Deniers till Their Last Breath

Deniers till Their Last Breath

Deciphering the Far Right’s Hot Air on Global Warming

By Rob Schofield

There are two schools of thought in the progressive community about the far right’s persistent campaign to deny the existence of global warming. Many argue that the best approach is to simply ignore it. According to this point of view, the hard reality of global warming has already been widely accepted by the media and the general public. To bother engaging with or addressing the claims of the few remaining deniers would be akin to addressing the race relations claims of David Duke or the ravings of the John Birch Society.

Others are somewhat less sanguine. Though encouraged by the rapidly increasing public awareness on the issue, this camp also points to two other hard realities about global warming: 1) Many important policymakers are in the denier camp; and 2) even where politically ascendant, those who favor strong and rapid action to combat global warming have actually won very few real battles to effect significant policy change.

Group two therefore, favors frequently examining and debunking the deniers’ claims. With the future of the human species at stake the argument goes, this is no time to allow market fundamentalist ideologues to sabotage responsible policy changes through the mere volume and persistence of their claims. It is in the spirit of this point of view that this week’s Reality Check highlights some of the latest climate change fulminations of the far right.

Wrong, but Persistent

In North Carolina, no group has been more persistent in their denial of the global climate crisis than the Locke Foundation. For years, the group’s various “fellows” and “scholars” have published article after article in which they have challenged, alternatively, the existence of global warming, the possibility that humans are responsible for global warming, and the notion that humans can and should try to do something about it.

Here’s what a “Spotlight” report on the topic stated on the topic more than six years ago:

“Any action that North Carolina could take would involve all costs and no benefits, either to North Carolina citizens or in terms of improved global or local climate conditions. Not only is CO2 necessary for life on earth but it has no adverse health effects and is generally not considered a pollutant. It has never been listed as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and according to most observers would not qualify as a pollutant under any of the Act’s provisions. A reduction in the state’s CO2 emissions would bring about no improvement to the health or well-being of North Carolina’s citizens.”

And here’s the “Daily Journal” from March of 2004:

“The conventional wisdom on global warming is been repeated frequently by a gullible popular press and a more-than-willing environmental movement seeking validation for its repudiation of modern American capitalism.”

This past July, in a rather oddly timed release in the midst of the hottest summer on record, the group went so far as to release A North Carolina Citizen’s Guide to Global Warming. According to this rather strange and obtuse little document the real enemy of human well-being and overall planetary health is obvious: it’s Al Gore. According to the report:

“Whatever the risks of future climate change, they pale in comparison to the risks of the ‘wrenching transformation’ sought by Gore and his environmentalist allies.”

And this week, one of the group’s “resident scholars” issued the latest in a long string of attacks on North Carolina’s modest efforts to combat the emission of greenhouse gases via a government study group called the Climate Action Policy Advisory Group. According to the op-ed:

“The proposals that CCS has presented to the climate advisory group include increases in energy taxes of all kinds; per-mile driving taxes and taxes on the ownership of larger cars; subsidies to the wind and solar power industries via renewable energy requirements; increased subsidies for public transportation; restrictions on property rights through smart growth land-use policies; and dozens of other proposals that have been pushed by the environmental movement for decades.”

God forbid.

Reality Check

The evolution of the right’s attacks on global warming has been interesting to watch over the years. First came the straight out denials: Global warming wasn’t happening at all. Next came the “even ifs”: “Even if global warming is occurring, it’s not related to humans. It’s the result of volcanoes or sunspots or ‘natural’ fluctuations in climate.”

Lately, as the evidence has mounted, the right has favored the “nothing we can do” argument: “Well, global warming may be taking place and humans may be playing a role, but it’s not really that big of a deal and, anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it.” Mix in a little of the “nothing we can do” take with the “environmentalist conspiracy” argument (as in, “the whole global warming thing has been trumped up my meddling tree huggers who just want us to abandon modern capitalism and move back to the stone age”), and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the Locke line in 2007.

At the heart of all of this nonsense, of course, is the right’s messianic obsession with the genius of “the market” – their notion that when society does anything intentionally or collectively to control the unfettered pursuit and possession of “property,” it is somehow altering the divinely ordained rules of the universe. 

But, of course, the adoption of reasonable public policies like those that will be necessary for society to combat global warming represents the truest essence of civilized society. Sure, the market is a marvelous means of generating wealth and innovation – the best there is – but, ultimately, it is only that: a means not an end.

For better or worse, there are many, many areas (e.g., public safety, treatment for the mentally ill, and yes, protection of the environment) in which utterly unfettered markets do a terrible job. This is not to say that market forces cannot and should not be used for the common good. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that we can and should use market forces to help fashion the solutions to global warming. Plenty of people would like to make a profit while saving the planet. The trick is how to create the proper incentives.

Notwithstanding the right’s claims about “free” markets, anyone who thinks that today’s carbon-based energy policy isn’t the direct result of direct public incentives and subsidies (public roads, the leasing of public lands for energy exploitation, public university R&D to name just a few) is hopelessly uninformed. Given the right public policy changes and enough hard work, there’s no reason that humans can’t intentionally create an eco-friendly and sustainable, market-based energy policy too.

Might some difficult sacrifices be required in such a transition – particularly from the most gluttonous groups of energy consumers? In the short run, undoubtedly yes. But to argue that this is sufficient reason to simply break out the fiddles like Emperor Nero and bank on a long, slow planetary burn is criminally defeatist.          

Ultimately, it’s pretty clear that what’s really behind the right’s global warming denials is the same thing that underlies so many of its positions: fear. This is actually understandable. The world is a scary place and it’s comforting to imagine that we can deal with the challenges we face by re-creating the simpler times of our grandparents or, in the case of some organizations, the antebellum south.

If we hope to continue to thrive as a species that’s on the fast track to a population of 12 billion, however, it will take a lot more than sticking our heads in the sand and counting on the invisible hand to make everything all-right.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.