He introduces himself as Richard Rothschild. He tells the crowd that he ran for county commissioner in Maryland's Carroll County because he had come to the conclusion that policies to combat global warming were actually "an attack on middle-class American capitalism." His question for the panelists, gathered in a Washington, DC, Marriott Hotel in late June, is this: "To what extent is this entire movement simply a green Trojan horse, whose belly is full with red Marxist socioeconomic doctrine?"
Here at the Heartland Institute's Sixth International Conference on Climate Change, the premier gathering for those dedicated to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, this qualifies as a rhetorical question. Like asking a meeting of German central bankers if Greeks are untrustworthy. Still, the panelists aren't going to pass up an opportunity to tell the questioner just how right he is.
Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who specializes in harassing climate scientists with nuisance lawsuits and Freedom of Information fishing expeditions, angles the table mic over to his mouth. "You can believe this is about the climate," he says darkly, "and many people do, but it's not a reasonable belief." Horner, whose prematurely silver hair makes him look like a right-wing Anderson Cooper, likes to invoke Saul Alinsky: "The issue isn't the issue." The issue, apparently, is that "no free society would do to itself what this agenda requires.... The first step to that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way."
Claiming that climate change is a plot to steal American freedom is rather tame by Heartland standards. Over the course of this two-day conference, I will learn that Obama's campaign promise to support locally owned biofuels refineries was really about "green communitarianism," akin to the "Maoist" scheme to put "a pig iron furnace in everybody's backyard" (the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels). That climate change is "a stalking horse for National Socialism" (former Republican senator and retired astronaut Harrison Schmitt). And that environmentalists are like Aztec priests, sacrificing countless people to appease the gods and change the weather (Marc Morano, editor of the denialists' go-to website, ClimateDepot.com).
Most of all, however, I will hear versions of the opinion expressed by the county commissioner in the fourth row: that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book Climate of Corruption, climate change "has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution."
Yes, sure, there is a pretense that the delegates' rejection of climate science is rooted in serious disagreement about the data. And the organizers go to some lengths to mimic credible scientific conferences, calling the gathering "Restoring the Scientific Method" and even adopting the organizational acronym ICCC, a mere one letter off from the world's leading authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the scientific theories presented here are old and long discredited. And no attempt is made to explain why each speaker seems to contradict the next. (Is there no warming, or is there warming but it's not a problem? And if there is no warming, then what's all this talk about sunspots causing temperatures to rise?)
In truth, several members of the mostly elderly audience seem to doze off while the temperature graphs are projected. They come to life only when the rock stars of the movement take the stage -- not the C-team scientists but the A-team ideological warriors like Morano and Horner. This is the true purpose of the gathering: providing a forum for die-hard denialists to collect the rhetorical baseball bats with which they will club environmentalists and climate scientists in the weeks and months to come. The talking points first tested here will jam the comment sections beneath every article and YouTube video that contains the phrase "climate change" or "global warming." They will also exit the mouths of hundreds of right-wing commentators and politicians -- from Republican presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann all the way down to county commissioners like Richard Rothschild. In an interview outside the sessions, Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, proudly takes credit for "thousands of articles and op-eds and speeches...that were informed by or motivated by somebody attending one of these conferences."
The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank devoted to "promoting free-market solutions," has been holding these confabs since 2008, sometimes twice a year. And the strategy appears to be working. At the end of day one, Morano -- whose claim to fame is having broken the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story that sank John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign -- leads the gathering through a series of victory laps. Cap and trade: dead! Obama at the Copenhagen summit: failure! The climate movement: suicidal! He even projects a couple of quotes from climate activists beating up on themselves (as progressives do so well) and exhorts the audience to "celebrate!"
There were no balloons or confetti descending from the rafters, but there may as well have been.
* * *
When public opinion on the big social and political issues changes, the trends tend to be relatively gradual. Abrupt shifts, when they come, are usually precipitated by dramatic events. Which is why pollsters are so surprised by what has happened to perceptions about climate change over a span of just four years. A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would cause the climate to change. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number of Americans who agreed was down to 44 percent -- well under half the population. According to Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, this is "among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history."
Even more striking, this shift has occurred almost entirely at one end of the political spectrum. As recently as 2008 (the year Newt Gingrich did a climate change TV spot with Nancy Pelosi) the issue still had a veneer of bipartisan support in the United States. Those days are decidedly over. Today, 70-75 percent of self-identified Democrats and liberals believe humans are changing the climate -- a level that has remained stable or risen slightly over the past decade. In sharp contrast, Republicans, particularly Tea Party members, have overwhelmingly chosen to reject the scientific consensus. In some regions, only about 20 percent of self-identified Republicans accept the science.
Equally significant has been a shift in emotional intensity. Climate change used to be something most everyone said they cared about -- just not all that much. When Americans were asked to rank their political concerns in order of priority, climate change would reliably come in last.
But now there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change -- though what they care about is exposing it as a "hoax" being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs. For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to their worldview as low taxes, gun ownership and opposition to abortion. Many climate scientists report receiving death threats, as do authors of articles on subjects as seemingly innocuous as energy conservation. (As one letter writer put it to Stan Cox, author of a book critical of air-conditioning, "You can pry my thermostat out of my cold dead hands.")
This culture-war intensity is the worst news of all, because when you challenge a person's position on an issue core to his or her identity, facts and arguments are seen as little more than further attacks, easily deflected. (The deniers have even found a way to dismiss a new study confirming the reality of global warming that was partially funded by the Koch brothers, and led by a scientist sympathetic to the "skeptic" position.)
The effects of this emotional intensity have been on full display in the race to lead the Republican Party. Days into his presidential campaign, with his home state literally burning up with wildfires, Texas Governor Rick Perry delighted the base by declaring that climate scientists were manipulating data "so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects." Meanwhile, the only candidate to consistently defend climate science, Jon Huntsman, was dead on arrival. And part of what has rescued Mitt Romney's campaign has been his flight from earlier statements supporting the scientific consensus on climate change.
But the effects of the right-wing climate conspiracies reach far beyond the Republican Party. The Democrats have mostly gone mute on the subject, not wanting to alienate independents. And the media and culture industries have followed suit. Five years ago, celebrities were showing up at the Academy Awards in hybrids, Vanity Fair launched an annual green issue and, in 2007, the three major US networks ran 147 stories on climate change. No longer. In 2010 the networks ran just 32 climate change stories; limos are back in style at the Academy Awards; and the "annual" Vanity Fair green issue hasn't been seen since 2008.