If you want to see what difference environmental protection enforcement makes, just go to eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. Or China. In the 1970s the US led the world in cleaning its environment and was consolidating its gains with well-staffed, motivated federal and state environment agencies. But that was then. Last weekend the US Senate couldn’t even manage a paltry 60 votes to stop a filibuster of a bipartisan and none too strong global warming bill. This kind of failure isn’t new. The US slow motion fall in environmental leadership has been going on for decades. In the Bush administration it is no longer covert but displayed blatantly and without shame. The lack of commitment is not a result of public disinterest or hostility. Polling throughout this period shows continuing support for environmental protection, and mainstream environmental organizations have even increased their membership. So what’s going on? A recent scholarly paper pulls back the curtain on one reason for the long slide (cf. Jacques, Dunlap and Freeman, “The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism”, Environmental Politics 17:349 – 385, 2008).
To get the Big Picture, we have to return to the sixties and the extraordinary forces it unleashed: the civil rights movement and its struggle against institutionalized racism; the anti-war movement, which didn’t disappear with the end of the Vietnam war but transformed into a potent intellectual critique of Great Power economic, cultural and military imperialism (an old fashioned but apt word for what was happening); the woman’s movement, with its probing deconstruction of everyday social relations; the consumer movement, and its demystification of marketing techniques; and the environmental movement, which seemed to burst onto the scene fully formed on Earth Day 1970. Gay rights was still to come, but by the early 70s the platter of status quo changing social forces was already heaped pretty high.
The challenges were intellectual and ideological as well as political and they called forth a predictable and well financed right wing response in the form of ideologically based professional advocacy groups. Jacques et al. refer to them as CTTs, Conservative Think Tanks, a network of paid consulting groups supported by multinational corporations and foundations bankrolled by wealthy far-right ideologues like Richard Mellon Scaife. Examples include the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and many others. These bastard offspring of wealthy elites and Far Right anti-communist crazies have achieved a surprising respectability. All it takes is money.
For their first 20 years the CTTs concentrated on traditional right wing pre-occupations, typically, anti-communism and its phantom variants like “creeping socialism.” they linked communism to various threats to the interests of their patrons to produce a typical menu of anti-regulation, anti-corporate liability (aka, “tort reform”) and the promotion of an idealized and distorted version of competition and free-markets. The environmental movement figured into the mix in obvious ways, but wasn’t the centerpiece until the 1990s.
Two factors in the early 90s pushed the environmental movement to center stage. One was the vacuum produced by the disappearance of a favorite right wing bogeyman, the “international communist menace.” The other was the growing global environmental movement, most conspicuously on display at the Earth Summit in Rio, 1992. Globalization was well underway and “free-trade” for the CTTs meant trade free of any constraints — constraints on how workers were treated and paid, how the environment was treated and paid for, how consumers were treated and how much they paid. You can get a glimpse of the power of the moment by watcjomg the show stopping 5 minute performance of 12 year old Severn Suzuki at the 1992 Rio Summit. If you’ve never seen it, take a look. It represented the kind of developing political and ideological power the Right feared most.
In 1992 it wasn’t yet feasible to destroy the government mechanism of environmental protection by executive fiat. Reagan tried it in the 1980s and it produced a serious public backlash. Reagan did a lot of damage but the experienced showed the environmental movement couldn’t be attacked head-on. A new method would have to be found. It was time to turn the Red Scare into the Green Scare.
The key was a unique feature of the environmental movement: its reliance on science. The new strategy (not just a tactic) was to create an environmental skepticism, a contrarian counter-argument, superficially also based on science. This wasn’t an easy trick because environmental science was based on a robust scientific consensus, international in scope and as deep as it was wide. the environmental movement held the scientific high ground. So an ingenious and simple method was used. Accuse environmental science of environmental skepticism’s own defects, reducing environmental science to the CTT’s own level. Environmental science, the CTTs would claim, exaggerated, or even fabricated, the seriousness of environmental problems by manipulating data. Its scientists were corrupted by a political agenda.
