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!”

Las Vegas.
Looks like a drought, tastes like optimism.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Thinkstock and Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Las Vegas is parched. A 14-year drought has left Lake Mead, the local water source, dangerously low. It has dropped 100 feet in the past decade. If it drops 12 more feet, federal water rationing rules will kick in. Some climate scientists predict that will happen in the next year. And most believe the situation will only worsen over time.

The view from inside Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, however, is considerably rosier. That’s where scientists, activists, and bloggers have assembled this week for the Heartland Institute’s 9th International Conference on Climate Change, which I’ve been following via live stream. It’s the world’s largest gathering of “climate skeptics”—people who believe, for one reason or another, that the climate change crisis is overblown.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

It’s tempting to find irony in the spectacle of hundreds of climate change deniers staging their convention amid a drought of historic proportions. But, as the conference organizers are quick to tell you, they aren’t actually climate change deniers. The majority of this year’s speakers readily acknowledge that the climate is changing. Some­ will even concede that human emissions are playing a role. They just think the solutions are likely to be far worse than the problem.

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“I don’t think anybody in this room denies climate change,” the Heartland Institute’s James M. Taylor said in his opening remarks Monday. “We recognize it, but we’re looking more at the causes, and more importantly, the consequences.” Those consequences, Taylor and his colleagues are convinced, are unlikely to be catastrophic—and they might even turn out to be beneficial.

Don’t call them climate deniers. Call them climate optimists.

They aren’t an entirely new phenomenon. Fossil-fuel advocates have been touting the advantages of climate change since at least 1992, when the Western Fuels Association put out a pro­–global warming video called “The Greening of Planet Earth.” (It was a big hit with key figures in the George W. Bush administration.) Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, traces this line of thinking even further back, to a 1983 report in which physicist Bill Nierenberg argued that humans would have no trouble adapting to a warmer world.

As global warming became more politically polarized, however, coal lobbyists and their shills largely discarded the “global warming is good” approach in favor of questioning the science behind climate change models.  These days the liberal stereotype of the climate change denier sounds more like James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who dismisses “the global warming thing” as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” (He still appears to believe that.)

There are still a good number of Inhofe types at the Heartland Institute’s conferences. But the pendulum of conservative sentiment may be swinging away from such conspiracy theories. Over the past few years, a concerted campaign by climate scientists and environmentalists, backed by mountains of evidence, has largely succeeded in branding climate change denial as “anti-science” and pushing it to the margins of public discourse. Leading news outlets no longer feel compelled to “balance” every climate change story with quotes from cranks who don’t believe in it. Last month, the president of the United States mocked climate deniers as a “radical fringe” that might as well believe the moon is “made of cheese.”

The backlash to the anti-science movement has left Republican leaders unsure of their ground. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in New York magazine, their default response to climate change questions has become, “I’m not a scientist.”

It’s a clever stalling tactic, allowing the speaker to convey respect for science without accepting the scientific consensus. But it’s also a cop-out, and it seems unlikely either to appease the right-wing base or to persuade the majority of Americans who have no trouble believing that the climate is changing despite not being scientists themselves. At last count, 57 percent told Gallup they believe human activities are to blame for rising global temperatures. That’s up from a low of 50 percent in 2010.  

Eventually, then, top Republicans are going to need a stronger answer. And they might find it in the pro-science, anti-alarmist rhetoric exemplified by the climate optimists. Those include Richard Lindzen, the ex-MIT meteorology professor who spoke at the institute’s 2009 conference and is now a fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

In a 2012 New York Times profile, Lindzen affirmed that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and called those who dispute the point “nutty.” But he predicts that negative feedback loops in the atmosphere will counteract its warming effects. The climate, he insists, is less sensitive to human emissions than environmentalists fear.

Fellow climate scientists have found serious flaws in his work. Yet it retains currency at events such as the Heartland conference, where skeptics’ findings tend not to be subjected to much skepticism themselves. (While several of the speakers are in fact scientists, few are climate scientists, and their diverse academic backgrounds make it difficult for them to engage directly with one another’s research methods.)

And the idea that the Earth’s climate is too powerful a system for us puny humans to upset holds a certain folksy—not to mention religious—appeal. Still, the Heartland crowd is careful to frame its arguments in terms of science and skepticism rather than dogma.

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