It can feel good to make fun of climate deniers. So let’s take a little romp with one: Wolfgang Müller.
Here he is in a Dusseldorf hotel conference room, 100 people gathered to take a group photo before him. He’s distributing stemware and pouring champagne, at the 11th annual International Conference on Climate and Energy, a convening this past November of some of Europe’s pre-eminent denialist minds.
Given that this is Europe, it’s not a huge crowd. Müller and company fit the stereotype: cranks poking holes in scientific consensus, railing against the pointy-headed academics — often, though not in his case, with generous industry funding. This particular gathering is co-hosted by the European Institute for Climate and Energy, known as its German abbreviation EIKE; the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an American outfit; and a handful of smaller groups of self-identified climate skeptics.
It’s not hard to see why EIKE sits on the margins. In one presentation, a historical building preservationist argued that medieval building practices — castles with 2-foot-thick stone walls — were better suited to insulate heat than Germany’s apparently tyrannical energy efficiency standards, in a talk that included an extended, only half-joking anecdote involving sex and boar skins. A session on renewables pleads sympathy for wildlife; literature handed out by the presenter features a picture of a dead bird at the foot of a wind turbine. The sole caption, in German, asks: “Bird shredder?”
Billed as a “Contra-COP23,” it takes place about an hour’s train ride from COP23, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 23rd annual Conference of Parties talks in Bonn, where the world is vowing to redouble its efforts to combat climate change in spite of the spurning of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Back in Dusseldorf, it’s cause for celebration. For the camera, they toast: “To Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement!”
It is the patent impotence of Müller and his cohort that allows us to laugh at him. In the realm of international policymaking at the UNFCCC talks, he is far more than an hour from the main conversation, where climate change is universally acknowledged to exist, to be manmade, and to present one of humanity’s most pressing challenges — a fact that even right-wing heads of state rarely dispute.
Viewed close-up, the two sides and their competing conferences couldn’t look any less alike. Yet panning back and taking a longer and broader view — the one that actually matters to the health of the climate — the daylight between them shrinks.
Müller, at least, is honest about this denialism — even if he prefers the term “skeptic.”
Müller’s own scientific rationale may make no sense, but his conclusion is easy on the conscience: Relax, everything will be OK. Another version of that message is being marketed across COP23. As climate scientists call for a dramatic transformation of the world’s economy, a different set of deniers is starting to coalesce around something easier — plans to seemingly tackle climate change that may well still portend planetary catastrophe, even according to conservative climate projections. Unlike Müller, they’re at the center of the climate policymaking debate in Bonn. Like its predecessor events, exhibition halls at COP23 were dotted with stalls sponsored by fossil fuel companies proselytizing carbon capture and storage technology; international investment banks eager to discuss the central role of private finance in driving the new green revolution; industry-backed think tanks exploring the necessity of spraying particulates into the air to block out the sun. The solutions coming out of high-level talks don’t inspire much more confidence.
They peddle in a set of easy fixes: a market signal here, an industrial-grade aerosol there, and the crisis will be an artifact of history, with corporate shareholders better off for it.
If you believe that, then I have a clean coal plant to sell you.
America may well be the only country in the world where climate deniers making claims similar to Müller enjoy access to the reins of power. Given its status as the world’s largest economy and its second-largest polluter, that’s not something to be taken lightly; former EPA administrators estimate that the damage wrought by agency head Scott Pruitt in his first year could take three decades to repair. A few dozen miles from the EIKE confab, though — at a sprawling U.N. campus along the Rhine — was a preview for the kinds of climate politics that will dominate the 21st century once Trump and Pruitt are out of office. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they’re only marginally more in touch with scientific reality than our German revelers.
