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Guest Blog: McCarthyism and Climate Change

Climate change denialists adopt bold new tactics; intimidation, cyber-bullying, break-ins and incidents of industrial espionage.
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By Clive Hamilton.

Is it strange that Sarah Palin, who once thought Africa was a country, now quotes verbatim from emails stolen from Britain's Climatic Research Unit or that Lord Monckton, a leading English climate denier, addresses a Tea Party rally in America?

Climate denial has outgrown the early lobbyist strategies of oil corporations and conservative think tanks. Since 1997, Republican rhetoric characteristically linked global warming to left-wing beliefs. But recently, tactics to discredit the opponents of climate change have expanded into efforts to intimidate them into silence as climate denial pitches itself to a right-wing, populist audience.

One symptom of this shift is the ongoing campaign of cyber-bullying directed at climate scientists themselves. Any climate scientist in the news now receives a torrent of aggressive and abusive emails. As Stanford's prominent climatologist Stephen Schneider says: "It's ugly death threat stuff; 'You belong in jail,' 'You should be executed.' [This] never happened... a year ago. [But] now it's off the charts."

The climate change deniers efforts to intimidate is not confined to verbal threats. Schneider reports that climatologist Ben Santer found a shredded animal on his doorstep late one night after someone rang his doorbell.

Targeting individuals at their residences is a strong indication that the intimidation campaign is determined and well-orchestrated. Internet sites like Climate Depot focus the efforts of an emerging army of aggressive bloggers. This reflects climate denial's jump from the world of think tanks into wider populist politics where the "global warming conspiracy" segues into a cauldron of right-wing grievances. Climate Depot is managed by a conservative activist -- Mark Marano -- famous for demanding that climate scientists be "publicly flogged." The site supplies a steady stream of anti-warming tirades from other conservative icons including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter.

But the vilification of climate scientists and others engaged in the climate debate is not confined to the blogosphere or to Fox News. Its most influential sources are mainstream organs like the Wall Street Journal and London's Daily Mail. Clearly, Rupert Murdoch's 2007 conversion from global warming skeptic to convinced believer has had very little impact on the editorial content of his newspapers which continue to conduct a global campaign to discredit climate change.

In February, the campaign against climate science took a sinister turn when Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe (R) demanded criminal investigations against 17 climate scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A document prepared by Inhofe's staff claims these scientists are guilty either of manipulating IPCC data or of obstructing its release.

Political accusations of criminality against leading scientists smacks of McCarthyism, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that Inhofe's colleague, Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin (McCarthy's home state), wrote to the IPCC demanding these scientists be blacklisted from all further work with the IPCC.

The populist shift has emboldened the organized arm of climate change denial. Last February, the South Dakota legislature passed a resolution calling for "balanced teaching of global warming in the public schools." In South Dakota, the type of resolution that has urged the teaching of creationism alongside evolution will now balance climate change science alongside the teaching of "a variety of climatological, meteorological [and] astrological" factors that affect the climate.

The bold new tactics of climate denialists now include an extensive campaign of black operations; break-ins into climate scientists' offices, incidents of industrial espionage directed against green groups, and attempts like that against Britain's CRU to infiltrate the computer system at the Canada's University of Victoria by people posing as technicians.

It seems very clear now that populist anger is encouraged by a network of conservative think tanks funded, in part, by Big Carbon. These links, which have been heavily documented, are close enough to provoke the Royal Society to take the unprecedented step of writing to Exxon Mobil asking the company to desist from funding anti-science groups.

The various arms of these climate change denial efforts are united by their loathing of environmentalism. Environmentalism is variously seen to be the enemy of individual freedom, an ideology of smug elites, an attack on the consumerist basis of capitalism, or the vanguard of world government.

For deniers, accepting climate science would mean admitting that unrestrained capitalism has jeopardized humanity's future. But this painful admission would mean more than that environmentalists were right all along, it would initiate a demand for comprehensive and urgent government intervention. This would be intolerable. It's easier to reject climate science and conduct business as usual even though it means humanity's future is "harsh, brutish and short."

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics, Australian National University and author of Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change.

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