What does climate change have to do with socialism?

Why We Wrote This

For many climate skeptics, climate change has little to do with science. One of the most vocal strains of opposition to mainstream climate science appears to be rooted in fears of socialism.

Alex Brandon/AP
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney (left) shakes hands with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler after Mr. Wheeler signed the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, June 19, 2019, in Washington.

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After years of denying or deflecting mainstream climate science, a growing number of GOP lawmakers – from Lindsey Graham to Matt Gaetz – have begun to break ranks. But one faction in the conservative movement continues to push against such calls. They maintain that the agenda for climate action is part of a socialist plot to undermine the American way of life.

“What they’re trying to do is to destroy our way of life and they’re succeeding,” one attendee at the Heartland Institute’s July conference in Washington, D.C., told attendees.

That the Heartland Institute calls itself a free-market think tank is telling: Climate denial in the U.S. is deeply rooted in an anti-government ideology that sees virtually all regulations, including curbs on carbon emissions, as leftist attacks on free enterprise. 

“Climate skepticism is deeply rooted in the foundational priors on the right,” says Jerry Taylor, president of the centrist Niskanen Center.

In his former role as director of energy and environmental policy at the Cato Institute, Mr. Taylor took the skeptics’ side, downplaying the risk of unchecked carbon emissions. He left after deciding that he was pushing “weak and misleading” science to buttress libertarian policies.

As public concern over global warming grows, more Republicans have begun to break ranks. After years of denying or deflecting mainstream climate science, GOP lawmakers are pivoting toward a belated acceptance of man-made warming and calling for bipartisan action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and boost investment in clean energy.

But one faction in the conservative movement continues to push against such calls with warnings that the agenda for climate action is part of a socialist plot to undermine the American way of life. 

“It’s a climate delusion. It’s a climate collusion,” James Taylor, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, told an audience of around 250 gathered at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for the institute’s 13th International Conference on Climate Change in late July.

Other speakers argued that any warming of the Earth is part of a natural cycle and not the result of human activity, as record heat swept through Europe, toppling records in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Chicago-based Heartland is part of a nesting group of right-wing organizations that for decades have sought to undermine public confidence in mainstream climate science. It publishes “climate realist” books and articles that find their way into Republican platforms and into the media, and has tried to push materials into schools.

That it calls itself a free-market think tank is telling: Climate denial in the U.S. is deeply rooted in an anti-government ideology that sees virtually all regulations, including curbs on carbon emissions, as leftist attacks on free enterprise. 

A socialist plot?

To such ideologues the Green New Deal proposed by Democrats in Congress is proof of their long-standing fear that a climate crisis is an excuse to re-engineer the U.S. economy as a top-down system. 

Jay Lehr, a groundwater hydrologist, assured the Heartland conference that carbon emissions had “zero effect” on planetary temperatures and oceanic levels. Accepting the 2019 Dauntless Purveyor of Climate Truth Award, he said capitalism was under assault. “What they’re trying to do is to destroy our way of life and they’re succeeding. We’ve got to stop them,” he said.  

Critics say this blending of fringe science and free-market fundamentalism is the handmaiden of fossil fuel producers seeking to protect their economic interests. Peer-reviewed studies have tracked how oil companies and major donors like the Koch Family Foundations influence the agenda of climate-skeptic organizations. 

But their agendas also express a particular worldview, says Jean-Daniel Collomb, a French academic who studies U.S. political thought. To U.S. libertarians, such as the Koch brothers, who own oil refineries and pipelines that would be affected by carbon pricing, opposition to climate regulations is both self-serving – and an ideological exigency. 

“They’re trying to salvage their profit margins but also to protect an approach to the economy that they favor,” says Mr. Collomb, a professor of American studies at Jean Moulin University in Lyon, France. To take climate change seriously would be to open the door to a “radical questioning of the way that you run your economy and the role of the government.” 

Moreover, “nobody likes to admit that they’re wrong,” says Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center in Washington, a centrist think tank. 

He should know: In his former role as director of energy and environmental policy at the Cato Institute he took the skeptics’ side, downplaying the risk of unchecked carbon emissions. He left Cato after 23 years in 2014 after deciding that he was pushing “weak and misleading” science to buttress libertarian policies. Now he favors carbon taxes and other market-based solutions.

“Climate skepticism is deeply rooted in the foundational priors on the right,” he says. “If you accept the mainstream narrative about climate change it suggests a course of action that is anathema to people on the right.”  

