Climate Denialism Meets False Equivalence

by Neil H. Buchanan

[Note to Dorf on Law readers: Yes, we are aware that today is "Comey Day."  Before James Comey's star turn this morning, Professor Dorf posted a short piece in which he analyzed a few key elements of the story thus far.  I plan to write a full piece tomorrow morning (Friday the 9th) in which I'll analyze aspects of Comey's testimony and the response thereto.  Here, however, I offer a column that is not about Comey at all.  It is, however, devoted to the arguably important question of whether life on the planet will be permanently altered by conservative politicians' insistence on denying the evidence of human-induced climate change.]

Earlier this week, The New York Times published an excellent example of journalistic political analysis, "How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science", by Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton, the former of whom writes frequently about climate issues, while the latter is a political reporter.

Typically, when I write a column in response to a specific news item, I do so to spare readers the pain of reading the item for themselves.  (This is especially true when I write about the The Times's op-ed columnists, such as this column from last summer.)  Not today.  The Davenport-Lipton article is a truly good piece of reporting, deep and well researched, that advances our understanding of the politics driving a profoundly important issue.

The article's high quality, however, did not save it from being a prime example of the bane of modern political reporting: false equivalence.  Although The Times recently fired its public editor, who once flatly denied that false equivalence even exists, it appears that the newspaper is still driven by the ever-less-defensible idea that every article has to dole out blame to both Republicans and Democrats, no matter the underlying facts.

It was obvious what was afoot from the sub-headline accompanying the piece: "The [Republican] party’s fast journey from debating how to combat climate change to arguing against its existence is a story of big political money and Democratic hubris."  So the Democrats helped to bring this on themselves?  Color me skeptical.

I was initially willing to imagine that perhaps it was the headline writers who had added the blame-both-sides angle, but there it was in the fourth paragraph of the article, which reads in full:

"The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation."
I wondered what "extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric" would be ascribed to those just-as-bad-as-the-Republicans politicians who populate the Democratic Party.  The answer was even more ridiculous than I imagined.

Before I describe that negative aspect of Davenport and Lipton's article, however, I do want to emphasize how good it was in every other respect.  It provides an excellent and readable description of the Republicans' recent rush toward extremism regarding climate change, noting that as recently as 2008 the party's presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, had proudly run on a platform that included a cap-and-trade plan to combat global warming.

Unfortunately, the party has gone crazy in the intervening years.  The article quotes a Republican strategist who worked for Marco Rubio's doomed 2016 presidential campaign, saying that climate change has "become yet another of the long list of litmus test issues that determine whether or not you’re a good Republican."

Importantly, the article notes more than once that the scientific evidence supporting the existence of, and the damaging effects linked to, global warming have become even stronger since 2008.  The evidence is so overwhelming that even right-leaning governments in other industrialized countries have taken up the cause of fighting climate change.

The Koch brothers' role in driving the Republicans over the edge is the key to the story, and Davenport and Lipton describe not only how the Kochs financed the denialist industry but also how the anti-global-warming rhetoric that the Kochs were spreading made its way verbatim into Donald Trump's statements last week rejecting the Paris climate agreement.

Most importantly, the article supports the thesis in the title of Michael Dorf's recent column: "On Climate, Trump is a Mainstream Republican."  The Republican leadership is loaded with coal state types, especially Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (who decries the mythical "war on coal"), such that the few Republicans who are somewhat moderate on climate issues are "biding their time, until it once again becomes safe for Republicans to talk more forcefully about climate change."

I had not realized that there had actually been a Koch-backed effort to get Republicans to sign a "No Climate Tax" pledge in 2008.  According to Davenport and Lipton: "Its single sentence read: 'I will oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.'"

This effort, modeled on right-wing activists' anti-tax pledges that have become litmus tests for Republicans, was more obviously aimed at so-called carbon taxes, because there is no reason that cap-and-trade systems have to raise any government revenue at all.

Indeed, as the article points out, the cap-and-trade idea was a conservative proposal that emerged during the Reagan/Bush I era, relying on the supposed magic of market incentives to guide businesses to reduce pollution.

