Extreme weather, President Obama, Solyndra, and fears of economic harm are among common targets for prominent conservative voices opining on climate change.

Leading conservative news outlets and commentators appear to focus on a half-dozen issues in opposing action on climate change, according to a Yale Forum review of 64 opinion columns and blog posts published over the past year.

Using well-worn arguments — plus a few new ones — the most prominent conservative voices dismiss climate warnings largely from political, rather than purely scientific, perspectives. The Yale Forum examined several leading conservative writers and journals addressing climate change issues between March 2012 and March 2013.

News and Analysis

The review focused on op-ed columns by leading conservative columnists in The Washington Post and The New York Times and in leading conservative publications:

  • National Review, made famous by founder and long-time editor William F. Buckley, Jr., now deceased;
  • The Weekly Standard, whose founder and editor is neoconservative William Kristol; and
  • The editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, probably the single most-visible and most frequent conservative venue on climate change issues.
Weekly Standard’s Editor and Founder William Kristol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition, the review examined climate change coverage and commentary at two leading conservative websites — Redstate.com and Breitbart.com.

It appears from that sampling that these conservative voices turn most often to six common themes: arguing that extreme weather events are not driven by climate change; that climate change is not worth addressing; that Obama – not Gore – is the “bad guy;” that climate action would harm the national economy; that a carbon tax could be harmful; and that “clean” technology and “green” jobs frequently have little merit. Challenging underlying climate science did not appear from this sampling to be a major source of contention for most of the commentators.

Extreme weather seen unrelated to climate change

During the summer and fall of 2012, activists, some climate scientists, and some media commentators increasingly linked extreme events, such as record heat, drought, wildfires, and Arctic melting, to climate change. Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Co., for instance, was among the most highly visible scientists addressing a possible connection. “You look out the window, and you see climate change in action. This is the way it gets manifested,” Trenberth said on “PBS NewsHour.”

In that same period, Yale Forum publisher Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications, found in September more Americans “concerned” or “alarmed” by climate change — up to 45 percent of those surveyed from 39 percent in 2010. Other surveys reflected similar up-ticks in public concern.

But conservatives dismissed the suggestion that extreme weather and climate change are connected. “How do we explain the heat? One word: summer,” syndicated political columnist and television commentator George Will said on ABC’s “This Week.”

At Breitbart.com, writer William Bigelow criticized the Obama administration for its work on climate research. “For goodness sake, they’re even blaming Superstorm Sandy on global warming, for as we all know, there have never been hurricanes in all of recorded history that even came close to Sandy’s fury,” he wrote.

At Red State, a writer with the handle Repair_Man_Jack compared former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore to some al Qaeda sympathizers, based on comments both had made about Superstorm Sandy.

“While the jihadists irrationally prayed for America’s destruction and collapse; Al Gore irrationally prayed for professional and personal relevance,” the writer said. “Like the insulting members of Al Qaeda, Al Gore is an egomaniacal fussbudget focused on his ideological crusade at the expense of truth or even rational discourse.”

Efforts to Better Manage Climate Viewed Skeptically

Despite strong evidence in the scientific community that human beings are substantially responsible for warming over the past half-century or so, the conservative commentators still challenge the science and the usefulness of taking action. One Breitbart.com writer called global warming “globaloney.”

“For the seventh consecutive season, no hurricanes hit Florida,” George Will wrote in a Thanksgiving column. “After Katrina in 2005, climate-change prophets said that major (Category 3 or higher) hurricanes would increase. None has hit the United States since that year, the longest period without one since reliable records began being kept in 1851.”

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, William Happer — a physics professor at Princeton and chairman of the board at the conservative Marshall Institute — said that global temperatures have remained virtually unchanged for more than 10 years. A lack of warming, he argued, has “made it more difficult for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its supporters to demonize the atmospheric gas CO2.” (Happer has been a favorite congressional witness of House of Representative members critical of climate science, and scientists convinced of a human impact have taken him to task for what they regard his ill-founded testimony.)

National Review writer Mario Loyola acknowledged that human activities could affect the atmosphere, but he wrote that he doubts there would be much harm done.

“(N)ow that it appears increased CO2 doesn’t trap as much heat as we thought (there has been no global warming in 15 years), one wonders what the next doomsday scenario will be,” he wrote in an April 2, 2012, column.

James Lileks, also writing for National Review in October 2012, suggested that climate change is both scientifically questionable and not worth doing anything about.

“Many conservatives believe the Earth might be warming but our contribution is disputable and it’s not worth bankrupting the entire Western economy to preserve two feet of beachfront in Miami,” he wrote. “The long-term rhythms of that enormous ancient nuclear reactor up there in the sky might have an effect, if you want to get technical, and it’s unwise to extrapolate rigid theses from anomalous events.”

