Part of Lake Mead is now dry, cracked earth. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The Death of Climate Denialism

Soon the Right will have to abandon its head-in-the-sand strategy—but its next tactic may be more dangerous.

BY Kate Aronoff

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As climate denialism begins to falter as a political strategy, Republicans may move to 'apocalyptic warnings about the high cost of government action. That is the GOP’s native territory.'

The U.K’s New Secretary of Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd, has this to say about wind farms: “I personally quite enjoy seeing them.” A Conservative Party MP, Rudd received a promotion last month when David Cameron’s Tories beat out Labour. Less bland than her sentiments about wind farms are her policy proposals for them: They will receive no new federal subsidies, she says, and decisions on whether to build them will rest in the hands of local governments.

Therein lies the contradiction of Rudd, a former investment banker and self-professed “Thatcherite when it comes to climate change”: She believes ardently in global warming and the necessity of mitigating it—so long as those efforts don’t dip into public coffers.

To U.S. progressives, a Department of Climate Change like Rudd’s might sound like a dream, let alone a conservative heading it who accepts the reality of anthropogenic global warming. This winter, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, threw a snowball on the Senate floor to disprove the 97 percent of “eggheads” in “science laboratories” who cite evidence of climate change. Not all U.S. conservative denialism is as quaint as Inhofe’s: Oil barons Charles and David Koch have poured $79 million into talking heads, bogus scientific studies and front groups like Americans for Prosperity—all aimed at convincing the public that climate change is a bugaboo. A Drexel University study found that between 2003 and 2010, conservative foundations invested $900 million in climate-change denial campaigns. 

Despite all this, right-wing acknowledgement of climate change in the United States might not be far off. There are signs that conservative elites’ opinions on global warming may head the way of their stance on gay marriage: Stalwart opposers will mysteriously “evolve” their views as it becomes politically expedient. The danger is that the shift will be accompanied by an American version of Rudd’s “climate Thatcherism,” in which deregulation and deep cuts to the public sphere go hand in hand with a move away from fossil fuels. 

The Temperature in Washington

As Dana Milbank, a Beltway standard-bearer for the Washington Post, wrote in a recent op-ed, “Climate has become one of those issues where the gulf between the insular far right and the rest of American … culture has become so vast that it is serving like a moat, keeping out the very demographic groups the GOP needs in coming years.” Eighty-three percent of people in the United States believe climate change constitutes a “very” or “somewhat serious” threat, and institutions from the IMF to Goldman Sachs are sounding the alarm. A New York Times and Stanford University poll this year found that nearly half of Republicans nationwide support some type of government action to curb global warming. 

Some influential Republicans are taking heed. Alex Lundry, vice president of the conservative polling firm Target Point Consulting, wrote in a January op-ed for The Daily Caller, “If Republicans insist on listening to those that believe we won’t see the effects of climate change for decades, we are setting ourselves up for a political and a policy mistake that will damage the party and, more importantly, the country.” Tossing around the idea of a third presidential run, Mitt Romney said in January, “I’m one of those Republicans who thinks we are getting warmer and that we are contributing to that.” Rand Paul, another 2016 hopeful, has taken a similar stance. Soon after Romney’s pronouncement, 15 GOP senators, including Paul, voted for a resolution declaring that climate change is not a hoax and that human activity contributes to it. 

Climate Reaganism 

Climate Thatcherites are still Thatcherites, and Republicans who believe in climate change are still Republicans. Rudd remains a loyal member of Cameron’s cabinet, from which Britain can expect, as British commentator Laurie Penny wrote, “More cuts to public services. More inequality. More lies.” Similarly, even if American environmentalists could flip some magical switch to eliminate climate denial outright, the reigning U.S. allergy to regulation and public spending would remain. While Rudd’s use of catchy phrases like “local control” and “supporting innovation” may carry the rhetorical punch of bold governance proposals, in reality they shunt the onus to a private sector all too excited to step in. 

Vox Media’s David Roberts has done an impressive job mapping the Right’s shift on climate science and predicting its trajectory. As climate denialism begins to falter as a political strategy, he writes, Republicans may move to “apocalyptic warnings about the high cost of government action. That is the GOP’s native territory.” Indeed, while there is bipartisan support among voters regarding the need for some type of action on climate change, a January Pew Research poll found that the question of what such action should look like is more divisive: 59 percent of Republicans responded that “stricter environmental laws and regulations have a negative economic impact.” 

