Climate McCarthyism Part 4: The Headquarters in Washington

Over the last three years Joe Romm has won the trust of American liberals and greens through his apparently unvarnished take on climate science, technology, and policy. Everyone from Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman to grassroots activists with to green leaders like Al Gore have come to see Romm as someone they could rely on to give it to them straight.

But they confused Romm's confidence for courage, and his volume for veracity. For even though Romm has branded himself a renegade truthteller he has long been a Democratic Party insider. During the Clinton years he was a senior administrator at the Department of Energy. Today he acts as chief spokesperson for climate science and policy at the Center for American Progress, Washington's most powerful Democratic think tank.

And so when it came time for Romm to abruptly reverse his position on climate legislation, his change of heart was as predictable as it was inevitable.

Over the last three years Joe Romm has won the trust of American liberals and greens through his apparently unvarnished take on climate science, technology, and policy. Everyone from Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman to grassroots activists with to green leaders like Al Gore have come to see Romm as someone they could rely on to give it to them straight.

But they confused Romm's confidence for courage, and his volume for veracity. For even though Romm has branded himself a renegade truthteller he has long been a Democratic Party insider. During the Clinton years he was a senior administrator at the Department of Energy. Today he acts as chief spokesperson for climate science and policy at the Center for American Progress, Washington's most powerful Democratic think tank.

And so when it came time for Romm to abruptly reverse his position on climate legislation, his change of heart was as predictable as it was inevitable.

In our last post we saw that one of the forces behind Climate McCarthyism is growing hyper-partisanship. America today is more divided along partisan lines than it has been since the Civil War Reconstruction. Romm rose to power and influence by feeding red meat to the liberal and green base of the Democratic Party. In this post we see how ideological hyper-partisanship has been institutionalized at the Center for American Progress (CAP), Romm's employer.

Founded in 2003 by President Clinton's last chief of staff, John Podesta, the $29 million a year organization is not so much a think tank as a war room. While in the White House Podesta experienced first-hand the combined power that conservative think tanks like Heritage Foundation and right-wing media have over the public debate. Respected but staid liberal think tanks like Brookings were no match for the pugilistic posture of the New Right.

And so Podesta sought to create a more aggressive and partisan think tank in the mold of Heritage, which had famously delivered a thick briefing book of policy recommendations to Ronald Reagan before the President-elect took office and then engaged in ideological combat to defend it. And he has done precisely that. After the 2008 elections, Podesta oversaw President Obama's transition into office.

Like Heritage, CAP is more explicitly ideological than traditional Washington think tanks and invests substantially more money in media and marketing. It still produces reports and white papers to provide a substantive justification for the Democratic agenda, but the heart and soul of the operation are CAP's blogs. Their purpose is to wage ideological warfare with Republicans and enforce ideological discipline among Democrats.

In recent months, as Joe Romm has stepped up his attacks in defense of a climate proposal he once opposed, some commenters have openly wondered how it is that an ostensibly liberal think tank could countenance such behavior. But they miss the point of both Romm and CAP.

In denouncing a former senior editor of Audubon Magazine as a "trash journalist," framing non-skeptical scientists as "global warming deniers," and attempting to link independent academics to fossil-fuel interests, Romm has not gone off-the-reservation. Rather, he's doing precisely the job he was hired to do.

"That's His Talent"

Last January, the country's most influential environmental groups, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and World Resources Institute (WRI) released a draft framework that they had worked out with several big energy firms including coal giant, Duke Energy. The "Blueprint for Legislative Action" produced by the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) proposed allowing polluting firms to purchase carbon offsets -- alleged reductions in emissions elsewhere in the U.S. or in developing countries -- rather than reduce their own emissions.
Romm savaged the proposal:

No serious environmental group – no person or group serious about keeping total global warming as close as possible to 2 degrees Celsius, no one who endorses a target of 450 ppm or lower, should endorse a final climate bill with more than, say, five percent very high quality offsets allowed.

In the fall of 2008 Romm wrote a post saying that offsets were worse than mortgage-backed securities – the financial derivative products that helped lead to the 2008 financial collapse:

Q: What is the difference between carbon offsets and mortgage-backed securities?

He gave the answer in the first line of the post:


Romm went on:

Carbon offsets and mortgage-backed securities are quite similar in that is impossible for the vast majority of people, even experts, to know what value they have, if any ... Oftentimes they are almost worthless ... Indeed, at a large scale, offsets are probably worse than the securities, because even if the mortgages are underwater, you know the houses aren't valueless.

Romm wasn't just talking about offsets purchased by individuals to assuage their guilt when flying on Jet Blue, or by Hollywood for the Academy Awards. He was speaking specifically to climate policy.

At a policy level, offsets can destroy the environmental value of climate legislation.

