Is Charles Koch a climate change denier? Charles Koch would say you’re asking the wrong question.
“Obviously, if the temperature continues to go up, at some point it can be harmful or even very harmful,” the billionaire Republican megadonor said during an interview last week on Freakonomics Radio. “But the question is, ‘What do we do about it, about whatever risk there is?’ And to me, the answer is innovation.”
“There are natural causes and then there are causes due to increase in greenhouse gases ― such as CO2, being the biggest one,” he added.
On the face of it, that admission may seem like a shift coming from a man who, with his brother David, bankrolled a conservative movement bent on hacking away environmental regulations and helped transform the GOP into the only major political party in the developed world to deny the overwhelming evidence of manmade global warming. But, to scientists, Koch remains a climate pariah who has learned how to temper his message for audiences who don’t buy into the view that industry players are somehow more credible than impartial researchers.
“It’s just no longer credible to deny out of hand that climate change is happening or even that it’s human-caused,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University and co-author of a new book on climate change denialism, told HuffPost on Monday. “So the forces of denial ― the special interests, the polluting interests ― have instead turned to a new talking point that they think they might be able to get away with.”
Freedom Partners, the Koch brothers’ political arm, did not respond to a request for comment.
The basics of scientists’ understanding of climate change can be communicated in five key points: It’s real, it’s caused by humans, it’s bad, the experts agree, and there’s still hope for fixing it, according to John Cook, a research assistant professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.
“When you look at all the climate denial arguments, they’re basically the flip of all that: It’s not real, it’s not us, it’s not bad, the experts disagree or the experts are unreliable, and there’s no hope, we can’t fix it,” Cook told HuffPost. “You expect them to be moving along that spectrum.”
Faced with the third-consecutive hottest year on record, historic deadly flooding, and increasingly abnormal weather, you might expect a strategic retreat of sorts, wherein people who once denied climate change outright now acknowledge its existence but cast doubt over its causes. That has happened to some extent. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Energy Secretary Rick Perry argue that climate change is real, but burning fossil fuels has little to no effect.
But that reasoning ― which sounds measured compared to outright denial of observable phenomena ― has been employed for years to undermine climate science, and does not represent an evolution on the issue. The spectrum of climate science denialism, that argument included, has not changed much over the past two decades, according to a 2015 U.K. study analyzing 16,000 documents from conservative think tanks.
“They’re doubling down on their science denial,” Cook said, citing the study. “The reason why is that what drives climate science denial is ideology, and that’s not changed.”
The philosophical belief that, left alone, the free market will produce industries and technologies to curb climate change before it becomes catastrophic is flawed. Economist Milton Friedman, the so-called patron saint of laissez faire capitalism who popularized the belief that corporations should pursue profit and shareholder value above all, argued there is little incentive to preserve the environment without some form of government intervention.
“You need a price on the emission of carbon if you’re going to level the playing field,” Mann said. “Even Milton Friedman understood the existence of market externalities, the fact that damage to our environment is not accounted for in the free market without placing some sort of price signal.”
“It’s one thing to be an ignorant fool, but it’s quite something else to allow one’s malicious ignorance to potentially threaten the entire planet.”
The most popular solution among economists is putting a tax on carbon emissions. In February, a group of Republican elder statesmen introduced a plan for a $40 carbon tax that would be returned to taxpayers in the form of a carbon dividend. A cadre of oil and gas giants, including Exxon Mobil Corp., endorsed the proposal earlier this month. But the proposition faces dim prospects of becoming law under the Trump administration, which has vowed to pump up the oil, gas and coal industries.
Booming U.S. oil production ― bolstered by advancements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology ― has helped keep oil prices low since they plummeted in mid-2014. The price per barrel now hovers just above $40. Without some incentive from policymakers to invest in zero-emissions energy such as wind, solar or hydropower, the world is likely to warm well past 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of the century. That temperature rise would drastically alter the climate, submerge coastal communities and could create up to 2 billion refugees.
“Both government policy and low-carbon technological innovations are going to be critical to keeping warming within 2C,” James Leaton, research director at the U.K.-based financial think tank Carbon Tracker, told HuffPost by email. “Obviously policy and technology interact and cannot be seen in isolation ― with policy stimulating technological deployment, and rapid roll-out reducing the future level of policy required. Both can impact the relative financial attractiveness of future energy options.”
That is, unless you’re a Koch brother, whose eponymous company, Koch Industries, earns much of its $115 billion annual revenue from pipelines, chemicals and oil refinement.
“These policies that the U.S. government has, others have proposed or promulgated, have been just symbolic,” Koch said in the interview. “We oppose all of these because they end up being cronyism. They end up helping certain wealthy people to the disadvantage of the less fortunate.”
Sometimes, the pot calls the kettle black. But in this case, the kettle is filled with a solution to clean up the greasy mess left behind by the pot. And the pot is a fossil fuel tycoon with a net worth roughly the size of Bulgaria’s gross domestic product.
“It’s one thing to be an ignorant fool, but it’s quite something else to allow one’s malicious ignorance to potentially threaten the entire planet,” Mann said. “That is what is so pernicious about [Koch’s] continued denial of the threat of climate change, and the extent to which they have been able to pollute our entire political discourse by using their political wealth to confuse the public and policymakers about the reality of this existential threat.”