Climate Science, Energy Policy, and the Return of Conspiracy Theory Politics

By The Intersection | August 7, 2011 8:05 pm

By Jon Winsor

In 2008, the late conservative movement architect William F. Buckley wrote a Commentary article describing the now-famous problem he faced in getting Barry Goldwater nominated for president:

…It was embarrassing that the only political organization in town that dared suggest this radical proposal—the GOP’s nominating Goldwater for President—was the John Birch Society…

The society had been founded in 1958 by an earnest and capable entrepreneur named Robert Welch, a candy man [inventor of the Sugar Daddy –ed], who brought together little clusters of American conservatives, most of them businessmen. He demanded two undistracted days in exchange for his willingness to give his seminar on the Communist menace to the United States, which he believed was more thoroughgoing and far-reaching than anyone else in America could have conceived. His influence was near-hypnotic, and his ideas wild. He said Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and that the government of the United States was “under operational control of the Communist party.”

Goldwater might have been a harsh critic of Eisenhower (calling his policies a “dime store new deal”) but he never thought Eisenhower was anything like “an agent of the Communist conspiracy.”

The rest of the article describes how Buckley and Goldwater read the conspiracy theorists out of the movement. In 1962, Buckley, Goldwater, Russell Kirk, and PR professional Jay Hall met to discuss how they were going to move forward:

[Buckley pledged that] unless Welch himself disowned his operative fallacy, National Review would oppose any support for the society.

“How would you define the Birch fallacy?” Jay Hall asked.

“The fallacy,” I said, “is the assumption that you can infer subjective intention from objective consequence: we lost China to the Communists, therefore the President of the United States and the Secretary of State wished China to go to the Communists.”

“I like that,” Goldwater said.

What would Russell Kirk do? He was straightforward. “Me? I’ll just say, if anybody gets around to asking me, that the guy is loony and should be put away.”

So what would Russell Kirk, Buckley and Goldwater make of the now-powerful members of the movement today, claiming that there’s a nefarious conspiracy involving 98% of climate scientists? For example, Raymond S. Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at U. Mass. recounts talking to a prominent congressman now on the House committee on science, space and technology:

If climate scientists were indeed all working together to manipulate data and create a fictitious scenario of the future, that would require a truly remarkable feat of coordination, and a sense of common purpose. What could the motivation of this cohort be? The answer was given to me by Congressman James Sensenbrenner… This high-ranking Republican carefully explained that the Kyoto Protocol was a conspiracy by developing nations to cripple the US economy. Since these developing countries (apparently) could not compete on a level playing field with the US, they had devised the Kyoto treaty to tilt things in their direction, and climate scientists were complicit in this strategy. To those who subscribe to Sensenbrenner’s bizarre idea, it is only a small step further to frame the argument in patriotic terms. If you support Kyoto (or its goals) you must be anti-American, or at the very least a socialist. [my emphasis]

With Buckley’s fallacy in mind, how could you infer a conspiratorial, anti-American agenda based simply on the peer-reviewed findings of physical scientists?

And Sensenbrenner isn’t an isolated case. We’ve reported on Rick Santorum’s views on the subject. And “climategate” continues to be the go to subject for Republicans, even though all official investigations confirmed the integrity of the scientific work involved. Were the investigators “in on the conspiracy” too?

Since Michele Bachmann is polling in second place for the presidential nomination (as of today, between 4 and 14 points behind front runner Mitt Romney) it’s probably worth looking at her views as well. In 2008, Bachmann told an interviewer for the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow:

“This is their agenda—I know it’s hard to believe, it’s hard to fathom, but this is ‘Mission Accomplished’ for them,” she said of congressional Democrats. “They want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, [and] take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.”

It sounds like she might be talking about something specific. But what? According to Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy she’s drawing from a Tea Party faction organized around a 1992 non-binding UN treaty called “Agenda 21″ (not to be confused with Area 51):

To some conservatives, Agenda 21 became something far more nefarious—a gateway to a global government built on a radical doctrine of secular environmentalism.

As these conservatives saw it, the agreement paved the way for the entire planet to be controlled by a central bureaucracy: Humans would be cleared out of vast swaths of settled areas—like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for example—and instructed to live in “hobbit homes” in designated “human habitation zones” (two terms embraced by tea party activists). Public transportation would be the only kind of transportation, and governments would force contraception on their citizens to control the population level. A human life would be considered no more significant than, say, that of a manatee. “Sustainability,” the idea at the heart of the agreement, became a gateway to dystopia.

