University Survey of American Fears found that five of Americans’ top 10 fears relate to the environment—including air pollution. More than 53 percent of respondents said they were “afraid” or “very afraid” of “global warming and climate change.” The survey also documented that Americans are becoming more afraid in general and, “since Trump’s election, [they] are increasing fearful of pollution, global warming and other environmental disasters.”

Coincidentally, this is what Trump told Washington Postreporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa about fear during a March 2016 interview: “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.” Perhaps manipulating fear would be more accurate. By denying any danger from humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, Trump can simultaneously soothe his supporters’ fears and prove his conviction by stepping up fossil fuel production.

While it seems counter intuitive, Atlantic staff writer Robinson Meyer suggested two years ago that Trump’s unlikely rise in the 2016 presidential race was actually a repercussion of climate change—or, rather, fear of climate change and its myriad impacts, such as mass migration. “Insofar as his supporters are drawn to him by a sense of global calamity, and insofar as his rhetoric singles out the refugee as yet another black and brown intruder trying to violate the nation’s cherished borders, Trump is the first demagogue of the Anthropocene,” Meyer wrote in October 2016.

This week The Atlantic published an article with the headline, “Climate change is already damaging American democracy.” In it, Meyer’s colleague Vann Newkirk argues Meyer may have been onto something. “Although the president routinely dismisses climate science, he does have a keen eye on widening social and economic fault lines, and—most critically—knows how to wield them to his advantage,” Newkirk wrote. “He instinctively picks up on rising anti-immigrant sentiment, which is spreading internationally and is linked to climate change; identifies burgeoning insecurities about the global distribution of resources; and sells himself as a figure of stability and order amid visions of chaos. … His racism and racial divisiveness seem to serve a millennialist view of a world in decline—one where there isn’t enough to go around, where martial strength is the only recourse, and where the rules and niceties of a previous era must be abandoned.”

If Americans’ fear of climate change and its repercussions helped Donald Trump become president of the United States, then the world may be seeing more fear-mongering candidates like him coming to power. Perhaps as early as this Sunday, when Jair Bolsonaro—”the Brazilian Trump”—is expected to take his country’s presidency. In an unexpected turn of events on Thursday, however, the far-right Bolsonaro backtracked on his vow to pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement.