Ben Pile: Greens, face it: we’re just not that into you.

29/02/2012 00:29:05

As ‘Fakegate’ shows, the inconvenient truth for greens is there is no denialist conspiracy blocking climate-change action.

When internal documents from a libertarian think tank – the Heartland Institute, known for its sceptical views on climate change – were published on the internet recently, climate-change activists around the world were elated. The leak seemed to reveal the existence of a conspiracy to distort science and impede political progress on solving climate change, just as activists had claimed. But the celebrations turned sour when one of the documents turned out to be fake, and the remainder turned out to reveal nothing remarkable. Rather than telling us anything about organised ‘climate-change denial’, this silly affair reveals much more about environmentalists.

One of the endlessly recurring themes of the environmental narrative is – in the words of the man at the centre of the ‘Fakegate’ mess, water and climate researcher Peter Gleick – that an ‘anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated’ effort exists ‘to cast doubt on climate science’, and ‘muddy public understanding about climate science and policy’. According to this mythology, right-leaning think tanks are funded by big energy companies that are keen to protect their profits from environmental regulation.

There are two problems for environmentalists convinced by this mythology.

The first is that it has never been plausible. Large corporations do not suffer from regulation. They are simply able to pass costs on to the consumer. Moreover, regulation creates firm ground on which to base longer-term strategic decisions about capital investments. And finally, regulation creates opportunities for companies that are able to mobilise resources to enter new markets. Wind farms, for example, are not cottage industries. Regulation suits larger companies.

The second problem for environmentalists has been to demonstrate that the myth is anything more than a myth. An ongoing Greenpeace project launched in 2004, for instance, aimed to provide a ‘database of information on the corporate-funded anti-environmental movement’. However, the sums of money involved were paltry. According to Greenpeace, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of the most vilified organisations, had received just $2million from Exxon between 1998 and 2005. Yet between 1994 and 2005, total donations to Greenpeace amounted to over $2 billion. According to the greens’ conspiratorial narrative, a handful of conservative think tanks with relatively small resources were seemingly able to undo the campaigning of a host of huge international environmental NGOs, national governments, international agencies, and yes, corporate interests, whose combined resources were many, many thousands of times greater.

The myth of the climate change denier exists in the heads of environmentalists, and seems to prevent them entering into conversation with anyone that dares to criticise environmentalism. The crusade of ‘communicating’ climate change is not a project that involves an exchange of views. To criticise environmentalism is to ‘deny The Science’, no matter how incoherent the environmentalist’s grasp of science or how lacking his or her sense of proportion.

It must be for that reason that, when Gleick was invited to speakat an event held by the Heartland Institute, he refused. Instead of taking the opportunity to bring ‘The Science’ to ‘the deniers’,he created an email account using the name of a Heartland Institute board member. With this, he emailed an administrator at the think tank, requesting internal documents be forwarded to the spoofed inbox ’ a tactic known as ‘phishing’ in bank fraud.

Gleick has now confessed to soliciting the Heartland’s internal documents. However, it was the contents of a strategy document which caused the most interest from environmentalists, and the Heartland Institute claim that this memo was faked. Gleick claims that he was not the author of the faked document, and that it was emailed to him from an anonymous source. He set up the fake email account in order to establish the document’s authenticity, to see if it would be corroborated by the documents he sought.

This seems to be a somewhat implausible account of events, not least because it was the hammy wording of the document that led to immediate speculation that Gleick was the author. A number of sceptics observed that the author of the faked document was either vain or intent on flattering Gleick, and was unable convincingly to produce a document that could have been written by climate sceptics. As Megan McArdle observed in theAtlantic: ‘Basically, it reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.’

But speculation about the identity of the author is pointless. And so, too, is speculation about how much of what was claimed by the faked document is true. The documents reveal that the Heartland Institute took $4,638,398 (about £3million) in receipts in 2011. This is, by campaigning standards, very small beer, and only part of that went towards the Institute’s global-warming campaign. To put that figure into perspective, an article in Timemagazine recently revealed ‘that between 2007 and 2010, the Sierra Club accepted over $25million [£15.7million] in donations… mostly from Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy—one of the biggest gas-drilling companies in the US and a firm heavily involved in fracking - to help fund the Club’s Beyond Coal campaign’.

It would seem that fossil-fuel companies give far greater sums to environmental campaigning organisations in order to score advantage over rival fossil-fuel companies than they give to anti-environmental campaigning organisations. Yet environmentalists the world over were jumping up and down after the stolen documents apparently showed that the Charles G Koch Charitable Foundation – funded by the much loathed Koch Industries, which has substantial energy interests – had itself funded the Heartland Institute. At last, environmentalists were able to connect an energy giant with a conservative think tank. But Koch only gave $25,000 (£16,000) in 2011, and that donation was earmarked for a project that had nothing to do with global warming: the Institute’s healthcare newsletter service.

But a sense of proportion isn’t something that bothers environmental activists and journalists. It did not stop them believing that their mythology had finally been made real. ‘Leak exposes how Heartland Institute works to undermine climate science’, said the Guardian‘s Suzanne Goldenburg, adding: ‘Libertarian think tank keeps prominent sceptics on its payroll and relies on millions in funding from carbon industry, papers suggest.’ Except the documents didn’t suggest it at all, it was simply a figment of Goldenburg’s imagination. In the same newspaper, and making heavy use of the faked document, Leo Hickman smugly announced that ‘If you like your hypocrisy sandwiches served with a side order of double standards, then these leaked documents are certainly the place to dine out’.

There is no doubting that these journalistic idiots – and many more besides – were duped. But in fact they were convinced of the story before the documents were even published. They had fooled themselves. And when the forgery was revealed, the facts faded even further away from their focus. Many journalists even tried to present Gleick as a hero. Naomi Klein tweeted that Gleick ‘took big risks to bring important truths about the deniers to light’. George Monbiot declared Gleick a ‘democratic hero’, and that ‘he has done something of benefit to society’. Monbiot went on to chastise Telegraph columnist, Christopher Booker, for failing to declare that he had received a $1,000 honorarium from the Heartland Institute, for speaking at its annual climate-change conference.

Is it really plausible that a journalist such as Booker has been bought for a measly thousand bucks? Or is Monbiot, like many others, pointing at trivialities to sustain the environmental mythology. Elsewhere in the Guardian, climate-change ethical philosopher James Garvey reveals the truth in his question: ‘If Gleick frustrates the efforts of Heartland, isn’t his lie justified by the good that it does?’ Environmentalists are so convinced of their cause that it is the only moral absolute. The Guardian, a newspaper which makes such a virtue of ‘ethics’, and of ‘transparency’ – especially in the climate debate – now seems to be saying ‘it’s okay to lie’.

The environmental movement is as promiscuous with its ‘ethics’ as it is with ‘The Science’. You can make stuff up, apparently, just so long as you do so in order to ‘save the planet’. And this is why sums as paltry and insignificant as $1,000 are so important to their perspective. It is only by amplifying the trivial that the myth of ‘networks’ of ‘well-funded deniers’ can be sustained. It’s only when you lose a sense of proportion that a few million dollars can stop global action on climate change. Trivia, vanity and mythology allows environmentalists to turn ordinary facts of politics – funding, associations of people, and campaigning organisations – into secret conspiracies to explain their own failure to create a popular movement.

Ben Pile is the convenor of the Oxford Salon. He blogs at Climate Resistance.