Climate Change Deniers Are Rebranding as Climate Optimists

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July 9 2014 5:46 PM

The Climate Optimists

Conservatives have a new line on climate change: “It’s real, but it’s nothing to worry about!”

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The climate-optimist cause has been aided immeasurably by a recent slowdown in the rise of the Earth’s average surface temperatures. There are several potential explanations for the apparent “pause,” and most climate scientists anticipate that it will be short-lived. But it has been a godsend for those looking for holes in the prevailing models of catastrophic future warming.

“Skeptics believe what they see,” said Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast. “They look at the data and see no warming for 17 years, no increase in storms, no increase in the rate of sea-level rise, no new extinctions attributable to climate change—in short, no climate crisis.”

Meanwhile, the optimists point out, more carbon in the atmosphere means greater plant productivity and new opportunities for agriculture. In fact, Heartland communications director Jim Lakely told me in a phone interview, “The net benefits of warming are going to far outweigh any negative effects.” Indeed, the institute recently published a study arguing just that.

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The climate-optimist credo aligns neatly with public-opinion polls that show most Americans believe climate change is real and humans are causing it—they just don’t view it as a top priority compared with more tangible problems like health care costs. You can imagine how eager they are to be reassured that their complacency won’t be punished.

Again, not everyone at the Heartland conference is a climate optimist. Many are still focused on disputing the basic link between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures. As I watched the conference, it became clear that some have little trouble flipping between the two viewpoints. “This is what they always do,” Oreskes told me in an email. “As the debate shifts, they shift.”

That makes it easy for liberals to dismiss self-professed climate skeptics as industry shills in scientists’ clothing, especially since many of them, like the Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, do in fact receive funding from the fossil-fuel industry. For their part, the Heartland academics tend to view most mainstream climate scientists as conflicted by their reliance on government grants.

In fact, it’s not unreasonable to see the climate fight as part of a much broader ideological war in American society, says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The debate over causes is often a proxy for a debate over solutions, which are likely to require global cooperation and government intervention in people’s lives. Leiserowitz’s research shows that climate deniers tend to be committed to values like individualism and small government while those most concerned about climate change are more likely to hold egalitarian and community-oriented political views.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the evidence on both sides is equal. There’s a reason the climate deniers are losing the scientific debate, and it isn’t because academia is better funded than the energy industry. All of which helps to explain how climate optimism might be a more appealing approach these days than climate denial. Models of how climate change will impact society and the economy are subject to far more uncertainty than the science that links greenhouse gas emissions to the 20th-century warming trend. The costs of mitigating those emissions are more readily grasped: higher energy bills, government spending on alternative energy projects, lost jobs at coal plants.  

There are, however, a few pitfalls for conservatives who would embrace climate optimism as an alternative to climate change denial. Touting the recent slowdown in global average surface temperatures, for example, implies that such temperatures do in fact tell us a lot about the health of the climate. That will become an awkward stance in a hurry if the temperatures soon resume their climb.

More broadly, shifting the climate change debate from causes to outcomes will put the “skeptics” in the Panglossian position of continually downplaying the costs of extreme weather events—like, say, the Las Vegas drought—even as their constituents are suffering from them. In the Heartland conference’s opening keynote speech, meteorologist Joe Bastardi scoffed at the devastating wildfires that have swept across the Southwest far earlier than usual this season. “We had the wildfires in San Diego, right?” he said in a derisive tone. “I think it destroyed 80 houses, 90 houses. They had a wildfire back in October 2007 that took out 1,500 houses. … When people tell me things are worse now, I say, ‘You can’t be looking at what has happened before.’ ”

It’s one thing to tell people global warming isn’t the source of their misery. It’s a lot harder to look them in the eye and tell them their problems aren’t that bad—especially if you’re relying on them to vote you into public office.

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