The relevant question isn’t whether the Earth is heating up, but what we intend to do about it. That’s a radically different conversation about climate change than the one that’s been had in America to this point. Here, decades of propaganda from the fossil fuel industry and the denialist think tanks they support have forced the debate to orbit around whether there’s a problem at all, prying open the Overton window to accommodate conspiracy theorists and Nobel Prize winners alike. That the two co-habitated for years on the same cable news panels put the climate debate on deniers’ terms, taking any discussion of reasonable, large-scale solutions — stringent regulation, massive public investment, an economy planned around reducing emissions — virtually off the table. In its place has come a parade of utopian techno-fixes and market-based solutions, dreamed up by the likes of Milton Friedman and now embraced by left and right alike. The same disinformation campaigners that created a debate over the reality of climate change have hedged their bets and staked a claim to solving a problem that they had tried to convince the world didn’t exist.
In late March, Royal Dutch Shell — Europe’s biggest oil company — released a pathway to meeting the low-bar commitment laid out in the Paris Agreement to cap warming at 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels; the actual text calls to cap it at “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. Still, the company’s decarbonization plan — to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 — is hugely ambitious. As Vox’s David Roberts notes, it’s also premised on two big fantasies: that fossil fuel production and consumption can continue at roughly similar levels for the next several decades, and that at some point between now and then we’ll figure out how to suck massive amount of carbon out from the atmosphere with so-called negative emissions technologies, which remain unproven at scale.
The kinds of wishful thinking baked into Shell’s decarbonization plan, though, are also the ones plaguing the research compiled by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, a clearinghouse for climate science from around the world where the “least-cost” pathways to decarbonization are also those anointed to keep warming below catastrophic levels. As climate modeler Glen Peters points out, the oil giant’s projections for fossil fuel consumption and negative emissions don’t differ wildly from those laid out in the IPCC’s model collection. Fittingly, then, the official account for UNFCCC tweeted a glowing review of the study.
With multinationals like Shell prepared to play hardball, the debate over what to do about climate change is much harder to win than the one over whether it’s happening. Major polluters are prepared to do just that and are already coming to the table at international climate talks with ready-made plans.
Müller’s own scientific rationale may make no sense, but his conclusion is easy on the conscience: Relax, everything will be OK. Another version of that message is being marketed across COP23.
Titans of industry are nothing if not materialists, ready to adapt when they sense a change in the political weather. That they’re now changing their tune on climate is also why the likes of EIKE are starting to seem more like living anachronisms on the world stage. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the vein of outright climate denial on display in Dusseldorf last November has long been a marginal force in Germany. That country’s state-led energiewende, or energy transition, has been lauded as a model for other industrialized countries looking to get off fossil fuels. It’s part of a larger plan for the country to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The tenor around warming is different in Germany, where even conservative political parties don’t tend to question either the existence of climate change or the fact that something needs to be done about it.
The conference attendees and organizers I spoke with were remarkably self-aware about their lack of influence. Müller, EIKE’s general secretary, said that the first year they held the conference, Greenpeace held a counterdemonstration outside the venue. “Now they don’t come, which is kind of disappointing because we would like the press attention.” Among EIKE’s biggest concerns is what they see as a blackout in the German media around climate skeptics’ points of view. “They act as if we don’t exist,” Müller lamented.
“It’s not so much a topic anymore,” EIKE President Holger Thuss admitted to The Intercept, noting steady, but by no means rising, attendance at his group’s annual conference.
The notable exception to Germany’s climate groupthink is Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, the upstart far-right party that captured 13 percent of the vote and German parliament seats in the country’s last general election. It’s now the country’s third-largest party overall.
“Carbon dioxide … is not a harmful substance but part and parcel of life,” the AfD manifesto asserts before laying out a handful of common denier talking points. “The IPCC and the German government,” the party contends, “conveniently omit the positive influence of CO2 on plant growth and world nutrition. The more CO2 there is in the air, the more plant growth will be.”
Such statements have injected the country’s true-believer skeptics with a glimmer of hope that their ideas could soon find more mainstream appeal, though even they admit that the AfD’s positions on climate and energy are incidental to their top-line talking points around immigration. The party shifted to become more openly xenophobic under the leadership of former chair Frauke Petry, and two of the party’s top leaders — parliamentarians Beatrix von Storch and Alice Weidel — could be charged with inciting hatred over tweets accusing Muslims and migrants of “barbaric” violent and sexual acts on New Year’s Eve.