Romm cited a Stanford study, which found that:

"Between a third and two thirds" of emission offsets under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) -- set up under the Kyoto treaty to encourage emissions reductions in developing nations -- do not represent actual emission cuts.

Romm started calling them "rip-offsets." They were, to Romm, so obviously a bad idea that he concluded that the USCAP "Blueprint" would soon be abandoned:

This proposal is a dead end -- and an even deader starting point. Shame on NRDC, EDF, and WRI for backing it. With this proposal, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership has officially made itself obsolete and irrelevant.

But it turned out that the USCAP "Blueprint" was neither obsolete nor irrelevant. In fact, it became the framework for the Waxman-Markey climate bill, released later that spring, and which passed the House in June. Yet even as late as the end of April Romm was still attacking the bill's offset provisions:

Certainly the weakest part of Waxman-Markey is the 2 billion rip-offsets that polluters are allowed to purchase each year in place of reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. After all, total U.S. GHGs in 2005 were about 7.2 billion tons.

Then, sometime between the end of April and the end of May, Romm abruptly reversed his position. He framed it as an evolution. "Yes, my thinking on rip-offsets has evolved" Romm began. Sensitive that his reversal had put his reputation at risk, Romm claims he changed his mind after "talking to leading experts."

Of course, nothing had changed about the inherently dubious nature of offsets. What changed was that Congressional Democrats in the House had reached an agreement on a climate bill that would allow enormous amounts of offsetting and the White House had gotten behind it.

Romm gives the real reason for reversing his stance in the second paragraph:

Since Waxman-Markey is the vehicle by which President Obama and Congressional Democrats have decided to pursue action on clean energy and global warming -- and since it will take all of our efforts just to ensure it is not substantially weakened by the time it reaches the president's desk -- I think progressives need to understand exactly what they are getting here.

Romm could hardly have stated his agenda more clearly. Democratic leaders had made their deal, and it was Romm's job to explain to progressives "what they are getting."

Readers who were suffering from whiplash needed to get over it. Criticisms of offsets were out. Attacks on the bill's critics were in. Those who hadn't reversed themselves like Romm had were just ignorant:

I've actually started to look closely at the international offsets market -- and at how Waxman-Markey would dramatically change the domestic rip-offset market -- something that the journalists and think tanks who have written critiques of the offset provisions do not appear to have done. And I've looked closely at the lowest cost clean energy strategies -- again, something the critics don't appear to have done.

And if they weren't ignorant, they were nefarious. Over the next several months Romm would spend much of his time attacking anyone -- Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, James Hansen, Roger Pielke, Jr., Breakthrough Institute -- for doing as little as pointing out what the bill would and would not require by law.

Once, after Pielke, Jr. drolly noted Romm's reversal, Romm wrote:

Yes, I know, it is quite rich that anybody with Pielke's history of intentional ambiguity and ferocious flip-flopping could possibly accuse anybody else of inconsistency.

In Part One we saw how Romm projects his own behaviors (e.g. "trashing" journalists) onto others. Here Romm projects his flip-flop onto Pielke and then adds:

Yes, his entire life is a lie. That's his talent.

Climate McCarthyism HQ

Romm is not an aberration but rather a manifestation of the modus operandi of his employer, the Center for American Progress. While it maintains all the trappings of a think tank, its communications are done in service of the established Democratic agenda, and its research is done in service of its communications. Climate Progress, like CAP's other blogs, plays the role of enforcing the Party line not only among other partisans but also reporters, policymakers, activists, academics and analysts.

CAP's other blogs work with Climate Progress to create an echo chamber effect. Consider the case of CAP's relentless attacks on New York Times environment writer, Andrew Revkin.

On February 24, 2009, the Times published a piece by Revkin titled, "In Climate Debate, Exaggeration is a Pitfall." In it he pointed to a recent column by the Washington Post's George Will and to recent statements by Al Gore, both of whom had taken new scientific findings about climate change and drawn exaggerated conclusions from them. Will had overstated the significance of freezing ice sheets to suggest a lack of consensus about whether global warming is happening. Gore claimedthat rising property damages from hurricanes are evidence that anthropogenic global warming is already having a financial toll, despite the absence of scientific evidence for such a conclusion.

Romm wrote:

Revkin's entire analysis is a complete vindication of the critique leading US journalist Eric Pooley wrote for Harvard: "The media's decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress."

In other words, reporters like Revkin should stop playing a "stenographer role" and start playing a partisan one. The problem with Revkin and the media, according to Romm, is that he was doing real reporting rather than making the case for the kind of climate policies that Democrats like Romm and cap and trade advocates like Pooley want.