Actually, climate scientists have calculated that activity from the Sun is responsible for only a tiny portion of the warming that has occurred since the mid-1950s.

Obama, No Longer Gore, Seen as the Leading ‘Villain’

After Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” and won the Nobel Peace Prize, he became a top target of climate critics. These days, the National Review’s website still features an environmental blog called “Planet Gore,” which includes a photo of the former vice president looking chagrined.

One high-profile conservative analyst is syndicated Washington Post columnist and frequent TV political talk-show panelist Charles Krauthammer, whose biting criticisms include his comparing concern over climate change to a “religion,” and often zeros-in on Gore as a target of his disdain.

Krauthammer cited former Czech President Vaclav Klaus in maintaining that “environmentalism is the successor to failed socialism as justification for all-pervasive rule by a politburo of experts. Only now, it acts in the name of not the proletariat but the planet.”

Nonetheless, over the past year, conservative opponents of climate action generally have been focusing more frequently on President Obama than on Gore. A sampling:

  • “Obama’s global warming propaganda will not go unchallenged. It must not, or the press will certainly use it to ram through more crippling self-sanctions on the US economy.” — Ben Shapiro, Breitbart.com.
  • “The Obama Administration is about to force down Americans’ throats its belief in global warming and the attendant changes that must be made because of their manufactured crisis.” — William Bigelow, Breitbart.com.
  • “On the perils of something once called ‘global warming,’ (Obama) said, ‘We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.’ Maybe he was throwing this out as a bone to the Left, which believes that people are a scourge on the planet and global warming is bad because it will … hurt people.” — James Lileks, National Review, Feb. 11, 2013.
  • “Although Obama is a self-proclaimed respecter of science, he does not stoop to empiricism. Understandably. Data are unkind to his assertion that climate change is causing storms to become more severe and drought to become more prevalent.” — George Will, The Washington Post.
  • “Lately Mr. Obama has been going around saying that the problem is that he’s a President, not an ’emperor’ or ‘dictator,’ but on carbon regulation this is a distinction without much difference. Ms. (Gina) McCarthy has been integral in abusing laws that were written decades ago in order to achieve climate goals that Congress has rejected, all with little or no political debate.” — Editorial, The Wall Street Journal.
Syndicated columnist and TV pundit George Will

Columnist George Will describes Obama’s climate rhetoric as condescending or arrogant. Some others have criticized Obama for saying in a June 2008 speech that if Americans “are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Breitbart.com writer Timothy Daughtry put the conservative criticism this way: “Narcissism is different from healthy self-esteem; people who simply have strong self-esteem can realistically evaluate their shortcomings as well as their strengths. Such people are not likely to describe their impact upon the world in messianic terms, as Obama did during the 2008 campaign when he prophesied that his election would be remembered by future generations as ‘the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.'”

Will quipped that Obama’s self-esteem was “oceanic.”

Potential Harm to Economy Often Cited

Conservative writers and publications often point to concerns that Obama administration regulations aimed at CO2 will damage the nation’s economy.

In a pre-election column titled “Country roads to nowhere,” for instance, Weekly Standard writer Henry Payne argued that the Obama administration’s “regulatory assault” on fossil fuels had already caused coal mine closures in the Midwest.

Writing in support of Romney’s energy proposals, National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson urged approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, speeding the permitting of new coal-fired power plants, and shifting investments away from clean-tech firms that he described as “destined for bankruptcy” (Sept. 10, 2012).

The White House, a Wall Street Journal editorialized, is “saying that carbon trading is more ‘flexible’ than unit-by-unit command and control. This is Mr. Obama’s version of Jack Benny’s old ‘your money or your life’ routine, except without the punch line.”

Meanwhile, Breitbart.com writer Warner Todd Huston warned that “the left’s ideas of ‘solving’ global warming is to destroy society’s capability to make and invent things like iPhones” (emphasis in original).

Some conservative writers and pundits say they view climate concern as a sinister plot to revoke American freedom.

“(T)he environmental Left,” wrote then American Enterprise Institute scholar Steven F. Haywood in National Review, “sees global warming as a vehicle to extend broader control over human beings” (August 13, 2012).

Frequent Skepticism about Green Technology

As conservative voices warn that climate regulations will harm the economy, they often support their points by casting doubt on the potential benefits of new “clean” technologies and “green jobs.”

Green jobs, declared the Weekly Standard’s Irwin M. Stelzer, are “fiction.”

Conservative commentators have repeatedly castigated the Obama administration’s controversial Department of Energy funding for Solyndra, the failed solar-cell manufacturer that received a federal loan guarantee. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg described taxpayer investment in renewable energy firms as “corporatist green boondoggles” (February 11, 2013).