“The AfD are the only ones willing to talk about it,” Thuss told me. “They have a climate and energy program we would support.” Müller took a similar stance, echoing what many of the other attendees I spoke with through the course of the conference said: “They believe what we believe and — this is critical — aren’t afraid to say it. I talk to people all the time who will whisper, ‘I believe what you believe,’ but are afraid to say it.”
Founded in 2013 by a handful of academic economists, the AfD rose to prominence and electoral success largely by filling the gap in right and center-right politics created by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ruling coalition’s drift leftward on issues such as immigration, LGBTQ rights, and climate change. While her Christian Democratic Party has traditionally provided a home for an older, traditionalist base, such conservatives have felt abandoned of late by their government’s commitment to welcoming refugees and expanding renewables, in part because of longstanding governing coalitions with parties to their left. In joining the AfD, such voters find themselves in the company of everyone from neo-Nazi skinheads to libertarians. “If you go to an AfD meeting,” Thuss told me, “it’s some ideologues and some liberals, but for the most part, their base is middle-class people: bakers or people with small factories.”
As such, the party is rife with internal division, and squabbles between leadership and among the rank and file are persistent. Thuss, who describes himself as center-right, is nervous about the AfD being infiltrated by “identitarians,” those expressing a xenophobic German nationalism. In his more moderate opinion, “It’s not as if we don’t want any refugees. We just don’t think everyone coming over with plastic bags should be on welfare.”
The AfD is hardly alone. Its ascendance has coincided with the newfound popularity of France’s Front National, the nationalist Austrian Freedom Party’s entry into government, Viktor Orbán’s Nazi-curious prime ministership in Hungary, Brexit in the U.K., and Trump’s election in the United States, not to mention resurgent far-right movements from Poland to Scandinavia. These parties don’t share anything like a uniform stance on climate change, other than the fact that it isn’t a central concern for any of them. If anything, they tend to fall to the left of the Trump administration on global warming. Front National head Marine Le Pen and Orbán, for instance, each condemned Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. “In Hungary, there is a consensus that climate change is real, that it is dangerous, and since it is a global phenomenon,” Orbán said in a radio appearance last summer, “it requires global action to combat it.”
In one direction, at least, the relationship between the deniers and the far right seems clear, with the former eager to glom onto latter’s rising star while their own fades. At the Dusseldorf conference, rumors about shake-ups in AfD leadership could be overheard at the breakfast table. Over lunch, I chatted with a Hungarian excited to bring fracking to his country, who boasted — truthfully or not — of talks with government officials. EIKE keynote speaker Lord Christopher Monckton — a former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher and spokesperson for UKIP — is now heading up a group in the U.K. called “Clexit”, which is pushing for that country’s exit from the Paris Agreement as a kind of follow-up to Brexit. Another keynote speaker, Marc Morano, made headlines at the prior year’s climate talks, COP22 in Morocco, for walking around the convention center in a “Make America Great Again” hat.
While Morano doesn’t have the ear of the Trump administration, plenty of people saying similar things certainly do. Climate skepticism in the EIKE mold is the ruling-party line, aped by congresspeople and the heads of key regulatory agencies. The director of CEI’s Center for Energy and Environment, Myron Ebell, was even tapped by Trump to head the transition effort at the Environmental Protection Agency. As Naomi Oreskes and Jane Meyer have each detailed, denier networks are well-funded both by the fossil fuel industry and the overlapping pool of funding housed throughout a bevy of conservative think tanks. The repeal of campaign contribution limits in 2010 was a boon for American deniers, opening the door for industry-backed groups to enjoy an unprecedented level of influence among elected officials. German deniers, by contrast, enjoy little, if any, industry backing. Remiss that EIKE couldn’t provide translation into languages other than English and German, Müller quipped that “the check from ExxonMobil keeps getting lost in the mail.”
