Climate McCarthyism Part 2: Equate Your Political Opponents with Holocaust Deniers

Wikipedia defines a "global warming denier" as someone acting in "bad faith," which is to say, someone who takes money from a fossil fuel interest to deny the connection between human-induced carbon emissions and warming. By contrast, a "global warming skeptic" is someone who denies the connection between emissions and warming but has no financial interest. "Global warming denier" has long been viewed as a loaded term because it conjures an association with Holocaust deniers.

For the last two years, America's most-read and most-influential liberal climate blogger, Joe Romm of Center for American Progress, has used the term in radically different ways than the traditional definition. Romm has used it to describe people who are neither funded by fossil fuel interests nor skeptical of anthropogenic warming. In fact, as we will see, Romm often levels the charge against those who support strong policy action on climate change – just not the same policies Romm supports.

Consider Romm's April 2008 attack on an article in the leading British scientific journal Nature called "Dangerous Assumptions." The piece was written by three leading climate experts, Roger Pielke, Tom Wigley, and Chris Green, and argued that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had significantly underestimated the emissions reductions required to stabilize carbon emissions at levels to avoid dangerous levels of global warming.

The paper was favorably received by energy experts, and Nature signaled its importance with both an accompanying editorial and news analysis. Vaclav Smil said, "I largely agree, but I fear that the situation is even worse than the authors imply." NYU Professor Emeritus Marty Hoffert called the paper a "bombshell." And Carnegie's Christopher Field said, "Given recent trends, it is hard to see how, without a massive increase in investment, the requisite number of relevant technologies will be mature and available when we need them."

Joe Romm read the paper and proceeded to attack the integrity and motivations of the authors:

The usually thoughtful journal Nature has just published a pointless and misleading if not outright dangerous commentary by delayer-1000 du jour, Roger Pielke, Jr., along with Christopher Green, who, as we've seen, is another aspiring delayer.

Romm's strategy was to use guilt-by-association to frame Pielke, Jr. -- who, along with Green, is a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute -- as a global warming "delayer." Later Romm would drop this moniker and simply call Pielke a "global warming denier." For this strategy to work, he had to exclude mention of one of the authors, Tom Wigley, senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and one of the most cited authors in the IPCC. And Romm, along with his employer, the Center for American Progress, by far the largest and most influential liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., had to manufacture a relationship between Pielke, a Democrat and Obama supporter, and "corporate interests" and "the right-wing."

First, Romm used guilt-by-(word) association:

"It will be no surprise to learn the central point of their essay, ironically titled "Dangerous Assumptions" is "Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels," which is otherwise known as the technology trap or the standard "Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah" delayer message developed by Frank Luntz and perfected by Bush/Lomborg/Gingrich."

Read that carefully. Romm is saying that Pielke et al.'s "central point" is the "delayer message." In other words, he is claiming that the central point of the Nature article is neither that the IPCC should find a more transparent way of showing needed emissions reductions, nor that governments need policies to accelerate technology innovation, but rather that we should delay action.

There were other critics of the "dangerous assumptions" piece. Some quibbled that IPCC assumptions were reasonable at the time, but now need to be updated. Otherssaid that we have all the technology we need. But only Romm made the claim that the article was, in fact, arguing for delaying action and thus doing the same work as a Republican pollster and "Bush/Lomborg/Gingrich," itself a conflation of different views.

In this way Romm has been training his readers to associate even the most basic observations -- e.g., we lack sufficient low-cost, low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels -- with global warming deniers. Saying things that sound, at least to Romm and his followers, like what conservatives say, or saying something that conservatives agree with, makes you suspect at best, and a global warming denier at worst.

Inventing Associations Where None Exist

Having asserted that Pielke, Wigley, and Green are "delayers," Romm then accuses the authors of contradicting their alleged fellow travelers. Romm notes that "Dangerous Assumptions" is "a complete reversal from the conclusion of standard delayer analyses."

Five years ago the American Enterprise Institute "proved" that the lowest IPCC emissions projection is too high, and they backed up their conclusion with actual 1990s data, whereas Pielke, Wigley, and Green have "proven" that the highest IPCC emissions projection is too low, and they backed up their conclusion with actual data from this decade. [Bold and italics in the original]

The average reader might assume from the above paragraph that Romm was pointing to some well-established relationship between Pielke, Wigley, and Green and the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, but no relationship has ever existed. Neither Pielke nor his coauthors were involved with the AEI analysis in question. Nor had they ever argued that the IPCC overstated rather than understated the likely growth of carbon emissions. And yet, throughout the piece, Romm uses slight-of-hand to establish the semblance of an association. Here's Romm again:

For years, people like Pielke (I call them delayers, you can call them climate destroyers, or, if you like, "people who are very wrong") have been arguing that the IPCC's emissions models were too pessimistic. [Romm's emphasis]

Then Romm writes:

That's right, the climate deniers/delayers/destroyers have been saying that the IPCC was scaring people into unnecessary action by assuming emissions growth was higher than in fact it was. Yes, I know, if you actually read the Pielke et al piece, that seems hard to believe. They never bother pointing this out.

By this point, it is obvious to Romm's faithful readers that the authors must be trying to hide something -- a secret relationship to deniers and delayers! -- something that Romm appears to be revealing.

Finally, Romm concludes:

So tell me how Pielke et al. can utterly disprove this analysis (sort of) and come to the same exact conclusion that the IPCC has overstated the urgent need for action now?

The answer is obvious: because AEI analysis was never their analysis. Pielke and his colleagues never claimed that "the IPCC has overstated the urgent need for action now." But if you want to tar three authors as guilty of reaching the opposite conclusion than the one in their paper, you have to suggest that they are conspiring toward that same end.

Romm knows exactly what he is doing when he uses guilt-by-association to attack people he disagrees with. He knows that most reporters, policymakers, and activists are either too busy or too lazy to investigate complicated environmental, technological and economic issues like the ones discussed in "Dangerous Assumptions." Many have come to trust Romm and, as busy/lazy people, read only the beginning of Romm's 3,800-word attack on Pielke et al., which begins with Romm quoting and offering multiple self-referential links back to his own writings.

So when Romm attacked Pielke et al.'s Nature piece as the work of "delayers" and "climate destroyers," many if not most readers took him at his word. Today, Source Watch, a wiki-style directory of information about various media sources run by the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, includes a long entry on Pielke that ignores his substantial record of peer-reviewed publications, widely cited by the IPCC, that has established him as a leading authority on subjects as varied as the disaster loss record, climate adaptation, and decarbonization, offering instead a series of examples whereby Pielke has been cited by conservatives or climate skeptics. To its credit, the Center for Media and Democracy has put the entry on Pielke under review, but the episode demonstrates how quickly and widely Romm's smears and disinformation have been accepted as fact among many liberals and environmentalists.

For his part, Pielke -- an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado and a long-time advocate of both mitigation and adaptation -- aggressively defended his Nature piece and criticized Romm for misrepresenting the piece, attacking Pielke's motives, and using guilt-by-association tactics to discredit the analysis.

No matter, Romm continued to slander Pielke as a climate change denier on an almost weekly basis for the better part of two years. By July 2009, Romm was comparing Pielke to a famous murderer:

And yes, as cinephiles know, The Talented Mr. Pielke is a too-apt moniker for Roger, Jr.

Ripley, of course, is a man "with a talent to survive by doing whatever is required," which includes murder, lying, and pretending to be someone else. Yes, his entire life is a lie. That's his talent.