Climate skeptics are gaining ground.
There’s always been a vocal subset of conservatives who cast doubt on climate science, but what were once fringe views among broader Republicans — like warming’s a hoax — are enjoying a growing acceptance in the GOP, worrying academics, scientists and sociologists.
“They have taken over the [U.S.] EPA,” Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University who has studied climate denier groups extensively, said in an email. “A very sad state of affairs.”
The groups sowing climate doubt are more emboldened than ever before, sociologists and historians said. Their effectiveness in the era of President Trump is a reflection of a deepening polarization in U.S. politics and a normalization of climate skepticism on the right, they said.
Democrats and Republicans have never been further apart on climate change, according to public opinion polling released last week by Gallup.
The results illuminate the anti-science sentiment within the GOP. The poll found that 82 percent of Democrats believe global warming has already begun compared with 34 percent of Republicans (Climatewire, March 28).
That rift has contributed to major differences between the Republican administrations of Trump and former President George W. Bush, said Riley Dunlap, an environmental sociologist at Oklahoma State University. Bush’s government internalized climate skeptics, but the groups scoring victories were largely silent when policies went their way. Now, however, those same organizations like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute boldly proclaim success — and then push even further.
“It’s like they sense victory. They are proclaiming victories, and they keep pushing,” Dunlap said. “This extreme radicalization of the Republican Party means they don’t have to hide it. They don’t have to dress it up like Bush 43 did. They can be in-your-face deniers.”
That’s materialized in recent weeks. EPA said it would no longer use science without publicly available data to craft regulations, honoring a long-sought industry goal (Climatewire, March 19). The agency also instructed employees to use skeptic talking points when describing its climate change research, according to a leaked memo obtained by HuffPost.
Organizations like the Heartland Institute had fought for the “secret science” initiative when it was introduced by House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). It never got through Congress. Opponents argued it would prohibit use of hallmark public health studies that rely on confidential patient data (Climatewire, March 26).
But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has invited those ideas into the building. He set Smith’s bill in motion within the agency. And climate skeptics were there to celebrate some of those victories, like when Pruitt banned scientists from serving on EPA’s independent advisory panel if they received agency funding. The move hollowed out years of expertise, critics say, and Pruitt installed a number of industry researchers in their place (Greenwire, Nov. 3, 2017).
That emboldened the far right.
“We’d love to have that debate with Obama and the left on the science because we’re going to win,” Heartland Institute President Tim Huelskamp said in a recent interview.
Less climate, more Russia
In some sense, using Democrats as a foil contributed to the rise of climate skeptics. They fought against President Obama’s climate policies for eight years. But it began even before then. “Traditionally, we get social movements because they’re not in power,” Dunlap said.
He explained that skeptics ramped up activity under President Clinton while the Kyoto Protocol was in play. That trajectory continued under Bush when former Vice President Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” elevated climate change in the cultural zeitgeist. Obama doubled down on that with actual policy initiatives — a failed push for cap-and-trade legislation, regulations to curb power plant emissions and playing a key role in the Paris climate accord.