Global warming: More Americans believe ‘big lie’

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In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, can any rational person persist in denying that the earth is getting warmer? Yes, indeed.

Global warming skepticism is still alive and well, thanks to an effective campaign of public disinformation — one heavily financed by oil, gas, electric utility and coal interests, and employing tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry.

On Oct. 23, Maine PBS aired a documentary, “Climate of Doubt,” which explored the history of this campaign. The program, which can still be viewed on the PBS Maine Frontline website, is supplemented by an informative chronology, “Timeline: The Politics of Climate Change.”

Climate scientists have been warning for more than two decades that global warming is accelerating as a result of human activity, primarily from burning of fossil fuels; and contributing to extreme weather patterns, including longer droughts, more violent storms, rising sea levels and bigger coastal surges. Sandy and the drought that gripped the southern and western United States this summer should be exhibits “A” and “B” to that prediction.

Yet climate change alarm bells have not been sounding recently, the public has not been clamoring for action and Congress is obligingly not acting. Why? Because of the orchestrated propaganda campaign that has created a “Climate of Doubt.” You don’t have to go far to see it in action. It’s happening right here in Maine.

When the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC deluged Maine with television advertising portraying Independent Senate candidate and former two-term Maine Gov. Angus King as a tax-and-spend liberal, it came as no surprise. The GOP routinely uses that cliche to describe any candidate to the left of Paul Ryan.

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But GOP ads went further. They tried to disparage King’s actions during his short career as a wind-energy entrepreneur.

The television spots, in effect, accused King of crony capitalism — of developing a state program favoring wind energy while governor (the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard or “RPS”), then exploiting his political connections after leaving office to gain a “sketchy” federal loan guarantee for an Oxford County wind farm development in which he held a stake.

The ads conveniently ignored the fact that the wind farm has proven successful, is paying its loan back and would likely have qualified for the loan guarantee even without King’s involvement. Also ignored was the fact that King himself had been a longtime advocate of alternative energy before becoming governor.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage jumped on the same bandwagon last month, criticizing King for profiting from RPS and citing studies predicting that RPS, by requiring part of the state’s electricity to be generated through renewable sources like wind and solar, would increase electricity costs by $145 million and cost the state more than 1,000 jobs. 

The GOP ads and LePage’s remarks have barely dented the popularity of King’s senatorial candidacy, but they have certainly demonstrated how successfully the anti-climate science campaign has tarnished the luster of alternative energy, damaging its credibility and bringing its public image down to the level of, say, a Zumba studio. 

In essence, the campaign’s goals are to discredit climate science as well as any tax, subsidy or regulatory policy that threatens to level the playing field between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Like any effective propaganda, it has created an “alternate reality.”

At the center of the campaign is the “big lie,” one which goes something like this:

1. Global warming from human activity is either scientifically unproven or a hoax.

2. Government subsidies for renewables and taxes or regulations on fossil fuels will trigger substantially higher taxes, utility costs and unemployment.

3. Therefore, such measures will only burden taxpayers and consumers without affecting climate change. Q.E.D.

Climate change science has been attacked with a variety of stealth weapons,  including impugning the integrity of climate scientists (“Climategate”), forming bogus scientific organizations to challenge the underlying scientific theory (the “Oregon Petition” issued by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine) and freighting global warming predictions with an economic scare message (Tim Phillips’ “Hot Air” campaign slogan, “Global Warming Alarmism: Lost Jobs, Higher Taxes, Less Freedom”).

Is this “Bourne Identity” conspiracy stuff? Not really. The organizations that conduct this campaign, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity, are quite open about their identity, membership, methods and goals. What they are secretive about is their funding sources.

Money is funneled to them anonymously through low-profile nonprofits with names like Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. It’s a good bet, though, that contributors include the likes of the Koch brothers and members of the American Petroleum Institute, whose mines, wells, refineries and coal-fired utility plants have a lot riding financially on the campaign’s success.

Through an endless stream of conferences, papers and planted media stories, the global-warming naysayers have pushed their message. And they have been quite successful.

According to a 2009 Pew Research Center Poll, only 36 percent of Americans believe there is “solid evidence” the earth is warming because of human activity, down from 47 percent in 2008 and 41 percent in 2006. Only 57 percent believe there is solid evidence the earth is warming at all, a significant drop from 71 percent the previous year.

Those who have accepted the big lie as truth are fervent, unquestioning and unshakable in their belief. For many others, the campaign has simply taken the bloom off the rose of green energy, creating confusion and apathy about the issue.

The increasing influence of this propaganda campaign helps to explain why the 2012 presidential candidates have barely mentioned global warming as a campaign issue and why few incumbent congressmen or senators will even comment on the issue anymore, let alone sponsor or vote for bills that address it. Politically, global warming has become too hot to touch.

But nature, not special interests, will always have the last word. When the disastrous consequences of global warming become too painful to ignore, public opinion will turn again and elected officials will scramble to curb carbon emissions and promote alternative energies.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He is the author of “Lucifer’s Child,”a recently published book about the 1984 oven-death murder of Angela Palmer. Hemay be reached at epsteinelliott@yahoo.com.

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