American denier networks have found their biggest payload in the Trump administration, which is filling out everything from judgeships to senior EPA appointments with people virtually handpicked by the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society. Agency heads like the EPA’s Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke at the Department of the Interior have opened the door to extraction and peeled back regulations on mining and drilling at breakneck speed, fulfilling in a matter of months many of the priorities that industry groups have advocated for years. Beyond chiding Barack Obama’s supposed “war on coal,” Trump himself has been known to flirt with denialist talking points. During the recent cold snap on the East Coast, he tweeted, “We could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming,” echoing similar statements from years past.
And whether it’s Trump tweeting denialist missives or Pruitt downplaying the influence of carbon on atmospheric warming on TV, the response from green groups and the U.S. media tends to follow a similar script: fact-checking the statement in question against scientific reality, usually by wheeling out an expert or academic study.
The effect of pitting real science against junk science could be more pernicious over the long run: making it seem like climate change is a primarily scientific issue, rather than an economic, political, or moral one.
Germans have taken a different approach. Their climate debate may be better off for it.
Carel Carlowitz Mohn leads a project called Klimafakten, or Climate Facts. Started up in the wake of the collapse of U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen and the “climategate” scandal in 2009, its intention was to counter misinformation being spread by denialists with reliable information and specifically to stem any potential rise of denialism in mainland Europe at a point when such ideas were gaining traction. The website walks visitors through common climate skeptic talking points and rebuts them with an open-source database of facts. Then they changed course.
“Confronted with burgeoning research on the mechanics of climate communications,” Mohn told me via Skype, “we gradually came to a different understanding of the way people respond to climate-related messaging. People think there’s a void in human brains, and you fill in those brains with information, and the result is climate action. If you want a better model, you have to understand why facts in and of themselves don’t pay such a decisive role in people’s thoughts and aren’t leading directly to political action.”
In response, Klimafakten has since that time developed another arm that does trainings on climate communication for green groups and other organizers in German-speaking countries, and hopes to develop strategies for how to inform the public about climate change in a way that invites people to do something about it.
Mohn also notes that his group spends almost no time engaging with or refuting deniers, and any intelligence it does gather on groups like EIKE is secondhand. “We think it’s more important to reach out to and deal with the climate community, rather than deal with these fringe, extreme people. The climate denialist scene in Germany is very marginal. It has ties to all sorts of strange movements, but certainly doesn’t have much clout.”
Asked whether he was worried about the AfD bringing climate denial into parliament, he largely echoed — in a positive light — something that Thuss saw as a challenge. “It’s a shift from the past in the sense that we did not have any party represented in parliament which denied climate change. On the other hand, this part of their program is not the reason why people are voting for the AfD,” Mohn reasoned. “In practical terms, politically, it would not make any difference if they included this in their program or not.”
It’s no great intervention to say that the American media has given climate deniers too much airtime, creating a “scientific debate” where one hasn’t existed for several decades, at least. But the effect of pitting real science against junk science could be more pernicious over the long run: making it seem like climate change is a primarily scientific issue, rather than an economic, political, or moral one. At a time when populists are gaining power by skewering elites, pointing to a handful of academics and their graphs may not be an altogether compelling case for why ordinary people should take climate change seriously — especially if they happen to live in one of the communities that’s been pumped with millions of dollars in advertising about the job-creating wonders oil industry, let alone get their paycheck from it. It’s hard to blame anyone for being more swayed by the promise of a job than of accurate data.
In part because of just how toxic and skewed the climate debate has become, old-school denialism courses through the halls of the White House and is being used to justify all manner of disastrous policy. Ignoring the influence of climate change skepticism in America, then, would be harder than it is in Germany.
The issue now may not be disengaging with American deniers so much as making a more sober assessment of where EIKE-style conventional denialism fits into conservatives’ vision and policy agenda. Do Republicans and allied think tanks like the Heritage Foundation — now riding high in the White House — really plan to deny reality forever? And is confronting their lies with scientific truth a strategy for beating them in the long run?
Economic historian Philip Mirowski says no. He suspects that conventional denialism has been more of a useful distraction than anything for the right, and that greens and progressives devote entirely too much energy to responding to what he calls a “red herring.”
