From Red Scare to Green Scare

How the conservative movement borrowed a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook to paint global environmentalism as the new communism.

Peter Jacques, the Rechnitz Family/Urban Coast Institute endowed chair in marine and environmental law and policy, is nearing completion of a 15-year research project on climate change denial that analyzes 108 climate change denial books published through 2010.

His work has already empirically shown that the rejection of anthropogenic (or, human-caused) global warming was politically organized—a social countermovement in which conservative think tanks played, and continue to play, a critical role.

Now, Jacques is digging into the root political reasons for their involvement. We talked to Jacques, whose research specialty is the politics of sustainability and global environmental change, about his work and its implications for the planet.

When did this climate change denial begin in earnest?

The conservative climate countermovement began in 1992 in opposition to the global environmentalism that was on display at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Earth Summit.

There was a fear that global environmentalism was the new “communism” taking over after the demise of the Soviet Union the year before. Leading conservatives from the United States attended the summit on a reconnaissance mission, as later revealed in an interview with conservative leader and former governor of Washington state Dixy Lee Ray. Ray said that she and political writer and founder of Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute Fred Smith were sent there by the Free Congress Committee, headed by Paul Weyrich.

Weyrich was the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation—later renamed American Opportunity—and the American Legislative Exchange Council. All of these conservative think tanks served, and continue to serve, as social countermovement organizations.

How did this countermovement go about attacking the idea of climate change?

We have known for a long time that the rejection of climate science is organized and ideological. In the early 2000s, there was still this sense of the public not knowing what climate science was really saying. There would be an article about a warming trend, and journalists would feel compelled to go find a contrarian— and this was normally found in conservative think tanks.

But those contrarians can be real scientists. The Cato Institute, for example, has a real climatologist working there, and people would see him say that this is all exaggerated, so don’t believe it. And a fair-minded citizen would be sitting there watching the news and thinking, “How am I supposed to tell the difference between these two messages?”

And for a long time, we’ve known the kinds of denial that exist: There’s rejection of the trend of warming, there’s rejection of the cause of warming, and then there’s a rejection of anything bad happening. But it’s political and has nothing to do with actual science.

So why oppose the science? Why not just have a policy debate about which approach to climate change is better?

Because the cigarette industry was so successful in creating front groups to criticize the science that was indicating passive smoke was still harmful, some of the same people that organized against cigarette science came over to climate change science.

Since that moment, they have been organizing and using the model from the cigarette industry to cast doubt on the science that would compel us to do something about global warming.

And that’s been working now for over 30 years, really starting with that 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatives, who had primarily been opposing communism and socialism, all of a sudden didn’t have a whole lot to do. So, they started to paint environmentalists and environmental scientists as watermelons: green on the outside but red on the inside.

What was the core reasoning for this climate change denialism? What exactly is this conservative social countermovement afraid of?

I really think it’s about a fear of change that’s coming because of global warming. Climate denial originates in and is mainly organized from the “Anglo” group of countries—the wealthy, English-speaking, primarily Protestant former British colonies with institutionalized white power like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

If you think about who’s been in charge of the economy for the last several hundred years, it is first the U.K. and then the U.S. So, that would also mean that there’s an awful lot of responsibility by those countries for a significant chunk of that warming.

These countries are experiencing deep anxiety about the persistence of their imperial privilege. The changes to the international social order commensurate with changing the energy base of industrialized countries—their industrial power—endanger the Anglo privileged identity. And of the industrialized countries, the Anglo countries have the most privilege to lose.

There are three different categories of climate policy: One is mitigation, or reducing greenhouse gases; two is adapting to things that happen regardless of how well you mitigate; and then loss and damage is this third category of bad things that happen that you cannot adapt to—and paying for that kind of damage essentially requires a blank check, so I think there’s worry about that kind of thing.

But how can climate change denialism exist when there’s so much evidence of a warming planet?

How would you know, for example, that there was a very concentrated consensus in climate science about the basics—the basics here being that the Earth is, on average, warming, and that this is driven primarily by human use of fossil fuels, and that is going to create dangerous changes?

The only way you would actually know that is to go into the halls of science, which, in reality, would mean attending events like climate science conferences or reading peer-reviewed journals that most people don’t have access to.

So, we can’t expect people to be able to discern which claim has more merit here. Which then means that we’re in the middle of a very deep democratic problem. Because if it’s not fair to have non-experts reading technical journals about complex problems on the weekend, then they have to simply trust and rely on other people representing the information such as journalists, academics, and elected officials; but in a polarized world it’s hard for them to know who to trust, so people rely on ideology to identify who it is they trust.

And this is where climate denial really shines. Because they’ll say, “We’ll tell you what’s going on—we have real climate scientists that can read this stuff for you.” And then a think tank like the Heartland Institute publishes a pamphlet that they send out to thousands of teachers. And if you’re a teacher who doesn’t have any background in that kind of thing, then having a free resource in plain language is pretty nice. The climate denial machinery is very well funded—although most of the money that is put into that machinery is dark money.

So how can we as a society overcome the denialism movement in order to carry out the changes needed to slow climate change?

I think the answer still lies in civil society. Obviously, conservative think tanks are part of civil society, but the beauty of the larger picture of civil society is this is where everybody can come together in public and make their case.

I don’t think the answer is simply in organizing voter registration or other, similar projects. I think it’s more about people coming together and understanding how we live, and the overall values that are more robust when we’re doing things like participating in our local bowling club, for instance.

Things like that are part of civil society even though they’re not political. But they build social capital, and social capital is a network of knowledge, trust, and reciprocity, and those things are very important.

It’s all very, very messy. There aren’t any kind of clean answers here about how to fix it. This is a long-term project.