April 27, 2013
In 1990, "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher, the conservative hero, scientist and former leader of Britain, called for swift action to combat climate change. She said scientists knew enough for governments to proceed with an "insurance policy" against catastrophe.
Eight days after Thatcher died on April 8, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said, "There is no science in global warming." What science there is, he said, "is not settled. Beside that, we all know that it's a hoax now."
On a chilly day in March, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, stood outside the Capitol, calling for more global warming and denouncing efforts to set a price on carbon as "recycled liberal policy that raises taxes and kills jobs." Also last month, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted on removing the word "climate" from a resolution celebrating International Women's Day.
How did the conservative movement travel so far, so fast? How did a party that prided itself on reason become a hotbed of scientific denial?
The transformation has paralyzed U.S. policymaking and squandered decades that could have been spent weaning the world from fossil fuels. Twenty-three years after Thatcher urged action, the United States has no policy on climate change, even as its effects are evident and the window for action is closing.
In this Dec. 16, 2009 file photo, steam and smoke rise from a coal burning power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. A United Nations report on rising greenhouse gas emissions reminded world governments Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 that their efforts to fight climate change are far from enough to meet their stated goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 F). (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
Conservative shift since '90s
In 1997, "there was no difference between the way Democrats and Republicans across America viewed the issue," said Ed Maibach, executive director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, a research center. Two out of 3 Democrats and 2 of 3 Republicans believed climate change was real and serious.
"Somewhere along the way, conservatism became, 'I've got a God-given right to drive my SUV wherever I want to go, and we'll send somebody else's kids to the Middle East to fight for it,' " said former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican who lost his 2010 primary election over global warming and now runs the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, where he is pushing for a price on carbon pollution.
A growing trove of scholarly studies and interviews with former Republican politicians and leaders of the denial camp show a concerted public relations campaign to cast doubt on climate science.
That campaign is funded by fossil-fuel interests, nursed by a network of think tanks and amplified by conservative media.
The think tanks rely on a tiny cadre of scientists who dispute mainstream climate science; some also questioned the science of tobacco, acid rain and ozone depletion.
Gore seen as too partisan
In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore, who narrowly lost the presidency to George W. Bush in the deeply polarizing 2000 election, handed the denier camp a political gift by becoming the pre-eminent spokesman for climate policy.
"Part of the problem was Al Gore," said retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a longtime, pro-environment chair of the House Science Committee. "It became very fashionable to be anti whatever Gore was for."
Some people fault Gore for not reaching out to sympathetic Republicans such as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. John Warner of Virginia.
"There were plenty of opportunities for Gore to do his advocacy in a more of a bipartisan manner with someone of stature," said David Jenkins, vice president of ConservAmerica, a group of pro-environment Republicans. "He chose to make it his own."
GOP abandons action
The 2008 financial crisis and recession further undermined public support for action. A Democratic effort to pass cumbersome cap-and-trade legislation laden with industry giveaways crashed spectacularly in 2010. A populist backlash, epitomized by the Tea Party, ensued.
Since then, Republican leaders who once embraced climate policy, including 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have run away from the topic.
Political scientists have shown that voters take their cues from such elites. Polling shows that conservative support for action against global warming disintegrated after 2008, with partisan sentiment diverging more sharply than on any other issue, including immigration.
But cracks are showing. Top Republican economists, who are former advisers to Republican presidents and presidential candidates, have begun calling for a revenue-neutral tax on carbon. They include Greg Mankiw; Glenn Hubbard; Art Laffer; Doug Holtz-Eakin and former Secretary of State and Treasury George Shultz, now at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who helped Reagan negotiate the Montreal Protocol.
Carbon tax proposal
Some experts suggest using a carbon tax to replace the payroll tax. Shultz calls for a carbon tax applied at the source, such as a coal mine or an oil well, and fully remitted back to consumers.
Such a "fee and dividend" approach would use market forces to level the competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Transparent and easily administered, the rebate to consumers could be substantial, holding potential populist appeal.
Conservative voter opinion is also shifting, Maibach said, possibly driven by extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy and the Midwestern drought.
The denial camp has responded in force to make a carbon tax "toxic" to Republican politicians, according to Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Ebell appears frequently in the media as leader of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a network of conservative groups that oppose action on climate change.
In an interview, he deftly reversed the charges made against the denial camp - that they are a small cabal of professional ideologues and disgruntled scientists whose work is not published in peer-reviewed journals.
Ebell said global temperatures have not risen for 15 years, a common claim produced by statistical sleight of hand.
Ebell mocked Shultz: "What in the hell does George Shultz know about the Arctic?" Ebell said, when told that Shultz said people who don't believe in climate science need only observe the melting of the Arctic Ocean. "He read some headline that said that the Arctic study that was initiated under Bill Clinton said so."
There are "hundreds and hundreds" of scientific papers denying human-induced climate change, Ebell said, but they can't be found in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature and Science because those publications have been "totally taken over