According to Media Matters, Glenn Beck also briefly took up the issue.  And this past May, Michele Bachmann gave an introductory message at a “Freedom in Action Conference“, where “some of the nation’s leading experts… connect[ed] the dots” on Agenda 21. The conference’s organizer, Tom Deweese advised activists to “Research, know your details; discover the NGO players in your community; identify who is victimized by the policies and recruit them to your fight; and then kill Agenda 21… Happy hunting.”

The Chad Mitchell Trio had a little song back in 1962 (the same year Buckley put his foot down on John Birch) which seems appropriate here:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservatives and Science

Comments (12)

  1. Incredulous

    The climate scientists fed the fears of conspiracy of their opponents by both their reluctance to open their data and a lot of bad public relation gaffs that were related. Creating a “unified front” for deniers gave the appearance of group action. Then, add fringe environmental groups with public relation issues of their own co-opting their message to promote their own goals. Having Al Gore as a poster child didn’t help.

    Tying an international policy through Kyoto and Cap and Trade also presents a large change in the economy of the world which can be seen as the “One World Order” that these groups are so afraid of since it does have a global nature that goes against nationalist leanings.

    All of these things happening at the same time created a fertile environment for conspiracy theories to grow. After that, it is hard to prove a negative.

  2. Somite

    Some of us prefer reality and stay within the boundaries of published research to understand the science. Just a suggestion.

  3. bad Jim

    Well done, Mr. Winsor.

    I remember those days. My congressman back then was the comically named James B. Utt who once claimed that “a large contingent of barefooted Africans” might be training in Georgia as part of a United Nations military exercise to take over the United States.

    The implausibility of such claims never seems to detract from their appeal, because they’re convincing at an emotional level. No matter how much we might point out that one side is backed by some of the wealthiest companies on the planet, the other side is accused of corruption because they’re threatening the foundations of our God-given way of life and our very masculinity: trucks and light bulbs.

  4. 1985

    As these conservatives saw it, the agreement paved the way for the entire planet to be controlled by a central bureaucracy: Humans would be cleared out of vast swaths of settled areas—like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for example—and instructed to live in “hobbit homes” in designated “human habitation zones” (two terms embraced by tea party activists). Public transportation would be the only kind of transportation, and governments would force contraception on their citizens to control the population level. A human life would be considered no more significant than, say, that of a manatee. “Sustainability,” the idea at the heart of the agreement, became a gateway to dystopia.

    The most tragic thing here is that many of the things that the conspiracy theorists so fear in such a clinically insane manner are absolutely necessary if anything resembling a sustainable society is to be established. The above is a perfect example – vast areas of wilderness indeed have to be left untouched, personal transport indeed has to be abandoned completely and substituted with public transportation, excessive and unnecessary consumption has to stop, and population indeed has to be drastically reduced and never let grow again. The alternative is BAU, a 100% certain civilizational collapse, and quite likely global nuclear war and extinction of the human species and most of life on the planet (the extinction of most of life can happen even without a nuclear war). But to the conservative minds the very idea of sustainability is an anathema because it goes against the very core of their religiously motivated view of the relation between man and nature, which I have talked about a lot and which is the reason why the strategy of avoiding any confrontation with religion is not only not working, but self-destructive. (and, on a fundamental level, is arises from an utter lack of understanding of human ecology, human nature and human culture that is not much different from those exhibited by the ultra right crazies).

    1. Incredulous Says:
    August 7th, 2011 at 8:46 pm
    Tying an international policy through Kyoto and Cap and Trade also presents a large change in the economy of the world which can be seen as the “One World Order” that these groups are so afraid of since it does have a global nature that goes against nationalist leanings.

    The reality is that there can never be any kind of sustainable society established on this planet if we keep ourselves divided into 200 states fighting each other (openly or not) for survival. If what happened in one country had no relevance to what happens in another, then it wouldn’t have been such a problem, but that’s not the case. The planet is an interconnected whole, when forests are cleared in Indonesia, coal is burned in China and cars driven in the US, it affects everyone else. Because local actions have global effects, decision making has to be global and not local.

    But most of us can’t understand it, because the same factors that cause all these problems in the first place keep us blind to the obvious implications and solutions (to the extent that solutions exist). The main problem we as humans face is intraspecies competition going out of control (against the background of complete absence of ecological literacy) and causing the demise of the species as a whole. The only solution is complete rethinking of what it means to be a human and what the goals of our existence are, but it will have to be an understanding shared between and fully adopted by all human beings, otherwise it isn’t going to ever work. That’s a very tall order. We are social animals, but not eusocial ones, and even eusocial species display intense between-group competition. It is an awful lot of education one has to do to stably overcome all the biological impulses that push us in the direction of ultimately self-destructive behavior.

