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How a Bunch of Corporate-Backed Buffoons Took Over U.S. Climate Policy

Climate-change deniers remain a clown show--yet they've managed to control US policy on the issue.
 
 
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Climate-change denier and Senator James Inhofe
Photo Credit: AFP

 
 
 
 

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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.

 
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