Demons Under Every Rock

The Ever-Expanding Definition of Climate Denial

In his 1993 New Yorker story about recovered memory and “Satanic Ritual Abuse syndrome,” Lawrence Wright tells the story of Paul Ingram, a Pentecostal and Thurston County, Washington, sheriff’s deputy accused of ritually abusing his daughters in a Satanic cult that he had allegedly started with his poker buddies. Ingram had no memory initially of the events that were alleged to have happened. But he didn’t unambiguously deny them either. After hours of interrogation, and thanks both to leading questions from his interrogators and a shared Manichean worldview, Ingram begins to recover memories of the abuse. His daughters, too, begin uncovering new memories.

The tendrils of the conspiracy slowly seem to reach into all corners of the community, culminating with the girls announcing the interrogators themselves to be part of the cult that had abused them. As the case begins to unravel, a social psychologist from Berkeley is brought in to investigate what had gone wrong. The “false memories,” he concludes, had been manufactured through group pressure and persuasion, building an increasingly elaborate—and increasingly social—narrative far removed from the events on the ground.

This disturbing and memorable story has kept coming back to me the last few years, as a cadre of climate activists, ideologically motivated scholars, and sympathetic journalists have started labeling an ever-expanding circle of people they disagree with climate deniers.

Climate change, of course, is real and demons are not. But in the expanding use of the term “denier,” the view of the climate debate as a battle between pure good and pure evil, and the social dimensions of the narrative that has been constructed, some quarters of the climate movement have begun to seem similarly unhinged.

Not so long ago, the term denier was reserved for right-wing ideologues, many of them funded by fossil fuel companies, who claimed that global warming either wasn’t happening at all or wasn’t caused by humans. Then it was expanded to so-called “lukewarmists,” scientists and other analysts who believe that global warming is happening and is caused by humans, but either don’t believe it will prove terribly severe or believe that human societies will prove capable of adapting without catastrophic impacts.

As frustration grew after the failure of legislative efforts to cap US emissions in 2010, demons kept appearing wherever climate activists looked for them. In 2015, Bill McKibben argued in the New York Times that anyone who didn’t oppose the construction of the Keystone pipeline, without regard to any particular stated view about climate change, was a denier.

Then in December 2015, Harvard historian and climate activist Naomi Oreskes expanded the definition further. “There is also a new, strange form of denial that has appeared on the landscape of late,” Oreskes wrote in the Guardian, “one that says that renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs. Oddly, some of these voices include climate scientists, who insist that we must now turn to wholesale expansion of nuclear power.”

Oreskes took care not to mention the scientists in question, for that would have been awkward. They included Dr. James Hansen, who gave the first congressional testimony about the risks that climate change presented the world, and has been a leading voice for strong, immediate, and decisive global action to address climate change for almost three decades. The others—Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and Tom Wigley—are all highly decorated climate scientists with long and well-established histories of advocating for climate action. The four of them had travelled to the COP21 meeting in Paris that December to urge the negotiators and NGOs at the meeting to embrace nuclear energy as a technology that would be necessary to achieve deep reductions in global emissions.

So it was only a matter of time before my colleagues and I at the Breakthrough Institute would be tarred with the same brush. In a new article in the New Republic, reporter Emily Atkin insists that we are “lukewarmists.” She accuses us of engaging in a sleight of hand “where climate projections are lowballed; climate change impacts, damages, and costs are underestimated” and claims that we, like other deniers, argue “that climate change is real but not urgent, and therefore it’s useless to do anything to stop it.”

None of these claims are true. For over a decade, we’ve argued that climate change was real, carried the risk of catastrophic impacts, and merited strong global action to mitigate carbon emissions. We have supported a tax on carbon, the Paris Agreement, and the Clean Power Plan, although have been clear in our view that the benefits of these policies would be modest. We have supported substantial public investment in renewables, energy efficiency, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage.

Atkin’s story initially simply linked to our Wikipedia page. When I pointed this out to TNR executive editor Ryan Kearney and asked for a correction, he instead added further links that he claimed showed us to be “lukewarmists.” Of those, two were links to criticisms of our work on energy efficiency rebound. One is a link to two footnotes in a book by climate scientist Michael Mann, neither of which is material to the claim either. One links to a blog post that criticizes our view that An Inconvenient Truth contributed to the polarization of public opinion about climate change. The other makes the demonstrably false claim that the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation is our primary funder.1

These sorts of attacks, supported by multiple layers of links that never actually materially support the claims that are being made, used to be the domain of a small set of marginal activists and blogs. Atkin herself cut her teeth at Climate Progress, where her colleague Joe Romm has spent over a decade turning ad hominem into a form of toxic performance art.2

But today, these misrepresentations are served up in glossy, big-budget magazines. Climate denial has morphed, in the eyes of the climate movement, and their handmaidens in the media, into denial of green policy preferences, not climate science.

“The ‘moral argument’ for fossil fuels has collapsed. But renewables denial has not,” McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone last January. “It’s now at least as ugly and insidious as its twin sister, Climate Denial. The same men who insist that the physicists are wrong about global warming also insist that sun and wind can’t supply our energy needs anytime soon.”

“We can transition to a decarbonized economy,” Oreskes claimed in the Guardian, “by focusing on wind, water and solar, coupled with grid integration, energy efficiency and demand management.”

This newfangled climate speak is based on newfangled energy math. Oreskes and McKibben, like much of the larger environmental community, rely heavily these days on the work of Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor whose work purports to show that the world can be powered entirely with existing renewable energy technologies. Jacobson’s projections represent an extreme outlier. Even optimistic outfits, like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, conclude that even reaching 80% renewable energy would be very technically and economically difficult.

Advocates, of course, will be advocates. But the fact that those claims are now uncritically repeated by journalists at once-respectable publications like the New Republic speaks to how far our public discourse has fallen, and how illiberal it has become. Fake news and alternative facts are not the sole province of the right wing. Inserting links to unhinged bloggers 3 now passes for fact checking for a new generation of hyper-aggressive and hyper-partisan journalists. The righteous community of self-proclaimed climate hawks is now prepared to meet the opposition, exaggeration for exaggeration and outrage for outrage.

The continuing escalation of rhetoric by climate advocates, meanwhile, is unlikely to do much to solve climate change. After eight years of excoriating hard-fought efforts to make headway on the issue by President Obama and candidate Clinton (McKibben in recent years labeled both deniers), we can thank provocateurs like McKibben and Oreskes for helping to put an actual climate denier in the White House.

More broadly, the expansion of the use of denier by both activists and journalists in the climate debate, a word once reserved only for Holocaust denial, mirrors a contemporary political moment in which all opposing viewpoints, whether in the eyes of the alt-right or the climate left, are increasingly viewed as illegitimate. The norms that once assured that our free press would also be a fair press have deeply eroded. Balanced reporting and fair attribution have become road kill in a world where all the incentives for both reporters and their editors are to serve up red meat for their highly segmented and polarized readerships, a dynamic that both reflects and feeds the broader polarization in our polity. It is a development that does not bode well for pluralism or democracy.

[1] In 2014, we received a single small grant from Mitchell Foundation to organize a workshop with innovation scholars, DOE scientists, and some of the surviving engineers from Mitchell Energy and some of the other firms that pioneered hydraulic fracturing to better understand the role that the federal government played in fostering the innovations that led to the shale revolution and what lessons that history might hold for public efforts today to support clean energy innovation.

[2] Even Romm didn't have the temerity to use the term to describe those who accepted the scientific consensus on global warming.

[3] In this case, journalist Keith Kloor details a long-term and coordinated effort to discredit his work.