I Went to a Climate Change Denial Conference. It Made Even Less Sense Than You’d Think.

Panelists at the Heartland Institute’s Thursday gathering agree you should stop worrying about climate change. They just can’t agree on why.

Christine MacDonald July 26, 2019

Australian protesters rally against a carbon tax in August 2011. (TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s no need to wor­ry about reduc­ing the green­house gas­es dri­ving cli­mate change — all that car­bon diox­ide is actu­al­ly green­ing the plan­et.” The Green New Deal, on the oth­er hand, would send the coun­try back to the stone age, or at least the pre-indus­tri­al era. Those were among the eye-pop­ping and often-con­flict­ing views expressed yes­ter­day at the Heart­land Institute’s 13th Inter­na­tion­al Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence, a gath­er­ing of cli­mate change deniers that took place at the Trump Hotel in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., just blocks from the White House.

Panelists argued that the fossil fuel industry is under unfair attack, while the Green New Deal is a totalitarian communist plot to steal American liberties and cast the world into “energy poverty.”

The vast major­i­ty of the world’s cli­mate sci­en­tists agree that cli­mate change could prove dev­as­tat­ing to life as we know it unless we take swift and sweep­ing action to decar­bonize the econ­o­my . But those wild pre­dic­tions have been pro­nounced­ly exag­ger­at­ed,” accord­ing to the British gad­fly Lord Christo­pher Mon­ck­ton, who holds the title 3rd Vis­count Mon­ck­ton of Brenchley.

One of the more col­or­ful fig­ures in the cli­mate denial uni­verse, Mon­ck­ton ticked off a list of prob­lems sci­en­tists have linked to cli­mate change that Mon­ck­ton says we real­ly don’t need to wor­ry about. Accord­ing to him, the world is see­ing less, not more, drought; sea lev­els are falling not ris­ing; for­est fires are caus­ing less dam­age; hur­ri­cane activ­i­ty is decreas­ing, too; and car­bon diox­ide is actu­al­ly improv­ing the glob­al envi­ron­ment by green­ing” places like Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. That’s why we need more CO2, because it greens the plan­et,” he declared.

Oth­er con­fer­ence pan­elists joined Mon­ck­ton in cycling through a series of the­o­ries long debunked by peer-reviewed sci­ence. Some believe, like Mon­ck­ton, that car­bon diox­ide lev­els in the atmos­phere are grow­ing but pro­vide more ben­e­fits than threats. (One Her­itage Foun­da­tion offi­cial went so far as to sug­gest car­bon diox­ide emit­ters should get paid a sub­sidy rather than face the kind of car­bon tax scheme pol­i­cy­mak­ers have dis­cussed; of course, the oil indus­try already does receive bil­lions in sub­si­dies.) Oth­ers argued that CO2 lev­els are in fact not ris­ing, while still oth­ers say we should be more con­cerned about a com­ing ice age. 

The real prob­lem is we have a lot more to wor­ry about with glob­al cool­ing than with glob­al warm­ing,” said Rodger Bezdek, an ener­gy ana­lyst and Heart­land pol­i­cy advisor.

If the speak­ers and audi­ence mem­bers don’t all agree on why we shouldn’t wor­ry about cli­mate change, the few hun­dred peo­ple assem­bled in a hotel ball­room yes­ter­day do share a num­ber of oth­er ideas: chiefly, that the fos­sil fuel indus­try is under unfair attack and deserves pub­lic sup­port, while the Green New Deal is a total­i­tar­i­an com­mu­nist plot to steal Amer­i­can lib­er­ties and cast the world into ener­gy poverty.”

Kevin D. Dayarat­na, a senior sta­tis­ti­cian at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, told the audi­ence the Left had already begun to take con­trol of the coun­try and would con­tin­ue its author­i­tar­i­an advance with a Green New Deal.

On the sur­face, times would seem to be good for Heart­land and the cli­mate change denial move­ment, with the world’s most promi­nent cli­mate change denier liv­ing in the White House. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has run with many of this group’s long­time demands such as with­draw­ing the Unit­ed States from the Unit­ed Nations’ Paris cli­mate accord and rolling back Oba­ma-era pol­lu­tion rules.

But the evi­dence has nev­er been stronger that cli­mate change is already hap­pen­ing and will have increas­ing­ly cat­a­stroph­ic impacts on human civ­i­liza­tion (not to men­tion oth­er species) unless the world takes action. Mean­while, the sur­pris­ing­ly fierce rise of chil­dren activists demand­ing cli­mate action has boost­ed pub­lic con­cern world­wide and helped sweep pro­gres­sive politi­cians sup­port­ing a Green New Deal into U.S. Congress.

This may be part of why cli­mate denial­ists (who pre­fer to be called cli­mate real­ists”) appear to be strug­gling to remain rel­e­vant and attract younger fol­low­ers. Yesterday’s speak­ers and audi­ence mem­bers were over­whelm­ing­ly old, white and male. After the first pan­el ses­sion, there were so many white-haired men wait­ing for the men’s room that a long line snaked out the door, past the gold-plat­ed trash bins embossed with the Trump name. The line for the women’s room, by con­trast, was sig­nif­i­cant­ly shorter.

To recruit younger gen­er­a­tions, one audi­ence mem­ber sug­gest­ed warn­ing them that Green New Deal sup­port­ers want to take their iPhones away and return the coun­try to a time before elec­tric­i­ty — nev­er mind that elec­tric­i­ty, in the form of solar and wind, is cen­tral to the Green New Deal pro­pos­al. (Of course, pan­elists and audi­ences expressed extreme skep­ti­cism about renew­ables, as well.)

Not only does the cli­mate denial move­ment appear in dan­ger of aging out, rais­ing funds is get­ting more dif­fi­cult. Tra­di­tion­al­ly fund­ed by fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies, Heartland’s oil and gas mon­ey has dried up in recent years as the sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus around cli­mate change has grown stronger, putting oil and gas com­pa­nies under pres­sure from share­hold­ers and the pub­lic to stop fund­ing groups that deny the problem.

Ear­li­er this year the lib­er­tar­i­an Cato Insti­tute dis­band­ed its cli­mate denial pro­gram, the Cen­ter for the Study of Sci­ence. And yesterday’s Heart­land con­fer­ence had few­er than half the num­ber of speak­ers and pan­elists as its first Inter­na­tion­al Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in 2008. The num­ber of spon­sor­ing orga­ni­za­tions has also fall­en by more than half since 2008.

Despite these devel­op­ments, cli­mate change denial­ism con­tin­ues to get more than its fair share of media cov­er­age, accord­ing to an analy­sis by the Pub­lic Cit­i­zen pub­lished Wednes­day to coin­cide with the con­fer­ence. The non­prof­it con­sumer advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion found that media cov­er­age of cli­mate denial by Heart­land, Her­itage and three oth­er think tanks increased from 2014 to 2018.

The mounds of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence … should lead to a rad­i­cal decline in the influ­ence of cli­mate deniers in the media,” Alli­son Fish­er, out­reach pro­gram direc­tor for Pub­lic Citizen’s cli­mate pro­gram, said in a press release. Amaz­ing­ly, cov­er­age of the deniers’ mes­sages has risen over the past five years as the cli­mate cri­sis has wors­ened, with much of it being uncritical.”

It seems pos­si­ble to con­ceive of a time, not all that far off in the future, when the effects of cli­mate change will become so evi­dent and fre­quent that deny­ing it’s hap­pen­ing will no longer be an option. But that’s hard­ly a com­fort­ing thought.

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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