Romm was immediately joined by another CAP blogger, Brad Johnson who writes for the heavily trafficked blog, "Wonk Room." Johnson, for his part, attacked Pielke, Jr., a leading climate disasters expert and Breakthrough Senior Fellow who had documented Gore's exaggerations on his blog:

Unfortunately, motivated by that belief, [Revkin] presented misleading, distorted attacks on political leaders that rely on the support of people like David Ropeik and Roger Pielke, Jr., both of whom have ties to corporate, right-wing America.

Johnson aimed to not-so-subtly discredit Pielke as a fossil-fuel funded right-wing global warming denier, even though Pielke is none of the above. Pielke thus emailed Johnson to demand a retraction:

You now know this is a lie. Will you fix it?

Johnson replied:

What's the lie?


Care to explain my "ties" to corporate, right wing America?


You've testified as a Republican witness. You've written an article for the Cato Institute.


OK, thanks. I have a few in-laws in Nebraska that generally vote Republican also wink

Just wanted to make sure I fully understand where you and the CAP are coming from. I think I do. Such standards of ideological purity are really amazing to see in practice. And here I thought that they only existed in fundamentalist camps in Utah . . .

But Johnson wouldn't let it go:

How much did Cato pay you?


One of my colleagues who I shared your comment with points out that Joe Romm wrote for Cato and participated in one of their events . . . but he probably doesn't have in-laws in middle America . . .

CAP's Johnson and Romm were deliberately attempting to use the fact that Pielke had published in a Cato magazine as evidence that he had ties to "corporate, right wing America" even as Romm accepted payment from the same libertarian think tank.

Romm's past attacks on Pielke were hardly innocent. Rather, they have always been part of a larger, organized effort by CAP to dismiss respected critics of climate policy like Pielke as industry-funded right-wing "global warming deniers." Johnson's contribution was to make it sound like Pielke was providing strategy advice to the Republican team when, in fact, Pielke was offering Congressional testimony that would be heard by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Il CAP de Tutti Capi

The two of us complained to CAP President John Podesta about Johnson's innuendos. We asked Podesta to correct Johnson's claims, acknowledge Pielke's expert qualifications, and focus CAP's criticisms on issues of substance, such as Pielke's Congressional testimony (which was critical of the Bush Administration), his articles, and his peer-reviewed research.

But rather than correct the post, CAP added to the misleading claims and threw in some guilt-by-association for good measure:

[Revkin] presented misleading, distorted attacks on political leaders that were backed by commentary from people like David Ropeik, a consultant to the Bush administration and top corporate polluters, and Roger Pielke, Jr., who has testified at the request of Republicans about the politicization of science, written for the Cato Institute, and whose attacks on climate scientists have been repeatedly cited by Marc Morano's right-wing climate denial machine.

When challenged by a commenter, Johnson replied with yet more guilt-by-association:

Furthermore, as I have linked, he has engaged with Sen. Inhofe's Marc Morano in the past. Mr. Pielke's critiques of liberals are often trumpeted by the corporate, right-wing media.

Here Johnson reveals that what he really objects to is Pielke's "critiques of liberals," even as Johnson attempts to frame Pielke -- a self-described Democrat and "Obamite" -- as a Republican with ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Then, in May, after we released a quantitative analysis of what Waxman-Markey would and would not require in terms of emissions reductions, Romm made the following claim about the two of us:

They are non-credible sources whose core arguments and analyses are indistinguishable from the anti-climate disinformation campaign driven by fossil fuel companies and conservative media, politicians and think tanks.

Interspersed among the ad hominems, Romm offered a series of transparently specious arguments against our analysis of Waxman-Markey -- none of which actually contradicted, much less "debunked" our analysis. In response, we wrote Podesta to request that he personally look into Romm's attack on our motives, and his persistent misrepresentation of our analyses and policy proposals:

Joe Romm has attacked us saying that we are "anti-climate-action," engaged in a "disinformation rampage," and that we should be considered "part of the anti-environmental movement." And yet he never actually debunks our analysis, which still stands. Romm's attacks are unfair and disrespectful and not becoming of the country's most influential think tank. I would like to request that you investigate this incident yourself.

Podesta responded by condoning Romm's actions:

I have to say that I find it a bit ironic that after making a living going after environmental leaders for the past half dozen years, your sensibilities were offended by the tone of Joe's post. I do agree that we should debate these issues on the merits. Joe has posted on the effects of domestic offsets and is working on his take on the international offset provisions in the bill which should be posted soon. Once up, we can get back to debating the substance of whether the the Waxman-Markey bill is a net plus.

In other words, we were just getting what was coming to us because we had criticized national environmental leaders for their policy agenda, their discourse and their strategy. Never mind that we had never questioned their motivations, nor implied that they were secretly on the take from fossil fuel interests or anyone else. Podesta's point was clear: we had criticized the home team and thus anything Romm threw at us was fair game.