“I don’t think most of these people really believe in denialism,” Mirowski told me. “The left can feel all noble fighting them because they’re fighting ignorance. But I think denial is just a faint to absorb all that energy while they push forward the stuff they really believe.” He suggests that climate denial is, more than anything, a short-term strategy to buy time while industry-aligned lawmakers and think tanks work out a longer-term plan for carbon trading and pricing schemes and, ultimately, geo-engineering.
The approach isn’t uncommon. In 2014, Mirowski published a book, “Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste,” tracking the rise of neoliberalism and how its biggest ideas — the primacy of the market and the veiled but active role of the state — survived what should, by all accounts, have proven its death knell: the 2008 financial crisis.
Mirowski argues that what made neoliberal doctrines so resilient was a decadeslong project of institution and eventually state-building, training up sympathetic undergraduate students, for instance, and helping them get them placed into high-ranking Ph.D. programs, and academic and policy jobs, bit by bit expanding the bounds of what constitutes economic common sense.
Though it’s the water that economics departments and public policy debates swim in today, so-called free market ideas were a fringe minority when men like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek first started trying to spread their doctrine via the Mont Pelerin Society, a secretive group of economists, philosophers, and scientists. Drowned out by the Keynesian post-war consensus, Friedman, Hayek, and their collaborators began developing new ideas, working through internal ideological divisions and developing what would become a multifaceted, but more or less coherent worldview, to be unveiled on the world stage by, among others, the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K.
“One of the reasons that the neoliberals have come to triumph over all their ideological rivals in recent decades is that they have managed to venture beyond any simplistic notion of a single ‘fix’ for any given problem,” Mirowski writes, “but always strive instead to invent and deploy a broad spectrum of different policies,” argued for and rolled out by a revolving door of industry groups, think tanks, and lawmakers.
Neoliberals have always operated within a world of contradictions, arguing both that the market offers freedom and that it needs to be insulated from democracy; painting the market as a natural part of human existence, while pushing to pass policies that keep it functional. Sure, there are some dupes who truly believe in laissez-faire and the invisible hand, but the real movers and shakers have always been more pragmatic than dogmatic. By design, parsing actual beliefs out from convenient talking points can prove difficult.
Climate denial, Mirowski said, is no different. “If they really believed this stuff,” he asked, “then why would they have people doing anything else?”
Many of the leading think tanks that propagate climate denial emerged out of the MPS-rooted push for institutionalization. The CATO Institute, Heritage Foundation, and American Enterprise Institute have all at one point or another held strong ties to MPS members and accept vast sums of money from coal, oil, and gas industry to curry favor for pro-extraction policies.
Several of those same think tanks, however, also devote resources to drafting climate policy, including some — carbon taxes, carbon trading markets — championed by progressive Democrats. The AEI regularly publishes papers fleshing out plans for levying fees on pollution and has argued for geo-engineering for over a decade.
Politically savvy oil companies have done the same, to the point where most multinational petrol firms have all but abandoned denialism altogether at the international level. Exxon Mobil has for years factored some level of carbon pricing into its long-term projections and, in recent years, has been vocal about its support for such a policy, all the while serving as a major funder of climate denial. In the lead-up to the Paris climate talks in 2015 — the ones that resulted the Paris climate agreement — six oil majors called on the UNFCCC and world governments to adopt a carbon-pricing scheme.
“We firmly believe that carbon pricing will discourage high carbon options and reduce uncertainty that will help stimulate investments in the right low carbon technologies and the right resources at the right pace,” BG, BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil, and Total wrote in a joint letter. “We now need governments around the world to provide us with this framework and we believe our presence at the table will be helpful in designing an approach that will be both practical and deliverable.”
The American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the oil and gas industry, followed suit. In line with API-member oil and gas companies, the group’s president and CEO Jack Gerard in 2015 invited world leaders to develop a “market-driven blueprint that achieves emissions reductions without sacrificing jobs, economic growth, and energy production.” Since then, API has created a Climate Change Task Force.
