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More dire data, less climate concern?

Dave Keating
December 9, 2016

Donald Trump has appointed an opponent of climate action to head America's environment agency - but reaction has been muted. As climate change becomes more apparent, are people becoming fatigued on the topic?

Ice breaking apart in Antarctic
Image: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/A. Rose

Donald Trump, set to become president of the United States in about a month's time, has chosen Scott Pruitt - a leading opponent of federal environment and climate regulation - to head the country's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Pruitt, currently the attorney general in the state of Oklahoma, is currently suing the EPA in an effort to limit carbon emission limits on power plants put in place by outgoing president Barack Obama.

Pruitt does not believe that manmade climate change is a certainty, and has described the issue as "far from settled." United States campaign group Sierra Club described his nomination, which must still be confirmed by the US Senate, as "putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires."

Trump had already put one of America's best-known climate skeptics, Myron Ebell, in charge of leading the transition efforts between Obama's EPA and Trump's EPA, and there had been speculation that he would appoint Ebell to head the agency.

And though Ebell's appointment generated some media attention, Pruitt's nomination has been met with an only somehwat-interested collective shrug.

With Trump poised to dismantle US climate action, is this a sign of public burnout on the climate topic?

Campaign promises

Rolling back climate action was already spelled out in the Republican Party platform adopted at the party convention this past July. It promised to not only scrap the emissions caps, but to wholesale dismantle the EPA and transform it into an "independent bipartisan commission similar to the nuclear regulatory commission."

USA Scott Pruitt
Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, nominated by Trump to head the EPA, believes the jury is still out on climate changeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Harnik

The platform also pledged to pull the US out of the UN climate process, open protected forests to logging and end all subsidies to renewable energy. "Unelected bureaucrats [in the EPA] must be stopped from furthering the Democratic Party's agenda," the Republican platform says.

The plan to halt all action to fight climate change was made clear by Trump during the campaign. At a rally in Michigan one week before the US election, Trump said he would save the American taxpayer "$100 billion" over eight years by cutting all federal climate change spending.

"We're going to put America first," he told the crowd. "That includes canceling billions in climate change spending for the United Nations, a number Hillary wants to increase." Trump has in the past called climate change a "hoax" perpetrated by the Chinese.

Polls have shown that climate change was a deciding factor in very few people's vote this year. Though 66 percent of voters said in exit polls that climate change is a "serious issue" in exit polls, it was not among the top five biggest motivating factors in their vote.

Worrying new science

Although European voters have indicated they see climate change as a more important factor in their voting than Americans, a similar trend is present: less importance attached to the climate change issue in the face of more short-term fears - such as terrorism, immigration and perhaps imminent geopolitical conflict.

But even as climate change recedes from the spotlight, recent evidence shows that the situation is perhaps even more dire than originally thought: Two alarming new studies released over the past month have scientists worried.

This week, the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed that both the Arctic and Antarctic experiencedrecord lows in sea ice extent in November - astonishing scientists who say it is unprecedented for sea ice to retreat at a time when the Arctic enters the coldest, darkest part of the year.

Arctic sea ice extent averaged 9.08 million square kilometers in November - 1.95 million square kilometers below the long-term average from 1981 to 2010 for this time of year.

The news has policymakers worried as well. "This news from the Arctic might be the start of a tipping point that we must avoid, because this would mean that we as human beings are losing control," said Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch Liberal member of the European Parliament, at an event this week.

But he said there is only so much politicians can do to raise the alarm."I'm afraid we politicians don't have to do much anymore to remind people of climate change, because the effects are already on the front pages of the newspapers."

New feedback loop

Last week, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies revealed alarming new research showing that the long-theorized "feedback loop" of climate change and soil carbon loss is indeed a real phenomenon - meaning that the rate of global temperature could rise much faster than expected.

Thomas Crowther, who conducted the research, told DW that higher temperatures across the globe lead to microbes in the soil releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. That, in turn drives more climate change - which makes the planet hotter, continuing the cycle.

Drought in North Korea
More carbon will be released from soil as the planet gets hotterImage: picture alliance / dpa

The unanticipated feedback loop could result in release of emissions amounting to that of the entire United States, research showed. This would blast the planet well past the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) limit, beyond which scientists say climate change could become catastrophic.

"It's something that scientists have theorized for quite awhile, but had not yet been proven," he told DW. Crowther started this research to disprove this hypothesis, he told DW. "But now, all the data suggests it's even worse than we thought."

Crowther says he, too, is concerned that as climate science becomes ever more alarming, people seem less and less alarmed.

"My personal opinion is that it's become too much of a politicized issue," he says. There's no debate when that happens, he says, "there's just people shouting at each other."

"Any time people bring new information to the table, it just reinforces the fury on both sides of the argument, and they just shout at each other and nobody gets anywhere."

Crowther notes that there is no other way to stop the soil feedback loop than to limit overall emissions - which is why Trump's threat to scrap US emissions limits and pull the US out of the Paris climate accord is so worrying.

"This data reinforces the need to meet the targets that were set at Paris, because now we know that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is even more critical than we thought."

In the meantime, many are asking what it will take to give the topic the critical mass necessary for political action.