Last month, Roberts interviewed libertarian Jerry Taylor, formerly of the “climate-skeptical” Cato Institute, about his idea for a carbon tax. “Taylor,” Roberts writes, “has proposed a grand bargain of sorts: in exchange for the elimination of EPA carbon regulations and state renewable energy mandates, Congress would adopt a substantial and rising economy-wide carbon tax, made ‘revenue-neutral’ by reducing other taxes.” Taylor went on to argue that this kind of governmental action is a win-win for libertarians, mainstream Republicans and even centrist Demo- crats: Emaciate the EPA and continue making high returns, all without a drop of federal spending. 

In a March 2015 study, “The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax,” Taylor lays out a plan for “decision[s] about where, when, and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions [to be left] to market actors (via price signals) rather than to regulators (via administrative orders).” Republican heavyweights such as former Romney advisor Greg Mankiw and Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz, have supported similar proposals, and the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, released its own proposal for a market-friendly carbon tax nearly identical to Taylor’s. 

Elon Musk, Tesla CEO and inventor wunderkind, is inclined to agree with such arguments. His development of electric cars was partially underwritten by a $465 million grant from the Department of Energy. After paying it off nine years early, in 2013, Musk went on to publicly denounce the very idea of government subsidies, clarifying on Twitter that he was, in fact, “arguing against subsidies & in favor of a tax on the end bad created. Market will then achieve the best solution.” 

Musk is among the free-market ideologues, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Wall Street tycoons who, sensing a change in the political, economic and actual weather, are dreaming up market-based climate solutions. By themselves, these measures are hardly nefarious; some are promising innovations. Musk’s Tesla Energy has developed a relatively affordable household power source, the Powerwall. Costing just $3,000, the futuristic-looking white box could revolutionize global access to solar power by making it easier than ever to get off the grid. According to the Solar Energies Industry Association, themarket for solar energy grew by 34 percent in 2014. Eager to cash in, Citibank will pour $100 billion into renewables by 2025, with Goldman Sachs pledging $40 billion by 2021. 

The Limits of the Market

Cast in the right light, these measures could be fodder for the argument that the free market is better suited than the state to take on the climate crisis. 

Investors, however, cannot do a regulator’s job. As Evergreen State College economist Peter Dorman points out, investment in clean energy is not the same as keeping fossil fuels in the ground. “If we generate more energy from renewables, that could just simply mean more energy,” Dorman tells In These Times

That in itself does not prevent energy being extracted from fossil fuels. … From a climate sense, the only thing that ultimately matters is leaving the fossil fuels in the ground. I distrust the state in almost every way. … I consider myself to have strong left-libertarian inclinations. But nobody but the state can do this. It’s always going to be profitable for somebody … to dig that stuff up, unless the state prevents that from happening and makes it unprofitable, either by taxing the hell out of it, or by requiring permits [for fossil fuel extraction] and putting people in jail if they dig it up without a permit.  

Environmentalists in the United States have used confrontational showdowns over fossil-fuel divestment, Keystone XL and offshore drilling to wage a strong—and, arguably, winning—moral argument against the coal, oil and gas industries, but they have yet to issue a full-throated call for state action. Now that climate campaigners are convincing the public of what’s wrong, they may be better positioned to start demanding what’s right. 

While private capital will inevitably play a part in the transition away from fossil fuels, mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis will require substantial public spending and robust federal enforcement agencies. Right now, those agencies are fighting for their lives: Between Mitch McConnell’s war on the EPA and the fact that FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program is $24 billion in debt to the Treasury, the government bodies charged with preventing and responding to the climate crisis are struggling to stay afloat.

Taking on this crisis will require a movement able to defend regulators and engage the state with proposals for a livable planet and a vibrant public sector. “In some sense,” Dorman says, “the money is already there and has already been there, and the environmental movement has been too politically weak to get it.” Annually, the United States invests $37.5 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. That the government is too poor to pay out for infrastructure and job creation is a fable. 

The grueling battle to convince the public and policymakers of the reality of climate change is ending, a victory that can be claimed by scientists and by organizers who have staged massive rallies, direct actions and long-running strategic campaigns. The far more complex challenge ahead for campaigners will be ensuring that the transition away from fossil fuels will have Margaret Thatcher turning in her grave.

Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

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