It may seem a lifetime ago, but as recently as 2000 the issue of climate change was a prominent one in the American consciousness. Al Gore was a household name, public opinion polls showed environmental protection as a top concern, and pop culture frequently blended ecological themes with entertainment (remember Captain Planet, or Fern Gully?). In politics as well, discussion of climate change was required. The subject had been raised in every presidential debate since 1988, and candidates accordingly treated the issue as a serious matter. Yessir, climate change was riding high.
Then came the deniers. Soon after George W. Bush was elected, fossil fuel and other business lobbies stated publicly that they were beginning a campaign to convince the public that global warming was a hoax. It was a bold ploy. At the time, public opinion was more or less settled on the subject and the science appeared incontrovertible. The strategy was simple: attack the science at every level in order to introduce doubt and seed the idea that “the matter was far from settled”. To this end, the fossil fuel industry funded the Heartland Institute, a cabal of denial and pseudo-science that held a shadow convention every year to discuss its own theories on climate change. Fox News aggressively pushed this agenda by ridiculing legitimate science and gleefully demonizing climate activists like Al Gore and Michael Mann. Big Oil hoped this campaign of vilification and manufactured doubt would confuse the public enough that they could score a few more years of record-breaking profits without interference.
It succeeded. In a time of economic turmoil, deniers were able to tap into conservative distaste for big government by portraying environmental regulation as a job-killing bureaucracy. This blitz produced a sharp drop in the percentage of conservatives and independents who believed in climate change (liberals were affected too, but to a lesser degree). Climate denial became a darling theme of the fledgling Tea Party movement, which framed the issue in religious terms and even went so far as to make it part of their official platform.
Around this time, a Cap and Trade bill was steaming forward in Congress. The public, influenced by the denier’s media blitz, came to see Cap and Trade as a job killer and an unwanted increase in the size of government. The ascendant Tea Party flexed its muscles by sending members to scream at congressional leaders who supported the bill. In the end the pressure was too great, and Cap and Trade was killed in the Senate. Since then, Americans have been happy to move on and forget. The science has never wavered, but wars and economic hardship have made us turn inward to focus on more tangible concerns.
People have frighteningly short memories, and so I lay all this out to show that things were not always the way they are now. Our attitudes are influenced by cultural background noise. The more something is talked about, the more real it becomes. Below are a couple of good videos that further elaborate on the push for climate denial and who’s behind it. The first is an interview with Noam Chomsky, who lays out an entire landscape of climate denial and the desire to peg it as a liberal hoax.
The real impetus for this post was a piece that PBS did last week on the merchants of climate doubt. It does an excellent job exploring the inner core of the denialist camp, showcasing the depth of their delusion and the fervency with which they attack reputable science on the subject.