In this way, the climate change debate very much mirrors the health care debate, in which Democrats capitulated to Republicans' complaints about "big government solutions" by adopting a conservative proposal to expand health care coverage without creating a government-run system.

We all know how that effort has fared, and the climate change debate has followed the same sad path.  Now, it is not just carbon taxes but any climate-focused policies at all -- no matter how certifiably conservative or market-friendly -- that Republicans reject.  And the best way to reject a solution is to deny that there is a problem in the first place.

The Koch-funded universe is all over this story, of course, with think tanks having been created to sow doubt about climate change through brute repetition.  There was even a hacking incident (a portent of what would happen in last year's election) in 2009, in which an English university's report on climate change was leaked and a phrase lifted from it and taken out of context.

The larger picture was much less subtle, however, involving the now-familiar tactic of threatening lavish financial support for primary challengers from the right, such that the vast majority of Republicans had fallen into line by 2010 -- only two years after McCain's efforts to take global warming seriously.

I cannot emphasize enough how useful the Davenport and Lipton article is.  Although I have summarized it here in more detail than normal, there is still plenty in it that I have neither the time nor the need to lay out here.

Again, however, in an article that shows the brutal efficiency and dishonesty of the climate denialist movement-- to say nothing of its being a completely top-down political operation, funded by polluters and movement conservatives -- the question is how the authors were going to back up their teaser that the Democrats share the blame by having been guilty of "hubris."

And that answer is: Democrats took legal actions that were aimed to address climate change.  Coming out of the 2012 elections and especially the 2014 midterms (in which Republicans recaptured the majority in the U.S. Senate), President Obama decided to use his executive powers to do what he could do, given that the Republicans had vowed to blockade legislative action.

Why could it possibly be bad for Obama to have used his powers to address an issue that Americans overwhelmingly think is important to address?  He relied on "a rarely used provision in the Clean Air Act of 1970, which gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to issue regulations on carbon dioxide."

In other words, Obama followed the law.  He used the Clean Air Act's provisions to allow the EPA to create the Clean Power Plan (which Trump has unsurprisingly abandoned).  But this is apparently bad:
"To Republican (and some Democratic) critics, the Clean Power Plan exemplified everything they opposed about Mr. Obama: He seemed to them imperious, heavy-handed, pleasing to the elites on the East and West Coasts and in the capitals of Europe, but callous to the blue-collar workers of coal and oil country."
This supposedly pushed the few remaining Republicans into the denialist camp.  McCain, the supposed hero of the earlier era, is quoted from early 2016: "The president decided, at least in the last couple years if not more, to rule by edict."

This is fatuous.  It is not that Republicans turned against dealing with (or even acknowledging the existence of) climate change because Obama's EPA created the Clean Power Plan as an edict.  They did it because they had already decided to do the Kochs' bidding on climate issues.

The "Obama as dictator" meme was an all-purpose attack on the president to claim that everything he did was illegitimate.  Climate policies were only one of many such areas of policy.

Remember, Davenport and Lipton tell us that the Koch-led efforts had all been baked into the Republican DNA by 2012, if not 2010.  Yet Obama's supposed overreach happened after that.  At best, this is now a convenient excuse for the Republicans to hide behind.

It is true that the Clean Power Plan was never fully tested in the Supreme Court, which did block implementation of the plan during the litigation period.  But even if the plan had ultimately been deemed to exceed the president's authority under the Clean Air Act, the idea that it was Obama's hubristic overreach that somehow turned the Republicans into climate denialists is simply nonsense.

Well over eighty percent of the Davenport-Lipton article carefully explains how the right-wing infrastructure turned the Republican Party away from rationality when dealing with climate issues.  Yet to the casual reader who consumes the headline, sub-headline, and a few paragraphs, the message is clear: Both sides are to blame.

One would have thought that a major newspaper like The New York Times would have grown out of this by now.  Obviously not.  The truth is that the Republicans have gone insane, and it is not Barack Obama's fault.