In Trump's America, more CO2 in the atmosphere is actually good...
On the Friday afternoon of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, inside the hulking Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, a pair of men besuited in various shades of olive and brown discussed how the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (which they granted were up 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution) had led to a phenomenon called "global greening." Plants need CO2 to grow, they told a captivated audience of a couple dozen people, and when there's more of it, they grow faster, larger, and—since they need less water—in drier areas.
CPAC has long been a place for the outlandish and the absurd to make its way from the ideological bayou to the mainstream. This year, multiple seminars made the case that Actually, More CO2 in the Atmosphere Is Good. Because of increased CO2 levels, "the Earth is in a far better place today," Craig Idso of CO2Science and the board of directors of the CO2 Coalition told his interviewer, James Delingpole of Breitbart, in a seminar sponsored by the coalition. Most of those assembled nodded vigorously. Later, they showcased a satellite map demonstrating the increased surface area of plant life in recent years.
Taken by itself, the greening argument is solid enough. In fact, it does not contradict the scientific consensus on climate change, which holds that higher carbon dioxide levels lead to warmer temperatures and, in turn, among other things, to melting sea ice and rising sea levels. Both can be true at once. Except the CO2 Coalition's shtick is effectively a red herring; these guys also don't believe in man-made climate change.
"Temperatures have not risen very much, and most of the temperature rise is probably completely natural, and has nothing to do with increasing CO2," William Happer, the coalition's president, told me over the phone. "Industrialization probably played a small role, but I think it's very hard to tell how much." This directly contradicts the scientific consensus. Happer is a former Princeton physics professor who co-founded the group in 2015. Before that, he chaired the George Marshall Institute—dissolved around the same time of the CO2 Coalition's founding—and developed a reputation as one of the nation's premier climate skeptics. (GMI did not advocate for the benefits of CO2—it simply disputed man-made climate change.) He even testified at a Ted Cruz-speared congressional hearing on climate "dogma" in December 2015.
This is a golden moment for the skeptic movement. Two weeks after CPAC, the Trump administration's new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appeared on CNBC's Squawk Box to explain his stance on climate change: "I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact," the former Oklahoma attorney general said. "So no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." At his last gig, Pruitt initiated, signed onto, or filed briefs in 14 different lawsuits challenging the EPA's climate regulations. He once fielded a letter from one of Oklahoma's largest energy companies criticizing one of those regulations, which he tweaked a few words in, put his own letterhead on, and promptly sent to the EPA. Now he'll be in charge of regulating the environmental impact of the nation's energy companies.
So now that the fringe theorists are in charge, who is left for them to convince? "We're sleeping much better now," said Marc Morano, the executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. Morano, a former aide to Senator James Inhofe—of snowball infamy—has for decades disputed the scientific consensus on climate change in various capacities. He denies that the Earth is warming, that we could know for sure humans are predominantly causing it, and that we could do anything about it even if we did. (It's important to cover your bases.) "We are grinning ear-to-ear, climate skeptics," Morano said. "We have a rational, scientific approach coming to Washington under the Trump administration."
Morano, who has a B.A. in political science from George Mason University, is more of a traditionalist climate skeptic: Happer's group takes a more proactive approach, but its message is still a distortion of the science.
"It's a misrepresentation of the basic fact that plants both on land and in the ocean need some CO2 to photosynthesize and grow," Robert Tripati, of UCLA's Institute of Environment and Sustainability, told me of "greening" via email. "Of course, these plants already have CO2, and scientists have developed lots of evidence that rapid accumulation of CO2 in both the atmosphere and ocean will generate a large number of negative effects that will be much more severe as a whole. The bad effects will outweigh the good."
"It's true as far as it goes, but it ignores the broader, complicated interactions that vegetation will face under a changing climate," said Jason Smerdon of Columbia's Earth Institute. "It ignores the fact that agriculture in the tropics, for instance, is much more sensitive to increased temperatures than to drought." He added that the insect pests that decimate some plant species also thrive in hotter conditions, when their larvae don't freeze in winter, citing the bark beetle infestation in the western United States. And then, of course, there's the fact that none of this addresses the other consequences of rising temperatures due to CO2, like rising sea levels.
At the CPAC seminar, that threat was dismissed out of hand. "Almost everything you read in the mainstream media, everything you learn in school, is wrong," said Idso, who has a PhD in geography from Arizona State. The mountains of peer-reviewed findings from hundreds of climate scientists from dozens of countries are just the product of "a multi-billion-dollar industry," they said gravely, funded by governments and groups like Greenpeace. At an earlier meeting sponsored by CO2Science—Idso was again in attendance—climate science was described as a "machine" that a "few small non-profits" like these are going up against.
Of course, some of the largest multinational corporations in the history of the world have spent decades disputing the effects of carbon dioxide production to protect vested interests. ExxonMobil, for instance, first became aware of the threat in 1981, but spent 27 years funding denial of it. That climate science is the real big business, crushing the little guy whose work just happens to help the fossil fuel industry, is the kind of delusion that pervaded the seminars at CPAC, and that infects this movement generally.
In our conversations, both Happer and Morano said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who left his post as CEO of ExxonMobil to take the job, could be the biggest obstacle to their agenda in the White House. (That ExxonMobil has donated over half a million dollars to Morano's organization over the years doesn't seem to complicate things for him. Happer, whose organizations have also received funding from large fossil fuel companies and prominent conservative donor networks like the Bradley Foundation, described a "David and Goliath" scenario where the Sierra Club is Goliath.) Happer also identified ExxonMobil as an enemy of his movement. If you're keeping score at home, the former CEO of the world's fourth largest oil and gas corporation is now, in the estimation of some skeptics, the most prominent advocate for combatting climate change in the executive branch.
Back at the CPAC seminar, it was time to attack more recent findings that climate change leads to the acidification of our oceans. Idso and Delingpole ridiculed those as the left's latest excuse to keep funding climate research (something echoed by Morano, who characterized environmentalism as a series of trumped-up scare campaigns). Meanwhile, the seminar hosts spoke at length about the expanded range of Juniper trees and the use of CO2 in commercial greenhouses, in what amounts to just the newest iteration of a tried-and-true climate denial tactic: distraction and information deluge.
After all, these are already difficult concepts. If you can reroute the conversation, or bury them in enough information, most people will struggle to keep things in focus. The seminar was full of science-like objects, such as Idso's discussion of the "CO2 enrichment studies" his father conducted, that provided a veneer of authority. To bolster his argument that governments fund climate research to aggrandize their own power, he offered a deep observation:
"We are carbon-based life forms," he said knowingly, "If you control carbon, you control life."
Nonetheless, this is their moment—whether they're in that camp, or whether they believe, as Morano claims, that climate science is manufactured as part of a U.N. conspiracy. From a more practical standpoint, Morano wants the Trump administration to overturn Obama-era executive orders like the Clean Power Plan, defund the United Nations climate panel, and to "Clexit" (or "climate exit") from the Paris Climate Accords. He also suggested, in glowing terms, that fellow traveler Happer may join the Trump administration as a "science czar." After that, Morano wants the president to "unleash" fracking, oil drilling, and coal production, the latter of which he somewhat agreed was no longer even competitive due to the rise of cheap natural gas.
Strange: a climate skeptic who isn't just interested in disputing the science, but who also openly advocates for more expansive use of fossil fuels, including economically inefficient ones. It's almost like these things are connected.
That's enough on its own, but CPAC is also now the right's premier forum for young people. One of the meetings was around 40 percent college-age or younger, and they were all soaking this up. As a seminar wrapped up, I went up to a young woman making her way out from one of the middle rows to see if all this was leaving a mark.
"I've never heard that argument before," said Sarah Olsen, a high school student from Bethesda, Maryland. "I took environmental sciences with a teacher who was very progressive, so I hadn't really heard a conservative idea about it. My first thought was that it doesn't necessarily disagree with it. It's not denying that it's happening. It's just a different, additional fact. Is CO2 good and bad? More good than bad? I feel like I want more evidence to strongly say one way or another."
Mar 12, 2017
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