    But as difficult as it is, we are absolutely never going to make any meaningful difference when we are not even discussing these things, which is absolutely impossible as long as people’s minds are focused on the economy, markets, jobs, GDP growth, politics, elections, God, religion, etc, and not on the things that actually matter>

  5. Incredulous

    #4 1985:

    “The reality is that there can never be any kind of sustainable society established on this planet if we keep ourselves divided into 200 states fighting each other (openly or not) for survival.”

    Possibly, but rampant nationalism and fundamentalist regimes will continue to fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. What do you suggest as an approach to counter them?

  6. 1985

    5. Incredulous Says:
    August 8th, 2011 at 9:22 am
    #4 1985:
    “The reality is that there can never be any kind of sustainable society established on this planet if we keep ourselves divided into 200 states fighting each other (openly or not) for survival.”
    Possibly, but rampant nationalism and fundamentalist regimes will continue to fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. What do you suggest as an approach to counter them?

    I suggest what I talked about in the following paragraph. Once you understand all those things, you can not be a rampant nationalist or fundamentalist. Which, because of the practical impossibility of getting billions of people, many of which can not even read, let alone being able to understand molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, from where they are right now to where they have to be in order to achieve that understanding, is in a way equivalent to nothing but that’s the only way.

  7. Incredulous

    #6 1985

    ” Once you understand all those things, you can not be a rampant nationalist or fundamentalist.”

    Well, good luck with that. So far it hasn’t seemed to work. So far, they just seem to come out more and more. Every time you get rid of one, a couple more pop in their place.

  8. Johnny

    Why do Climate Hawks find a conspiracy of Industry perfectly believable, but find a conspiracy of Scientists to be perfectly impossible? Confirmation bias?

  9. anon

    Jon,

    It’s amusing that you would frame your discussion in terms of a) Eisenhower being a victim of a conspiracy theory and b) it therefore, QED, ipso facto being impossible to consider climate science as potentially corrupted when of course, Eisenhower answered the entire question, and most likely long before your were born.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtIZBcWBcis

    In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

    Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

    It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

  10. anon

    Jon Winsor,

    How do I perceive the climate science conspiracy?

    It’s a hidden bias formed from the poor incentives built into the system regarding funding, publishing and career advancement. It is an electrical field across a gel of agar moving (separating) DNA even as the DNA fragments themselves do not know they are moving. It is a a Murphy’s Demon separating slow from fast moving particles. It is a self-constructing protein.

    It is the bias that double blind studies try to inhibit.

    I know many professors that love their homes, obtained after years of research and career advancement high in the Berkeley Hills overlooking San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Who knows how desire for full professorship, for tenure, for travel, for recognition, to head a department, to head a lab, to head a school, to make Dean, who knows what that might do, even unconsciously, to how a grant is proposed, rewarded, funded. Or how a paper is written, or peer reviewed.

    I find it truly bizarre that scientists that claim to understand Science, after learning how Science created the double blind study and why, can turn around and claim that Scientists are pure creatures and take offense at those that suggest these biases may exist.

  11. 1985

    8. Johnny Says:
    August 9th, 2011 at 12:54 am
    Why do Climate Hawks find a conspiracy of Industry perfectly believable, but find a conspiracy of Scientists to be perfectly impossible? Confirmation bias?

    Nobody is arguing for a conspiracy of Industry, it is not a conspiracy, simply a well organized and well-funded campaign to create fake controversy. The reason people talk about it is that it is not secret at all, you can trace the funding sources and those who work at Heartland, Cato and the other think tanks are quite open about their motivations and intentions. It’s not a conspiracy if it is not happening in secret, and it is not implausible if there is a clear mechanism by which it could happen

    On the other side, there is absolutely no evidence for a scientific conspiracy to trick the world into wrecking its economy by making it believe CO2 is disrupting the climate and it makes absolutely no sense anyway. First, it would be simply impossible for it to be kept in secret, second it is very difficult to imagine how it could have possibly been set up – that CO2 is a greenhouse gas has been known for more than a hundred years and that it can change the climate has been known for almost as long too. Did the conspiracy start back then, how is it that it has been kept secret for so long and how is it that scientists all over the world, including in places where scientists back in the days had very limited means of communication with the rest of the world such as the Soviet Union and China, with widely differing political views and ideologies have been part of it?

    It makes no sense, there is no evidence for it and we really shouldn’t be wasting our time with BS. But evaluating evidence and applying proper reasoning are not things the self-proclaimed skeptics are very good at or value much.

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