The sheer audacity of this has to be admired. The strategy was to go directly at the single thing the environmental movement depended upon most, the science, and to reject its validity outright. It was a jiu-jitsu move, using the authority and language of science to discredit it while simultaneously giving it an extra push by giving a new priority to economic considerations. If you could convince people the benefits were in doubt but the costs were certain, you would have a strategy that fit beautifully with anti-regulation and anti-corporate liability objectives. Throw in the claim that environmental regulation would threaten progress and prosperity and the Green Scare would be bearing Right wing fruit.
In establishing a foot hold in the scientific arena, peer review was an obstacle. The science of environmental skepticism was weak. So the full length book became the preferred vehicle. No independent reviewers. This is where the paper by Jacques et al. makes its primary contribution (the background to this paper also has much useful background and analysis, some of which I have used here). They assembled a dataset of all English language books (141 of them) that had International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) from the earliest example in 1972 through to 2005, whose subject could be identified as environmental skepticism. Their definition of environmental skepticism was “denying or downplaying the seriousness of problems such as climate change; stratospheric ozone depletion; biodiversity loss; resource shortages; chemicals and other pollutants in the air, water or soil; threats of trace chemical exposure to human health and the potential risks of genetic modification (Jacques et al,, p. 358). If the book merely questioned environmental values while not denying some specific environmental problem, it was not included. The researchers then tried to determine if there was a relationship between the authors or publishers each of these 141 books and the CTTs, using only publicly declared information, not inference. The paper has a 14 page table giving the details in each case so the reader can check the judgments (Appendix 1).
The results are not surprising but still stunning. Over 92% of the book length literature denying the seriousness of the major environmental problems was written by authors affiliated with the network of CTTs or actually published by a CTT itself. An examination of the CTT websites showed that environmental skepticism was a major theme in 90%, a sign of the extent to which the environmental movement has become a specific target of the Far Right.
The success and potency of the assault on environmental science is not due solely, or even primarily, to the persuasiveness of the arguments. Refuting the arguments of environmental skeptics is usually easily done but the volume of their assertions is so large and so indifferent to counter-argument that cutting off the heads of the CTT hydra has become a major distraction for environmental science and a significant cost in time and money. That is a side show, however, a “watch the birdie” effect that tends to obscure another major factor. The Republican take-over of Congress in 1994 resulted in a major ally for the Right Wing attack, and the subsequent control of the Executive Branch in 2001 by George Bush allowed the CTTs to become the source for political appointments into the regulatory and research agencies central to environmental regulation. With the conversation sufficiently confused by years of right wing static supported by CTT publications and the preoccupation with “national security” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the same kind of dismantling attempted by the Reagan administration could be carried out with less opposition. It is a tribute to the strength of public support that even under these conditions the attack has not gone smoothly and without significant pushback.
And in some areas, like climate change, the attack on the science is failing. The major flack for environmental skepticism in the US Senate, Oklahoma’s knuckle dragging Far Right homophobic crazy James Imhofe, sat silently in the debate. His arguments now endanger the credibility of the opposition and the Republican leadership chose to fight on economic grounds first, and ultimately, via a filibuster, since the bill looked like it was headed for passage.
Attacking science is a tool to attack the environmental movement. The Republican attack on science is therefore a means to something else, not an end in itself. It has gotten its power from having had a Republican congress until 2006, a weak and sometimes cowardly Democratic opposition, and the power of the Bush Executive Branch who used the Global War on Terror to obscure its domestic agenda, a central feature of which is to trash environmental protection. We can hope we are entering a new era where two of the three, the Congress and the Executive Branch, will no longer be in play.
The attack on science will continue, no doubt. But between a Democratic congress and a Democratic Whitehouse, it will begin to lose any salience it had. The Conservative Think Tanks will continue to spew out their books, but the revolving door between government and the corporate board room will slow its rate of spin.
To every thing there is a season.