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On post-truth accounting (I/III)

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 7 min read

This is part one of a three-part series on post-truth accounting. You can find part two here, and part three here.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.

George Orwell

How can we solve the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced when we can’t even agree that two plus two equals four?

Today I want to talk about the most pressing political condition of our age: ‘post-truth.’ It is a fascinating concept – where objective facts are less influential in ratifying political reality than personal belief – that burst into consciousness with Trump and Brexit (it was OED Word of the Year in 2016) and long outstayed its welcome.

Post-truth politics: a rising tide

Sadly, climate action was one of post-truth’s first victims. After all, denialism served as the in-utero form of post-truth since the 1990s. Then along came the ugliest of midwives: Donald Trump.

“I listen to people talk about global warming, that the ocean will rise in the next 300 years by 1/8th of an inch… environmentalists talk all this nonsense,” he said last year. At which point progressives rub their hands – Bring on the fact-checkers! The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that sea levels are rising by 1/8th of an inch per year; the next three decades will see 1,000x the rise Trump gave for the next three centuries. 

Never mind, he says: doesn’t it just mean “slightly more beachfront property?” In reality, a two-degree world means sea levels 3 feet higher at his own Mar-a-Lago home: less beachfront, more underwater. 

Numbers don’t lie (?)

So far, so Donald. According to the Washington Post, he made false or misleading statements 30,573 times while in office. What did we expect?

Hold on a minute. Before we go any further, let’s think about that number: 30,573. Notice how it feels to read that: how solid, how specific, how real it looks. A rock to cling to in the Trumpist storm. 

Number is the one thing that is supposed to be immune to emotion, belief, and subjectivity. When I sit down with my finance team to discuss our accounts, I know that – even if we may disagree on strategy – we are all working from a shared understanding of reality. Consequently, accountants top surveys of the most trusted business advisors for SME leaders.

This concreteness is what makes numbers feels so essential - a source of truth amongst post-truths. So it is with a heavy heart that I want to introduce a new concept here today, one which is increasingly infecting the climate world too: post-truth accounting.

What is (and isn’t) post-truth accounting?

Post-truth accounting treats finance as another battleground for the exercise of politics. Respect for the objective reality behind numbers is rejected in favour of a nihilistic truth-as-belief. Suddenly, a number is real because I want it to be. 

Post-truth accounting is distinguished from fraud because it is not trying to hide anything. The accountants behind Enron and other scandals at least knew ‘real’ numbers existed. If they didn’t fear the truth, they wouldn’t cover them up. A post-truth accountant doesn’t care that his numbers might be found false; revelation becomes just one more theatre for political performance.

Nor is it the same as ‘creative accounting,’ which employs real numbers whilst stretching real accounting categories for legal ends. By contrast, post-truth accounting ignores, invents and breaks categories at will. Law and convention become irrelevant. 

Instead, post-truth accounting is closer to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit” – where the speaker is uninterested in truth or falsity, because persuasion is all that matters. If anything, the goal is to undermine trust in the idea of truth itself.

Accountancy can never be perfectly objective. There is a fascinating field of critical accounting which looks at the philosophy, ethics and epistemology of number in finance; and as the book Truth or Profit points out, there has always been a tension between accounting as a business service and as a public service. Here, however, I’m simply concerned with the ‘good enough’ accounting reality which underpins modern management.

Oddly, for all the ink spilled analysing post-truth in politics, I haven’t seen much (if any) concrete discussion about its infiltration of accounting and number. The closest would be this 2023 paper on the Petrobras scandal in Brazil. Yet this subject should be concern not only industry insiders, but anyone with an interest in good (climate) governance. As such, I hope that this initial definition can be picked up and taken further by others. 

What does post-truth accounting look like?

There are three features of post-truth accounting I want to elaborate here, illustrated through another example from the Dark Lord of post-truth himself: Trump and his Wall. 

1. Win bigly

“We’ll build a wall. A beautiful, gorgeous, big wall,” Trump promised: 50 foot high, 1,000 miles long and made of solid concrete. In reality, he completed just 458 miles of 18-30ft steel bollard barrier. Yet in 2020 he still claimed to have built “a complete, beautiful wall on our southern border that’s really helped.” 

Post-truth accountants inflate everything, resulting in a feverish confusion of scale (his extreme minimisation of sea level rise fits here too). It’s about the image and feeling big, ‘beautiful’ numbers create, over any correspondence to reality.

2. Claim without shame

Despite Trump hailing his 537 miles (wrong again…) of new wall, the Customs and Border Protection report categorised 373 of the actual 458 miles built as simply a “replacement barrier” for existing wall. Only 52 miles of new primary wall were ever constructed. After this report, the White House asked the CBP to stop using the term “replacement” because, according to the Washington Post, “it sounds like less of an accomplishment.” In this way, accounting categories become a matter of politics, not fact. 

Another example: Trump’s team claimed the wall worked because by 2020, “illegal crossings plummeted over 87% percent in areas where the wall went up.” This usefully ignores the fact that the wall had been (re-)built where it is most convenient, not most relevant. Total crossings in fact stood at 67,000/month at the end of his Presidency, versus 47,000 at the start – a 40% increase. 

3. Words, not deeds 

“Build the wall and make Mexico pay for it,” Trump pledged throughout his campaign. “There will be a payment; it will be in a form, perhaps a complicated form.”

In the end, it was simpler than that: Mexico refused, so Trump appropriated $15bn in tax dollars instead. He only managed to spend $11.7bn, but that still works out at around $225m for each new mile of wall. A Senate Democrat report projected a complete wall would cost $70bn. 

Yet in 2020 Trump told CPAC, “Mexico is paying for it and it’s better than the wall that was projected.” To his supporters, his ongoing commitment counted more than the money he had actually spent. 

The Wall ended up small, incomplete, and expensive. But in Trump’s post-truth accounting at the end of his Presidency – in political fact – it remained big, complete, and free. The most alarming stat of all comes from a January 2024 poll, which gave Trump a 52%-28% lead over Biden on border security amongst registered voters. 

Post-truth accounting works.

From Trump to climate finance

Lies, damned lies and statistics, you might respond. No one expects Trump (or any modern politician?) to tell the truth with numbers. But what about government treasuries, multilateral banks, the OECD and UNFCCC – whose very functions depend on traditional accounting values? And what happens when the accounting isn’t for a fantasy megaproject like The Wall, but the real work of climate finance? 

Next week, I’ll look at how post-truth accounting by the world’s leading government bureaucracies is undermining climate action, with another deep dive into the Climate Finance Files. Stay tuned.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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