Analogies to religion are common: “Liberals worship at the altar of global warming and climate change,” said Breitbart.com writer Tony Lee, “so it is not that surprising that (John) Kerry thinks cap and trade bills will boost the economy instead of leading to more cases of cronyism — like the failed green energy boondoggle that was Solyndra.”

Charles Krauthammer, known for sharp-tongued critiques (Photo credit: Politico.com)

Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and much more, writing for The Wall Street Journal, in recent years has acknowledged global warming as “a problem that needs fixing.” He argues that President Obama should invest in research and development rather than subsidize today’s green-energy firms. “Put another way, it is the difference between supporting an inexpensive researcher who will discover more efficient, future solar panels — and supporting a Solyndra at great expense to produce lots of inefficient, present-technology solar panels,” he wrote.

At the Weekly Standard, Ying Ma wrote that Chinese efforts to prop up its solar-energy industry had flooded the global market with an oversupply of photovoltaic products, hurting firms in that country. Similarly, she argued, the Obama administration’s “hubris and hostility toward free markets have led it to waste taxpayer money on Solyndra and other clean energy projects.”

Perhaps the self-described conservative with the broadest appeal “across the aisle” is New York Times columnist and frequent public television and public radio talk show guest David Brooks. Viewed by many as being pragmatic and nonideological, Brooks has admirers among conservatives and liberals alike. He wrote in a Times column last fall that federal investments in renewable energy appear to be “a wasteful disappointment.”

And notwithstanding concerns for the climate, Brooks agrees with experts across the spectrum that coal, oil, and natural gas will continue long into the future to be major sources of energy for the country. “Fossil fuels,” he wrote, “will still be the default fuel for decades ahead.”

Frequent Opposition to Carbon Tax

With prospects for another “cap-and-trade” carbon bill passing Congress virtually nonexistent, conservative commentators and publishers have been turning their focus to concerns over a possible tax on greenhouse gas emissions, which they say would do severe harm to the nation’s economy.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed column last fall, William O’Keefe, CEO of the Marshall Institute and former president of the American Petroleum Institute, wrote that a carbon tax is “dangerous and complex in practice.”

A carbon tax, he said, “would affect food prices, consumer goods, electricity, mobility, charitable works and more. It would also destroy jobs.”

Also writing for The Wall Street Journal, editorial columnist Kimberley A. Strassel called a carbon tax “the new holy grail of climate control.” She warned that “The left has been ginning up enthusiasm for this energy tax, not only as a means of cutting fossil-fuel use, but as a way of generating enormous revenue to cover their spending ambitions.”

Strassel urged conservatives to remain alert about continued efforts to advance a carbon tax on Capital Hill: “All this is food for thought for those conservatives who have been lulled into complacency by the stall of cap-and-trade. A big climate agenda is coming, only on very different terms. If Republicans hope to spare the economy that pain, it’s time to adapt.”

Unconvinced of the prospects for legislative action on a carbon tax, George Will, in his syndicated Washington Post column, argued that a carbon tax simply can’t pass the U.S. Congress, a perspective many liberal commentators share, albeit reluctantly.

“Obama can propose cutting U.S. fossil-fuel emissions (just 16 percent of the global total) with a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, but Congress will pass neither,” Will wrote. “So he will be reduced to administrative gestures costly to job growth, and government spending — often crony capitalism — for green energy incommensurate with his rhetoric.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks, characteristically willing to express views some conservatives roundly reject, offered support for taking action on climate change. Despite his criticism for the Obama administration’s handling of renewable-energy subsidies, he wrote: “Global warming is still real. Green technology is still important. Personally, I’d support a carbon tax to give it a boost.”

It’s one of the few times Brooks has expressed his personal perspective on climate change in a published or aired commentary.

Response from Liberals?  Just the Opposite in Most Cases

So what about the common pleas routinely expressed by liberal commentators? It’s not unfair to say that in the cases outlined above, prominent liberal voices often take the directly opposite tack, countering that:

  • Weather extremes and climate change indeed are related in ways still to be further defined, and the two are not wholly unrelated;
  • There are things we can and should do about climate change to avoid the most significant adverse impacts;
  • Climate contrarians and dyed-in-the-wool “skeptics,” and not Obama or Gore, are the real “bad guys”;
  • Climate action will help boost, not harm the overall economy, and “green jobs” and “clean technology” are parts of the solution; and
  • A carbon tax offers the clearest and least complicated way to curb mounting CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations.

Like their conservative adversaries in the climate change political imbroglio, liberals like to claim that they have “sound science” clearly in their corner.

On that point, most experts agree that the weight of the scientific evidence seems squarely in the liberals’ corner.

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum.

Filed under: