A dialogue of the deaf with US climate sceptics


The Heritage Foundation persists in claiming everything we are told about global warming is not true, writes FRANK McDONALD

IT WAS up close and personal, the confrontation we had last week at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think-tank in Washington – 12 European environmental journalists facing four of its policy wonks, all of them working assiduously to thwart President Barack Obama’s efforts to curb American carbon emissions.

In many ways, it was a dialogue of the deaf. Heritage’s position on climate change, as Ben Lieberman put it, is that “virtually everything we’re told about it is not true”. According to him, there has been no increase in temperatures since 1995. “The curve is flat,” he said. A bit like the Earth, maybe?

When I put it to him that the World Meteorological Organisation had identified the past decade as the warmest since records began, followed closely by the 1990s, Lieberman dismissed these findings as “grossly exaggerated” – even though they were grounded in scientific measurements taken all over the world.

This head-in-the-sand approach is reminiscent of the Birthers, a daft grassroots movement that believes Obama has no right to be president because he “wasn’t born in the US”. It simply doesn’t matter that he has a birth certificate from Hawaii and can point to a contemporaneous birth notice in one of the local papers.

The preparedness of poorly-educated people to hold on to peculiar beliefs in the face of evidence that disproves them is one thing. Much more insidious is the warped world view propagated by the Heritage Foundation, which receives substantial funding from Exxon Mobil; coincidentally, there’s an Exxon filling station next door.

“Building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish” is the foundation’s stated mission, spelled out in gold letters on the wood-panelled walls of its elevators. The freedom it upholds is freedom of choice for individuals in a free market, unfettered by government regulations; “civil society” is secondary.

“We care about the environment,” said nuclear specialist Jack Spencer, “and the best way to secure it is by free market measures. Our fear is that if you take a bureaucratic regulatory approach, we’d have economic calamity.” Asked about the collapse of the grossly under-regulated financial system, he replied: “That’s not my department.”

Heritage believes the next calamity would be caused by cap-and-trade legislation, now stalled in the US Senate. This would set limits on carbon dioxide emissions by utilities and major industries, generating a market for credits along the lines of Europe’s carbon trading system, with the aim of cutting overall emissions over time.

Lieberman, who hailed the inconclusive outcome of last December’s Copenhagen climate summit as “good news for sceptics”, sees cap-and-trade as “nothing short of a government re-engineering of the American economy”, with “aggressive targets” to cut emissions that “would put the nation on a path of serious economic harm”.

Ironically, it was such “market mechanisms” that the US pressed to have included in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, even though it was spurned in 2001 by George Bush. The EU went on to embrace cap-and-trade and many other countries are following suit, based on their belief that carbon must be priced to reduce emissions.

Fossil fuels provide 85 per cent of US energy, making them the “preferred energy source” of Americans, as Lieberman put it. The big problem, of course, is that 60 per cent of the oil they need has to be imported, often from “countries that hate us”. Yet the Heritage guys remain wedded to the oil companies.

Asked if they were concerned about peak oil, policy analyst David Kreutzer couldn’t have been more complacent. “Oil will never ever completely run out,” he said confidently. Neither was he worried about China outstripping the US in the development of renewable energy technologies, arguing that wind power was “unreliable anyway”.

As for the strides that Europe, Japan and even China have made in producing much more fuel-efficient cars compared to the US, Jack Spencer’s response was that “big cars are better, safer and more comfortable”. Yet one of the reasons US car makers nearly went bankrupt last year was that they were churning out “gas guzzlers”.

The Heritage Foundation is also opposed to energy conservation, on the basis that it would mean “less economic growth than we would otherwise have”, as Kreutzer said. He also dismissed as “crap” Lord Stern’s landmark 2006 report for the British government, which concluded that tackling climate change was eminently affordable.

Such Neanderthal views are not shared by the Center for a New American Security, which has close links to the Pentagon. “There’s a growing recognition that climate change and energy involve security issues for us and we’re looking at how this is going to shape and reshape international relations,” said research fellow Christine Barthemore.

“The Department of Defence actively understands that changes are happening and clearly sees it in different parts of the world,” she told us. “So we look at the long-term effects of climate change, and how will it affect areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and how this could result in refugee flows that could affect our homeland.”

Morey Wolfson, a senior energy official in Colorado, believes the world is facing “climate chaos” if it doesn’t make the transition to a post-oil economy. “We’re being idiots in this country listening to the Heritage Foundation. It’s time to stand up to them,” he says. “Cap-and-trade would be a total game-changer . . . it would enable us to retool America”. Could that be what the Heritage guys really fear?

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