The New York Times reported recently on a new field of social science inquiry focused on the beliefs of climate skeptics such as Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who attended a Chicago conference for climate skeptics in May. CEI is a 501(c)(3) that identifies itself as “a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty.”
There are a good number of free enterprise-oriented groups that work cheek-by-jowl with corporations that would lose money in the short term if a carbon cap were implemented. It’s easy to see the defense of economic interests in the face of global ecological crisis in a cynical light – but that cynicism cuts both ways. The true believers in the climate skeptic camp, of whom there are many, are firmly convinced that global warming is the latest justification cooked up by leftists for increased government control over the economy and a whole new kind of massive economy-wide tax. I should know – I deal with them every day.
In the small towns and cities of the northern plains where Plains Justice staff work, talking over what we do with climate skeptics is just part of the job. Ron, the charming older janitor in the church where I rent office space, likes to stop by to chat with me about the weather, the cost of energy, and whether any of this “climate business” can be believed. He isn’t anti-science and he isn’t stupid. But the same kind of skepticism that makes a reasonably intelligent Montanan believe that somebody in Washington, D.C. wants to take his hunting rifle also suggests to him that climate science may be a scam.
There are certainly plenty of people trying to encourage this belief on TV and on the talk radio that dominates the rural airwaves for lack of competition. But Ron, like most of the climate skeptics I encounter, isn’t hostile about my work or my convictions about climate science. Climate deniers can be another story, but they’re much more rare, in my experience. Many people just seem torn by the harshly conflicting information they hear all the time, much of it from sources that have been reliable in the past.
Understanding the cultural identity associated with climate skepticism is fundamental to making progress on clean energy and getting to climate solutions that will take hold in red states. One Plains Justice program, Clean Energy Ambassadors, does an end run around legislative and regulatory bloodsport and takes clean energy programming directly to small municipal electric utilities and rural electric cooperatives. We don’t have to convince Congress if we can convince the utility general managers who make decisions about power purchases and energy efficiency programs. This is where grassroots progress is happening on climate: in small towns, at small utilities, where climate skeptics and outright climate deniers are often willing to embrace clean energy reforms when we make a good economic and community investment argument for them.
Where climate is concerned, I know my enemy, and she lives next door. He’s my state representative. My job is to figure out where we can work together, not argue endlessly. The clock is ticking.