How a libertarian think tank is trying to correct the ‘degenerate’ climate science debate in Washington, DC

While none of this is news to climate scientists, it will be news to many conservatives.

Image credit: Stephen Melkisethian, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are lots of attributes that seem to work as reliable predictors that a person or group will reject the science of human-caused climate change and the risks that come from it.

In recent years, for example, being a Republican or a Tea Party member has gone hand in hand with branding the science of climate change as a giant scam.

If you’re one of those conspiracy theorists like Britain’s David Icke or Infowars founder (and apparent President Trump influencer) Alex Jones, then you’ll also be placing climate change into the file marked “illuminati hoax.”

But perhaps the largest, most active, and influential group pushing climate science denial is America’s collective of so-called free-market conservative “think tanks” that want to cut the size of government and claim to be defending your freedom and liberty – examples include the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

President Donald Trump has been drawing heavily from this collective as he fills his administration.

So when one Washington, D.C.–based libertarian think tank released a briefing paper on climate science earlier this month, casual observers might have expected the same messages of doubt, denial, and conspiracy. But they would have been be wrong.

Degenerate narratives

We find a lot of degenerate narratives about climate science amongst libertarians and conservatives in D.C.,” said Joseph Majkut, director of climate science at the Niskanen Center.

Majkut, a Princeton graduate in atmospheric and ocean sciences, has written a dispassionate paper explaining the common myths held as true by many conservatives.

The climate science debate that you see occurring at fairly high levels of government in the United States is decades behind real climate science,” Majkut told DeSmog.

He says with his briefing paper, he wanted to subject some of the common arguments to a “durability test.”

How might a policy maker think about climate science,” he asked.  “How might you view the sort of conclusions that you can take from the climate science community – are they durable, what are the common objectives that you cede to them from experts that might lie outside the consensus and might challenge it and how do those objections hold up?”

The paper notes the world is warming, global temperature records are reliable, and there has been no compelling evidence offered that the cause of warming is anything other than human activity. While none of this is news to climate scientists, it will be news to many conservatives.

In summary, Majkut’s paper concludes that “even at the lowest reasonable values,” the risks of human-caused climate change are “so large” that they easily explain the concerns of the so-often disparaged “climate advocates.”

If you are committed to the politics of liberty, then that should have very little to do with what you think the conclusions of climate science are,” said Majkut.

The paper does not offer suggestions on policy, but Niskanen thinks there shpuld be a revenue-neutral tax on fossil fuel energy “at the point of production” – a policy proposal not a million miles away from the kind backed by former NASAclimate scientist James Hansen and a growing (but still tiny) group of Republican members of Congress.

Climate change as a libertarian cause

Niskanen, Majkut said, focuses its efforts on members of Congress and people working in the government administration, “and the people who influence how they think about these issues … the staff and policy analysts.”

He said: “Part of our effort is to say that, as a libertarian organization, we are not in the business of growing the government and we are not in the business of picking winners and losers in energy policy, but we actually think this is a legitimate issue and a lot of the narratives that you rely on are wrong.”

Niskanen was founded in 2014 by Jerry Taylor – a once-staunch opponent of action on climate change who spent more than 20 years at the Cato Institute.

Taylor, whose younger brother is the Heartland Institute’s James Taylor, has explained how his views on climate change went through a slow but fundamental change.

As the evidence for human-caused climate change got stronger, Taylor said it became “harder and harder” for him to dismiss it, particularly as a risk management issue.

Majkut said what convinced his boss was “simple messages coming from trusted messengers and him then realizing that the scientific narratives that he had embraced were wrong and faulty and weak.”

He says now, the issue of climate change should be seen as “a massive exercise in risk management.”

In no other context – national security or whatever – would [Jerry] think it acceptable to just entirely ignore a large scale planetary non-diversifiable risk.”

Majkut argues that when it comes to the protection of property rights and people’s freedoms – basic tenets of libertarian and conservative ideology – too many get their analysis back to front.

Our world view is sympathetic to the goals of restraining government and letting markets work themselves out,” he said. “But part of letting markets work themselves out is not stomping on the property rights, the freedom and lives of people across our borders and people in the future. We think climate change is informative, we think it’s real, and we should do more about it and climate change puts at risk those things.”

Majkut admits the Niskanen Center is in a unique position. In many other areas, Niskanen’s staff would share some common ground with advocates for liberty and small government.

On climate we are distinct, but what we are saying is that accepting climate science as informative should not really affect your political identity.”

This week, the Heartland Institute will be in D.C. to host one of its regular conferences promoting climate science denialism. Will Majkut be going along?

No,” he said before placing his tongue firmly in his cheek to add: “I’m on a fake news diet.”


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