When it comes to climate science, Donald Trump doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. But when it comes to classical rhetoric — what Plato called “the art of winning the soul by discourse” — Trump is a master.
Donald Trump comes across as a clown to many intellectuals, and especially to comedians like Seth Myers and John Oliver, to cite two hilarious takedowns. And yet at the same time, Trump is one of the most effective practitioners of classical rhetoric the political world has seen in a long time. As opposed to the negative connotation that rhetoric has today, the Greeks, Romans, and Elizabethans viewed it as the epitome of persuasive speech.
Trump’s success can’t be understood without appreciating his mastery of the figures. After all, modern social science has confirmed what the best politicians, orators, and speech-writers have always known — that the figures of speech are the key to being both memorable and persuasive, which is the central point of my 2012 book, “Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.” Indeed, how many current politicians can you name who have been intentionally using key figures of speech for 40 years? Donald Trump has, as we will see in Part 2.
In this post, however, I will focus on Trump’s climate science denial, specifically at his failed attempts to use standard denier talking points. Climate Progress has detailed Trump’s denial many times (see “It Snowed Once And Other Things Donald Trump Thinks Prove Global Warming Is A Hoax” and, more recently, “This One Chart Shows How Crazy Trump’s Climate Positions Are”).
But it is Trump’s recent interview with the Washington Post editorial board that underscores how even in his anti-scientific ignorance, Trump is uninformed. In the final seconds of his hour-long interview (when else?), Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor, asked the New York tycoon, “You think climate change is a real thing? Is there human-caused climate change?” Trump replied:
I think there’s a change in weather. I am not a great believer in man-made climate change. I’m not a great believer. There is certainly a change in weather that goes — if you look, they had global cooling in the 1920s and now they have global warming, although now they don’t know if they have global warming. They call it all sorts of different things; now they’re using “extreme weather” I guess more than any other phrase. I am not — I know it hurts me with this room, and I know it’s probably a killer with this room — but I am not a believer. Perhaps there’s a minor effect, but I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.
Obviously Trump is (repeatedly) wrong about man-made climate change here. It isn’t about being a believer, it’s about the overwhelming scientific evidence acknowledged by every major scientific society and every major government in the world. Trump could have as easily said, “I am not a great believer that cigarette smoking is harmful to people” — since scientists have the same kind of super-high confidence in both dangers. But of course denying the dangers of smoking would subject one to ridicule, whereas denying the dangers of climate change is the central position of a major political party.
But I’m going to set aside Trump’s everyday wrongness about climate change to focus on how he is even wrong in the context of his wrongness.
Does Trump Know What Weather Is?
First Trump starts, “I think there’s a change in weather,” and then repeats “There is certainly a change in weather.” Apparently he is unaware of the fact that the weather changes all the time, sometimes in a matter of hours, and indeed that is a defining characteristic of weather. One day it rains, the next day it is sunny. You’d have to be a total know-nothing to think that “a change in the weather” was in the least bit noteworthy in the climate debate.
What Trump was grasping for is the standard denier talking point that starts with agreement “Yes, I think there’s a change in the climate” but quickly adds “but the climate is always changing.” At least that talking point, though well debunked, has an internal logic to it in the climate debate.
After all, the climate is supposed to be relatively unchanging. The climate of a region is the statistical average of its weather conditions over a long period of time, typically decades. Is it a tropic climate or a polar climate? Is it a rainforest or a desert? The long-term average, again by definition, shouldn’t change much.
And in fact, the climate has been relatively unchanging for most of human civilization, as the most comprehensive analysis of the past 11,000 years makes clear:
The point is that the rate of warming since 1900 is 50 times greater than the rate of cooling in the previous 5,000 years. What’s happening now is unprecedented — and it’s driven by human-caused carbon pollution.
Nonetheless, to make an effective case for denying humans are changing the climate, the deniers have to argue that the climate has always been changing so they can then argue that what’s happening now isn’t special. That claim isn’t true, as we’ve seen, but it is why some variation of “the climate is always changing” is the number one denier myth addressed by the debunking website, Skeptical Science.
Does Trump Know The 1920s Are Not The 1970s?
Trump also gets another, related denier talking point wrong when he says “if you look, they had global cooling in the 1920s and now they have global warming.” This double mistake is particularly hilarious. First, if you look, it’s pretty clear we had warming in the 1920s.
Second, the (long-debunked) denier talking point that Trump was grasping for was the one the late climate-science-denying author Michael Crichton has one of his fictional environmentalists claim in his novel “State of Fear”: “in the 1970s, all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming.” George Will among others has repeated this myth in his columns.
Again, the myth — which concerns the 1970s not the 1920s — has been long-debunked (see here). As one review article from 2008 (!) detailed “There was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was headed into an imminent ice age. Indeed, the possibility of anthropogenic warming dominated the peer-reviewed literature even then.” That Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society article pointed that a major “national report in the 1970s advocates urgent action to address global warming” so it’s pretty clear “the scientific consensus of the 1970s was not global cooling.”
The rhetorical point of this clever and popular (but false) attack is to make present global warming fears seem faddish, saying current climate science is nothing more than finger-in-the-wind guessing. This attack appeals especially to conservatives who want to link their attack on climate scientists to their favorite attack against progressive presidential candidates — that they are flip-floppers.
By confusing the 1920s with the 1970s, not only does Trump show he wasn’t paying attention to the denier talking points he heard, it shows that neither he nor anyone on his team even understands the point of the myth. The point was for deniers to argue in the 1990s and 2000s that scientists had a completely different worry — in the recent past. If it had been cooling in the 1920s — nine decades ago — what would that even prove?
Yet Trump has been making this same inane mistake for months now. You’d think if Trump wanted to make a rhetorically effective albeit false point, someone on his team would have pointed out that he screwed up his falsehood. Or not.
One can go on and on. Trump says in the editorial board interview that “although now they don’t know if they have global warming, they call it all sorts of different things; now they’re using ‘extreme weather’ I guess more than any other phrase.” Well, the “don’t know if it’s warming now” denier talking point pretty much died a year ago when 2014 was the hottest year on record, and it completely went extinct when 2015 beat the 2014 record by far. At least Trump didn’t screw up his still-erroneous talking point.
But the second half is all muddled up. The denier talking point isn’t “they’re using ‘extreme weather’ I guess more than any other phrase.” It’s that somehow, because it supposedly stopped warming, “they” are using “climate change” now. Again, even if Trump had gotten that denier talking point verbatim, it would still have been an inane point to make as I and others have explained many times. Scientists, environmentalists, progressives, and frankly the whole darn planet have always used the term climate change — hence the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established way back in 1988.
It would be bad enough if Trump were just a run-of-the-mill climate science denier repeating myths developed by the fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign. But Trump can’t even be bothered to get those talking points right. He isn’t just a climate know-nothing, he’s a climate know-less-than-nothing who doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for his campaign as a whole.