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The Great Omission of Climate from the 2012 Election

Stephen Markley

11:42 AM CDT, October 24, 2012

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I just got done endorsing PBS’s “Frontline” a few weeks ago, and what do you know: they become basically the only media outlet to shed light on the connection between well-financed right-wing groups and the veritable disappearance of global warming from the national conversation.

This is the first presidential election since 1988 that the issue did not come up at a single debate, and for that all four of the moderators should be deeply ashamed. Mitt Romney doesn’t bring up global warming, and Barack Obama does so only sparingly.

In “Climate of Doubt” which aired two nights ago and can be viewed on-line, “Frontline” examines the disinformation campaign of groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Heartland Institute—an organization whose “International Conference on Climate Change” I attended in Chicago earlier this year.

“Frontline” builds its story around that conference (and yes, if you pause it just right, you can see me in the background during certain speeches making jack-off motions) and around interviews with the likes of James M. Taylor, who I also spoke to on-record.

The most remarkable thing is how well this campaign has worked. As the scientific consensus around global warming has strengthened and the warnings grow more dire, these groups have managed to make the issue toxic to politicians.

The key insight began in 1998 when Exxon-Mobil decided not to challenge the type of action the world should take to avert catastrophic warming, but to challenge the science underlying the consensus. After getting blowback, the money has moved into ethereal “black boxes” like DonorsTrust.org, which funds half of Americans for Prosperity’s operations. It exists only as a nondescript one-story office in Alexandria, Virginia, and a bizarrely unspecific website. All donations are anonymous, and if you’re a fossil fuel interest with deep pockets, you can use it to launder donations to anti-scientific propaganda groups.

And when I’m talking to people—smart people—I often hear the same factually incorrect, absurd, unthinking, thoroughly debunked talking points espoused by groups like AFP and Heartland:

That the Earth hasn’t warmed for a decade; that over 30,000 scientists signed a petition questioning global warming; that the current warming we’re seeing is just cyclical and nothing to worry about; that “climategate” unearthed a scientific conspiracy and the whole thing’s a lie.

I’ve heard all this repeated back to me with full credulity. The campaign’s effects have leaked into the mainstream media, which didn’t have the temerity to ask even one question to the presidential candidates in this year’s debates about what will be viewed by history as the most important issue of our time. It has rendered the subject apostasy in one of the two major political parties.

What has not leaked into the body politic, however, is the truth, which is that climate change is already sowing chaos around the globe, mostly in the form of extreme flooding events and drought. This year America’s heartland burned, corn and soy production fell off a cliff, and food prices around the world will soon rise even more. In other words, we’re already in the midst of the emergency.

Furthermore, something else that hasn’t penetrated the body politic: the only reason world oil production hasn’t peaked is not because of a sudden discovery of massive unknown reserves, as David Brooks suggested in a recent idiotic, excoriated-by-the-internet column, but because energy companies are pursuing “unconventional” resources like tar sands and oil shale. All of these produce far more greenhouse gasses than the storybook crude you picture bubbling out of the ground (the role of natural gas production is also a hugely complicated issue, so for now we’ll leave it at this: potentially poisoning vast swaths of people in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio might just turn out to be worth it!)

Therefore, even as we fret about potential consequences, we are accelerating climate change anyway. Now there are a lot of serious people, like MIT scientists for instance, who think we’re in for nothing short of near-apocalypse and rapid population contraction in the second half of this century. That’s 2050, when almost all of you reading this will still be alive.

But hey, I’m sure block-granting Medicaid and 20% across-the-board tax cuts will be fun too. Maybe I’ll take mine and invest in tar sands.