Just so there could be no misunderstanding, we emailed Podesta again to point out the difference between "critiquing ideas, policy and strategy and challenging the motives of those with whom you disagree."

Romm has repeatedly claimed we are bent on delaying or preventing action to address climate change. He deliberately misrepresents our position, despite our numerous corrections, in an effort to smear our reputations. He bans from his blog the comments of those who challenge and correct him. And he allows and encourages from his readers further outrageous accusations aimed at undermining our credibility.

To be sure we knew where Podesta stood, we wrote:

Lacking some further clarification of your views on this matter I will assume that you have read and approve of his attacks.

It probably should go without saying that Podesta felt no need to clarify or qualify his endorsement of Romm's tactics. Nor did Podesta follow through on his promise to "get back to debating the substance." In fact, Romm's McCarthyism -- now blessed at the highest level of his organization -- would only became more vituperative and personal in the following months and his long promised analysis of international offsets never materialized.

The Future of Climate McCarthyism

It is said that the beast is most dangerous when it is injured, which might help explain the scorched earth campaigns being waged by CAP against liberal and green dissidents. Given its track record, CAP's use of McCarthyite tactics may only increase as climate legislation founders in Congress, climate negotiations stalemate in Copenhagen, and Democratic prospects in the mid-term elections dim in the face of what has been, to date, a jobless economic recovery.

Romm and his colleagues at CAP will remain on the look-out for scapegoats. Many of these scapegoats will be the usual suspects -- climate skeptics, fossil fuel companies, Republicans. They have, to date, helped distract liberal attention away from the failure of their apocalyptic rhetoric, pollution regulations, and carbon trading. But rest assured that Romm and his colleagues will extend the blame to countless others when it serves their purposes.

Indeed, the future of Climate McCarthyism may already be evident in Australia. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected promising swift and strong action to address climate change, but has had to back away from his campaign promises in the face of strong parliamentary opposition.

In a disturbing November 6 speech, Rudd recently blamed "global warming deniers" for the failure of his cap and trade climate policies, explicitly expanding his definition to include not only climate change skeptics but also those non-skeptics who favor strong action - just not cap and trade. Rudd lumped together those who favor national actions rather than a global treaty and those who do believe that emissions targets and carbon pricing will have much impact on global carbon emissions into the same category as fossil fuel interests paid to challenge the scientific consensus.

All, Rudd intoned, in language that could have been lifted verbatim from Romm's Climate Progress blog, "are prepared to destroy our children's future" and "are utterly contemptuous towards our children's interest in the future."

In the face of the political resistance by this motley crew of child-haters, Rudd announced that it was time to take the gloves off:

It's time to remove any polite veneer from this debate.

The irony of Rudd ripping "the polite veneer" off the debate with his critics was that his proposal was not substantively different from that of the opposition. Christine Milne, Deputy Leader of the Green Party and its chief parliamentary spokesperson on climate change observed that:

What does it say that, for all their fierce rhetorical battles, the actual policy prescriptions of the Rudd Government are barely different from those of the Howard government or the Turnbull Opposition?

In many ways, the CPRS is actually worse -- for instance the Shergold design would not have insulated transport from the scheme by offsetting the carbon price cent for cent with a cut in fuel excise as the Rudd plan does. And, for all the talk of climate scepticism, the Opposition has signed up for exactly the same targets that the Rudd Government has nominated.

Milne's media advisor described Rudd's speech as "one of the most extraordinary pieces of rhetorical hypocrisy this country has seen in recent years" and went on to note that the speech came "only days after he had been singled out by African negotiators at the Barcelona pre-Copenhagen talks as one of the leaders whose action does not match his political manifesto"

Such hypocrisy will sound familiar to many who follow the climate debate in the U.S. Romm's escalating attacks on critics of current Democratic cap and trade proposals in Congress are indicative of the fact that the emperor has no clothes. EPA and CBO analyses have consistently found that the offset provisions allowed in these proposals will result in little reduction from business as usual U.S. emissions levels through the next decade or longer and little if any deployment of clean energy alternatives.

Little surprise then, that Romm praised Rudd for making "the strongest case to date for using the strongest possible language to describe those who knowingly spread disinformation."

In the U.S., as in Australia, capping carbon emissions has made for better campaigning than governing. The less likely prospects for the passage of cap and trade legislation in the U.S. Senate become, the greater will be the temptation on the part of Democrats to attack their opponents for political gain.

The fact that rising Climate McCarthyism has increased as prospects for passing climate legislation worsen suggests that such tactics represent not so much a legislative strategy as a partisan political one. Given CAP's enormous influence with the White House, we can only hope that President Obama chooses not to follow Prime Minister Rudd's lead.