Those people include James Taylor, the Heartland senior fellow, who is his brother. Jerry Taylor says he’s given up trying to persuade him to reconsider his views. “He’s a guy who is rewarded for being a gunslinger in this debate, and so was I,” he says. 

A uniquely American challenge

This ideological battle sets the United States apart from other countries where climate science is settled fact. In Europe, for example, several far-right parties like Alternative for Germany and the U.K. Independence Party are climate deniers, but none are in power. Britain’s Conservative-run government recently committed to zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

By contrast, climate deniers have a powerful ally in the White House. President Donald Trump, who disputes man-made warming and lauds coal and other fossil fuels, tapped a Heartland associate, Myron Ebell, to lead his transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Ebell told the conference that a “deep state” was thwarting President Trump’s climate agenda. 

“I don’t do partisan politics,” he said. “But I would say this. ... All six of the [Democratic] Senators running for president are sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution. Virtually all of them have said they believe in keeping [fossil fuels] in the ground.” 

Delegates heard a more supportive message from Tom McClintock, a Republican congressman from California. He conceded that “temperatures are gently rising” and “oceans are slowly rising” in a speech that disparaged Democrats as “Chicken Littles” for seeking curbs on fossil fuels, an industry that has funded his electoral campaigns.

For all the invective, some experts see an ongoing shift in the climate debate in which Heartland may be a lagging indicator of political and social change. 

A shifting tide

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which in 2009 claimed that carbon accumulation was beneficial for the planet, recently called for action on global warming, which it framed as a response to its members’ desire to seek “sensible solutions” to a reality that was affecting their businesses. 

Others making a similar pivot include Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster and strategist, who told a Senate committee last week that he regretted his past work to help to stall action on climate. In 2001, he advised Republicans to speak about climate change, not global warming, while also sowing doubt about the science that informed policy. Now he said the tide had turned. 

“Americans believe climate change is real, and that number goes up every single month,” he told the Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. 

While there’s a partisan divide on climate-related opinion, younger Republicans are more likely to echo the concerns expressed by most Democrats about man-made warming and to support bipartisan solutions. In April, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said that clean-energy policy could be a winner for Republicans. “If you want this party to grow – people from 18 to 35 believe in climate change whether you do or not,” he told an Earth Day event in Dallas. 

Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and staunch Trump ally, has also tried to put a conservative stamp on climate policy with his “Green Real Deal,” which he introduced in the U.S. Congress in April. More Republicans in Florida have begun to work across the aisle on climate change, an issue that has grown increasingly salient in their flooding-prone state. 

That demographic was largely absent from the Heartland conference, which drew a mix of retired scientists and engineers, conservative and libertarian activists, corporate lobbyists, and businesspeople. Attendees of previous conferences said this one was fairly modest compared to lavish multiday events held in New York and Las Vegas. 

A “gentler” form of denial?

Not all “climate realists” at Heartland reject man-made warming, though they hotly dispute the scale and the likely effects. Even those who grudgingly accepted warming, however, were quick to offer up political and economic reasons for the U.S. not to curb fossil fuels. 

“Their models don’t work. The world is not falling apart. The world is not coming to an end. That’s one argument,” says Steve Milloy, a lawyer and longtime consultant for tobacco and coal companies. 

“The other argument is the impracticality and the politics [of climate taxes]. Who wants to pay for all of this?” he asks.  

Expect more such lines of attack from groups like Heartland that are losing the public battle over global warming, says Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and author of several books on the climate-denial industry. 

“As climate change denial shifts from outright denial of the physical science to denial of the scale and magnitude of the threat, the need for action, and the viability of decarbonization of our economy, fossil fuel front organizations like the Heartland Institute too are evolving in their rhetoric toward the ‘kinder, gentler’ form of denial,” he says via email. 

This includes claims that warming will be beneficial for some regions and that, whatever the dire effects, it will be cheaper to adapt to a hot planet, or attempt to geoengineer the environment, than to decarbonize the world economy. Most economists, however, conclude the opposite: Mitigation is an insurance policy against a climatic disaster that can’t be unwound. 

Mr. Taylor, the Heartland fellow, says his organization will continue to contest mainstream science and argue there is room for doubt. Still, he adds, “if the scientific evidence changes I hope that we will be at the forefront of noting that.” 

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