Developments on this front appear to have gained steam of late. In addition to the Shell report, oil companies being sued for their contributions to sea-level rise by several California counties recently accepted the most up-to-date science on global warming. Even as it tries to get the case thrown out, Chevron will “anchor its presentation” on climate science in most recent assessment report of the IPCC, considered the gold-standard reference point for climate policymaking worldwide. Exxon recently held its first session with analysts dedicated to talking about climate change, in which the company reiterated its support for a global carbon tax set at $100 a ton and leaning heavily on negative emissions technology.
As the ground shifts around them, old-school deniers are getting left out in the cold. Also in 2015, the George C. Marshall Institute — a legacy denier think tank whose papers the George W. Bush’s administration used to justify more lax climate policies — folded into the Center for Strategic and International Studies when much of its fossil fuel industry funding dried up. “You can forget about asking money from Exxon; they send all their money to Stanford or to Princeton for greenwashing,” William Happer, former chair of the Marshall Institute’s board, told E&E News.
Mirowski suggests that climate denial is a short-term strategy to buy time while industry-aligned lawmakers and think tanks work out a longer-term plan for carbon trading and pricing schemes and, ultimately, geo-engineering.
“They never approached climate change with a single strategy” Mirowski told me. “It’s an integrated, multifaceted strategy. Denialism is just the cheap and dirty quick response.”
If carbon pricing and trading schemes really are part of neoliberals’ and the fossil fuel industry’s medium-term plan for addressing (or pretending to address) climate change, progressive lawmakers have been more than happy to play along. California Gov. Jerry Brown spent much of his time at COP23 championing his state’s freshly renewed cap-and-trade program — drafted in part by the state’s oil and gas lobby — as a model for state-level action in the Trump era. In Bonn, talk of market-based solutions on climate — unleashing private financing for renewables, letting the market whither away carbon-intensive coal plants, trading schemes — is ubiquitous, with a growing buzz around prospects for geo-engineering.
“That’s really old-fashioned neoclassical economics,” Mirowski said of carbon-pricing proposals. Indeed, similar ideas were floated by Milton Friedman, and even MPS member Ronald Coase — famous for his theory that property owners should be left to work out conflicts among themselves, sans government intervention — conceded that states should price pollution and other so-called negative externalities to correct for market failures. “If that’s all the left has got, they’ve lost,” Mirowski said.
The takeaway from all this isn’t that climate denial in the U.S. isn’t something to be worried about — especially in the next few years. Neoliberalism’s best trick, though, may not have been convincing a few useful idiots in high places that climate change isn’t a problem, but convincing both sides of the political spectrum that an all-powerful market is the best way to deal with the crisis it has created.
The irony in all this is that reasonable solutions to climate change lend themselves perfectly well to today’s populist times, and the kinds of redistributive policies that could help stem the rise of the far right in the Global North. Transforming the electric grid, fortifying coastlines against sea-level rise, and manufacturing solar panels could form the backbone of the biggest jobs program America has ever seen, and set millions of people up with well-paid, fulfilling work. Just 100 companies have been responsible over two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution, and the richest 10 percent of people worldwide account for more than half of emissions from lifestyle choices. On the left and the right, populism is built on pitting us against them; climate change makes those sides all too clear.
That people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Bloomberg are some of the most visible faces of the climate fight — offering their own support for piecemeal, market-based solutions — does little to confront the trope that only elites have the luxury of caring about climate change. Billionaires jet-setting around to U.N. climate talks and the World Economic Forum make it almost too easy for right-wingers to call out their hypocrisy: Why do they get to travel the world while asking us to give up our jobs, vacations, and hamburgers?
The problem with this new denialism, then, isn’t only the kinds of policies that Davos environmentalists are prescribing from on high in the Swiss Alps. It’s also about optics. Any climate politics so closely identified with the global elite in 2018 is dead on arrival. Piecemeal, market-based climate policies might win over the support of economics department and a handful of centrist Republicans, but they won’t either get the job done or inspire the support of any critical mass of the population. The scale of changes science demands requires doing something the neoliberals recognized as crucial early: taking state power, then using it to radically rethink the relationship between the state and the economy — in this case, toward building a more equal, low-carbon world.
With precious few years left to course-correct away from catastrophe, political theorist Fredric Jameson’s most famous quote has taken on a more literal meaning: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”