The Planet Wreckers

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This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch

It’s been a tough few weeks
for the forces of climate-change denial.

First came the giant
billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it:
“I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland
Institute, the nerve-center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw
attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming
aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew
attention to the fact that these guys had over-reached, and with predictable
consequences.

A
hard-hitting campaign from a new group called Forecast
the Facts
persuaded many of the corporations backing Heartland to
withdraw $825,000 in funding;
an entire wing of the Institute, devoted to helping the insurance industry,
calved off to form its own nonprofit. Normally friendly politicians like
Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner announced that they would
boycott the group’s annual conference unless the billboard campaign was ended.

Which it was, before the
billboards with Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden could be unveiled, but not
before the damage was done: Sensenbrenner spoke at last month’s conclave, but
attendance was way down at the annual gathering, and Heartland leaders
announced that there were no plans for another of the yearly fests. Heartland’s
head, Joe Bast, complained that his
side had been subjected to the most “uncivil name-calling and disparagement you
can possibly imagine from climate alarmists,” which was both a little rich —
after all, he was the guy with the mass-murderer billboards — but also a
little pathetic. A whimper had replaced the characteristically confident snarl
of the American right.

That pugnaciousness may return: Mr. Bast said last week that
he was finding new corporate sponsors, that he was building a new small-donor
base that was “Greenpeace-proof,” and that in any event the billboard had been
a fine idea anyway because it had “generated more than $5 million in earned
media so far.” (That’s a bit like saying that for a successful White House bid
John Edwards should have had more mistresses and babies because look at all the
publicity!) Whatever the final outcome, it’s worth noting that, in a larger
sense, Bast is correct: this tiny collection of deniers has actually been
incredibly effective over the past years.

The best of them–and that
would be Marc Morano, proprietor of the website Climate Depot, and Anthony
Watts, of the website Watts Up With That–have fought with remarkable tenacity
to stall and delay the inevitable recognition that we’re in serious trouble.
They’ve never had much to work with. Only one even remotely serious scientist
remains in the denialist camp. That’s MIT’s Richard Lindzen, who has been
arguing for years that while global warming is real it won’t be as severe as
almost all his colleagues believe. But as a long article in the New
York Times
detailed last month, the credibility of that sole dissenter is
basically shot. Even the peer reviewers he approved for his last paper told the National
Academy of Sciences that it didn’t merit publication. (It ended up in a
“little-known Korean journal.”)

Deprived of actual publishing
scientists to work with, they’ve relied on a small troupe of vaudeville
performers, featuring them endlessly on their websites. Lord Christopher
Monckton, for instance, an English peer (who has been officially warned by the House
of Lords to stop saying he’s a member) began his speech at
Heartland’s annual conference by boasting that he had “no scientific
qualification” to challenge the science of climate change.

He’s proved the truth of that
claim many times, beginning in his pre-climate-change career when he explained to readers of the American
Spectator
that “there is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen
the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease
for life.” His personal contribution to the genre of climate-change
mass-murderer analogies has been to explain that a group of young
climate-change activists who tried to take over a stage where he was speaking
were “Hitler Youth.”

Or consider Lubos Motl, a
Czech theoretical physicist who has never published on climate change but
nonetheless keeps up a steady stream of web assaults on scientists he calls
“fringe kibitzers who want to become universal dictators” who should “be
thinking how to undo your inexcusable behavior so that you will spend as little
time in prison as possible.” On the crazed killer front, Motl said that, while
he supported many of Norwegian gunman Anders Breivik’s ideas, it was hard to
justify gunning down all those children–still, it did demonstrate that
“right-wing people… may even be more efficient while killing–and the probable
reason is that Breivik may have a higher IQ than your garden variety left-wing
or Islamic terrorist.”

If your urge is to laugh at
this kind of clown show, the joke’s on you–because it’s worked. I mean, James
Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has emerged victorious in every Senate
fight on climate change, cites Motl regularly; Monckton has testified four
times before the U.S. Congress.

Morano, one of the most
skilled political operatives of the age–he “broke the story” that became the Swiftboat
attack on John Kerry–plays rough: he regularly publishes the email addresses of
those he pillories, for instance, so his readers can pile on the abuse. But he
plays smart, too. He’s a favorite of Fox News and of Rush Limbaugh, and he and
his colleagues have used those platforms to make it anathema for any Republican
politician to publicly express a belief in the reality of climate change.

Take Newt Gingrich, for
instance. Only four years ago he was willing to sit on a love seat with Nancy
Pelosi and film a commercial for a campaign headed by
Al Gore. In it he explained that he agreed with the California Congresswoman and then-Speaker of
the House that the time had come for action on climate. This fall, hounded by
Morano, he was forced to recant again and again. His dalliance with the truth
about carbon dioxide hurt him more among the Republican faithful than any other
single “failing.” Even Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts actually took some action on
global warming, has now been reduced to claiming
that scientists may tell us “in 50 years” if we have anything to fear.

In other words, a small cadre
of fervent climate-change deniers took control of the Republican Party on the
issue. This, in turn, has meant control of Congress, and since the president
can’t sign a treaty by himself, it’s effectively meant stifling any significant
international progress on global warming. Put another way, the various right wing billionaires
and energy companies who have bankrolled this stuff have gotten their money’s
worth many times over.

One reason the denialists’
campaign has been so successful, of course, is that they’ve also managed to
intimidate the other side. There aren’t many senators who rise with the passion
or frequency of James Inhofe but to warn of the dangers of ignoring what’s
really happening on our embattled planet.

It’s a striking barometer of
intimidation that Barack Obama, who has a clear enough understanding of climate
change and its dangers, has barely mentioned the subject for four years. He did
show a little leg to his liberal base in Rolling Stoneearlier this spring
by hinting that climate change could become a campaign issue. Last week,
however, he passed on his best chance to make good on that promise when he gave
a long speech on energy at an Iowa
wind turbine factory without even mentioning
global warming. Because the GOP has been so unreasonable, the president clearly
feels he can take the environmental vote by staying silent, which means the
odds that he’ll do anything dramatic in the next four years grow steadily
smaller.

On the brighter side, not
everyone has been intimidated. In fact, a spirited counter-movement has arisen
in recent years. The very same weekend that Heartland tried to put the
Unabomber’s face on global warming, 350.org conducted thousands
of rallies
around the globe to show who climate change really affects. In a
year of mobilization, we also managed to block–at
least temporarily–the Keystone pipeline
that would have brought the dirtiest of dirty energy, tar-sands oil, from the
Canadian province of Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
In the meantime, our Canadian allies are fighting hard to block a similar
pipeline that would bring those tar sands to the Pacific for export.

Similarly, in just the last
few weeks, hundreds of thousands have signed on to demand
an end to fossil-fuel subsidies.
And new polling data already
show more Americans worried about our changing climate, because they’ve noticed
the freakish weather of the last few years and drawn the obvious conclusion.

But damn, it’s a hard fight,
up against a ton of money and a ton of inertia. Eventually, climate denial will
“lose,” because physics and chemistry are not intimidated even by Lord
Monckton. But timing is everything–if he and
his ilk, a crew of certified planet wreckers, delay action past the point where
it can do much good, they’ll be able to claim one of the epic victories in
political history–one that will last for
geological epochs.

Bill McKibben is Schumann
Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate
campaign
350.org,
a
TomDispatch regular,
and the author, most recently, of
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough
New Planet
.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
@TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben

Image by Ansgar
Walk
, licensed under Creative Commons.

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