Author: Ann Horwitz
There is no doubt that there exists a remarkably vocal faction of conservatives (both those who identify as Republican and those who do not) that believes fervently that climate change is a hoax, that there is no genuine evidence that the phenomenon is real, and that the scientific consensus surrounding the issue is bogus. “Conspiracy” is not too strong a word for what this group sees in the climate consensus: a concerted effort among big-government liberals, researchers in (inherently leftist) academia, the (inherently leftist) environmental movement, and the gatekeepers on the editorial boards of (inherently leftist) peer-reviewed journals to create an opportunity for the kind of liberty-crippling regulatory regime that Democrats love and Republicans abhor. This faction is real, it is passionate, and—despite what many cynical liberals might like to believe about amoral, nefarious business interests pulling the puppet strings—it is sincere. Again, though, the question is whether this faction is big enough to define conservative doctrine on one of the more pressing international issues of the day.
If one’s objective is to take the temperature (pun intended) of today’s conservative movement (which is not necessarily synonymous with the Republican Party), there is no better place to start than CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Held every year in late winter in the D.C. area, the conference is the biggest annual gathering of conservative grassroots activists, elected officials, political organizers, media personalities, celebrities, and representatives from right-wing non-profits, advocacy organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, etc. It is a proving ground for potential candidates for higher office, whose speeches and meet-and-greets at CPAC are the equivalent of auditions. Like any political convention, CPAC serves as a space for attendees to get together in the echo chamber of hotel break-out rooms to agree with each other. What I found at CPAC, though, at least with regard to the issue of climate change, wasn’t so simple.
2014 – What’s the Deal with Global Warming?
- Joe Bast, President and CEO of Heartland Institute (Moderator)
- Steve Milloy, Director of External Policy & Strategy, Murray Energy Corporation (and founder of junkscience.com)
- Marc Morano, Publisher, Climate Depot (and former Inhofe staffer)
- Dr. Marlo Lewis, Senior Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
- George Landrith, President, Frontiers of Freedom
- Shannon Smith, CEO, Abundant Power Group
2015 – Climate: What Tom Steyer Won’t Tell You
- Becky Norton Dunlop, Heritage Foundation (Moderator)
- Myron Ebell, Competitive Enterprise Institute
- Andrew Langer, Institute for Liberty
- Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX-17)
- Gary Broadbent, Murray Energy Corp.
The two panels were remarkably different in the tenor of the discussion. The 2014 panelists were far more likely to refer to the climate consensus as “junk science” or some variation on that theme. In general, those panelists were vociferous in denouncing liberals, environmentalists, and anyone else who buys into the belief that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity, and that it warrants policy intervention on the part of governments. The one exception in 2014 was Mr. Smith of Abundant Power. According to the company’s website, “Abundant Power was founded in 2009 on the basis that new ideas and solutions were needed to bring private capital into the clean energy economy. While government support of clean energy is necessary, as it was for oil, gas and nuclear at their infancies, only when private capital perceives opportunity, markets and products will clean energy become truly sustainable” (emphases theirs). This statement is as clear and concise an articulation as possible of an important strain within the conservative movement; namely, the belief that climate change is real, is at least partially anthropogenic, and should be addressed.
Where this camp diverges from the typical view of environmentalists is in its idea of who should be doing the addressing: it prefers more private sector involvement, and less government involvement. It argues that responding to the climate crisis presents an unprecedented and nearly boundless opportunity for entrepreneurial individuals and businesses to invest in ideas, to invent products, to market solutions, and to promote competition. Mr. Smith is far from being the only conservative with this view. In my research on conservative think tanks, I found that a substantial portion of their website content neither affirms nor denies the reality of climate change, but argues strenuously against government regulation. The Hoover Institution, though, went so far as to support California legislation to curb emissions, arguing that the measure would open up avenues for free-market environmental solutions.
While he is not alone among all conservatives, however, Mr. Smith was certainly alone on that panel. In 2015, though, I noticed an interesting shift. There was still plenty of railing against government, and Mr. Broadbent positively vilified President Obama for his administration’s disposition towards the coal industry. On the whole, though, denialism was not the order of the day. Only one panelist, Rep. Flores, actually used the term “junk science” (on a PowerPoint slide). A couple of others, notably Mr. Ebell (a favorite bête noire of climate change activists) and Ms. Dunlop, took a pretty hostile tone when discussing the consensus community’s evidence, but did not cry hoax. Even if Mr. Ebell, Ms. Dunlop, and the other panelists are denialists, it may be telling that they did not come right out and say so, even on the relatively safe ground of CPAC.
Indeed, the main thrust of the 2015 panel was not denialism, but the familiar conservative distaste for government oversight—particularly federal government oversight. While the 2014 panel reflected the common perception that conservatism and denialism are all but conjoined, the 2015 panel called that perception into question. My observations at CPAC and my findings on conservative think tanks are small drops in the bucket, but they complement the empirical work of the PSE’s Dr. Dana Fisher and Joseph Waggle (2013) and others, including Stanford’s Jon Krosnick, showing that the polarization on climate change has less to do with agreeing on its reality and more to do with disagreeing on how to address it.
As the country moves into the presidential primary season, the fault lines within conservatism on the issue of climate change (and all issues, for that matter) will be thrown into relief. Certainly, the faction of deniers within the movement is loud, and it votes. Therefore, a candidate who acknowledges the reality of climate change may be at a disadvantage in some of the more conservative Republican caucus/primary states (e.g., Iowa, South Carolina), but he or she would still have a path to the nomination. Of the two declared Republican candidates as of this writing—Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky—the former voted “no” on a Senate affirmation that climate change is real, and the latter voted “yes.” Paul was one of the big-draw speakers at CPAC in 2014, and “Stand with Rand” t-shirts, signs, and stickers were all over the place in 2015. That observation is not to say that the “Cruz Crew” didn’t have a decent showing of its own, but it does demonstrate that denialism is not a litmus test among the conservative faithful. For conservatives, being a “true believer” does not necessarily mean believing truly that climate change is not a problem.
Fisher, Dana R., Joseph Waggle, and Philip Leifeld. 2012. “Where Does Political Polarization Come From? Locating Polarization within the U.S. Climate Change Debate.” American Behavioral Scientist 57(1): 70-92.