Guess who said this: “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways.” If you guessed George H.W. Bush in a Feb. 5, 1990 statement to the IPCC, you were correct. Alas, this welcomed rationality would not prevail for long. Two decades hence, the conservative movement in America saw a tragic turn of conviction on this issue borne of a mixture of political expediency and monetary incentive. What happened?
2009. 2009 was around the time that popular discussion of climate change devolved into a politically polarized circus act. The climate conference in Copenhagen was right around the corner, Obama announced his plan for cap-and-trade legislation, and we were right on the heels of “Climategate” (the scandal that wasn’t). If you were a working scientist hoping for renewed public trust in your enterprise and stronger commitment toward trimming fossil emissions, this was not a good year for you. And those hopes would become increasingly dashed in the years to come. There might even be a snowball tossed on the Senate floor, in February. (Yes, that actually happened.)
This sequence of events set the stage for more intensive “doubt campaigns” funded by coal and oil multinationals, who set up think tanks and front groups to distort public understanding of the science. After all, the big $ in this arena involves firms, industries and individuals worried that their economic interests will be harmed by policies to slow climate change. The longer and more effectively vested interests can sow doubt, the longer those interests can forestall the economic impacts of science-based policy. Monetarily motivated denial is front and center in all of the confusionist campaigns to date—from the dangers of smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and DDT to climate change—all of which is chillingly chronicled in Naomi Oreskes’ classic book Merchants of Doubt. Money and politics above scientific truth is a recurring theme of the American drama.
Vox has produced an excellent video charting this devolution within our political space. Do note the cast of politicians on the right who echoed sentiment synonymous with their counterparts on the left, and their volte-face in the Obama era. When McCain made it a keystone issue during his 2008 campaign, even Lady Gibberish herself—Sarah Palin—presented her home state of Alaska as being on the front lines of climate disruption. (That may have been the last time she was right about anything.) You’ll also see the likes of Giuliani, Gingrich and Boehner invoking climate change as a settled matter, leaving open the question of how to act. This was before they metamorphosed into card-carrying obfuscationists.
That’s right: before study of the climate politicized, sanity reigned, even among the Republican elite. Fast forward to today, where world-famous scientists Trump, Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck and O’Reilly all agree that climate change is an unevidenced hoax and whose crotchets have poisoned the political well, helping make cold-sober discussion on climate and basic pragmatism all but impossible. It’s not that all of these flip-floppers were sucked into the Denialist Machine and bought off. Some were just bandwagoners who followed political trends rather than the evidence.
But acting on climate change wasn’t always perceived as a left vs. right dichotomy; it was simply the right and sensible thing to do.