by Francis Flisiuk
Portland Phoenix news story
For decades, the overwhelming consensus from scientists and their peer-reviewed studies is that climate change is both accelerated by human activity and a serious threat.
But despite this, it would seem that contrarian voices are getting louder in the Trump era — at least a third of the seats in Congress are held by climate change skeptics. Here in Maine, a bill is being introduced that would “protect” those who don’t believe that climate change is an urgent, human-caused issue, despite 70 percent of Mainers believing the opposite.
State representative Larry Lockman (R-Amherst) has introduced LD 771, An Act To Protect Political Speech and Prevent Climate Change Policy Profiling.
The bill comes in response to attorney general Janet Mills, who joined law enforcers across the country to file a lawsuit against oil conglomerate ExxonMobil last year for potentially misleading the public by downplaying the dangers of climate change. According to Lockman, the bill would prohibit the state’s attorney general from prosecuting someone based on their climate change beliefs.
In other words, this bill would protect those who wish to advocate that climate change isn’t happening, or at the very least isn’t exacerbated by human activity and carbon emissions, from prosecution. It’s an indirect response to the Citizen’s United case — proponents of the bill say that political speech is the most protected form of free speech.
According to a press release, Mills responded to the bill by writing that she is, “committed to using the authority of my office to address (global climate change) in a meaningful way by defending important Environmental Protection Agency regulations against attacks led by the coal industry and exploring litigation options that will hold the worst polluters accountable for their actions.”
This bill to “protect the free speech” of climate change skeptics comes at the behest of Jonathan Reisman, one of the most prominent ones in Maine. Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias, and is a leading conservative voice on environmental policy in the state. He said this bill is a direct response to the partisan investigation of Exxon and that he doesn’t want to live in a state where the attorney general doubles as the “environmental thought police.”
“I was quite concerned that the attorney general’s office was once again suppressing political speech they disagreed with,” said Reisman in an interview with the Phoenix. “I’m offended by the Leonardo DiCaprio rule, if you don’t believe or accept the alarmist view on climate change, you’re not allowed to have public office.”
Reisman was referring to National Geographic’s highly lauded documentary “Before the Flood,” which had Leonardo DiCaprio traveling the world and asking world leaders how their nations will cope with climate change challenges.
While Reisman does believe that the climate change is indeed happening and that “human activity is part of it,” he’s not convinced that it will lead to any apocalyptic scenarios as “climate change alarmists would have you believe.” He says people like Senator Angus King like to play the “apocalypse card” because it gives them the moral authority to steer environmental policy.
“The models that we are using don’t have a strong record of predictive validity,” said Reisman. “We’ve seen efforts to massage the data that don’t inspire a lot of confidence.”
According to Reisman, when he examined the models from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (the international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions), the suggested reduction of emissions didn’t even have a tangible effect on reversing climate change.
“But they don’t want to talk about that,” said Reisman. “There’s political opportunism in it. But correlation doesn’t equal causation, King’s not telling the whole truth. He’s pushing more government to solve a problem, but what’s being proposed isn’t even going to solve this allegedly apocalyptic problem.”
20 years later, many environmental scientists and policy experts have said that by and large, the Kyoto Protocol was a failure. Although several countries did meet their emission standards, including the U.S. (which failed to ratify), two of the world’s biggest polluters, India and China, never signed the deal.
However, the Kyoto Protocol did operate under the assumption that climate change exists and is caused by human activity. It paved the way for last year’s Paris Climate Agreement, signed by President Obama, which promised the world that the U.S. would reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 levels by the year 2025.
But now that sustainability standard is at risk, partly due to denial that climate change is a pressing issue. Is it just cognitive dissonance? One study from Swedish psychologist Kirsti Jylhä last year found that most people who accept hierarchical power structures and conservative values tend to deny climate change more often. Another study, from 2011 in Global Environmental Change, asserted that climate change denial was much more popular among conservative white men, presumably because they’ve benefited the most from the industrial capitalist system and stand to lose money if their businesses take sustainability seriously.
I observed this “white male effect” with a couple of Trump supporters I spoke to last week, who asked to remain anonymous, and said that they’ve always been skeptical of the science behind climate change, and dismissed it as just another part of the “liberal agenda.”
“Unfortunately, science has become a partisan issue,” said one Trump supporter from Gorham. “It’s just an unnecessary way to increase government regulations over businesses.”
According to Dylan Voorhees, the Climate and Clean Energy director at the non-partisan organization the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Lockman’s climate denial bill is “ridiculous.” He dismissed climate change denial as purley a political phenomenom, interest politics on a grand scale where “doubt is the product.”
“It is beyond question that, at the national level, this climate change denial propaganda and dark money campaign has become overwhelmingly affiliated with the Republican party and various conservative causes,” said Voorhees. “Psychology plays a role in all kinds of public opinion, including on science and policy. But it would not play a role in public debate if it wasn’t for hundreds of millions spent trying to manipulate our beliefs.”
Are we in a new chapter where it’s cool to disregard facts and science? Probably not. But people like Lockman must feel emboldened by President Trump and his administration dismissing climate change as a “faith-based ideology.” We’ve got Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil as Secretary of the State, telling the Atlantic that he doesn’t think climate change is caused by human activity. Last month we read news that Trump signed an executive order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, which curbed carbon pollution and toxic pollutants from power plants.
And just last week, Scott Pruitt, the newly appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who also doesn’t trust the science behind climate change, told Fox News that he’d like the U.S. to exit out of the Paris Agreement, calling it a “bad deal.” He falsely asserted that China and India have no obligations to curb their emissions until 2030, despite the fact that they’ve already begun work on renewable energy.
It’s no wonder that Glen Brand from the Maine Sierra Club (and many others) have dubbed Trump’s administration as the “most anti-environmental administration this country has ever seen.”
Trump, his administration, and his fellow climate change deniers holding state offices around the country are poised to influence environmental policy for years to come. According to Brand, the timing couldn’t be worse.
“The timing is particularly tragic, because it’s at this time that we have to ramp up and make progress towards 100 percent clean energy,” said Brand. “And now we’re going to be delayed by fossil fuel lobbyists. He’s offering a really dark vision of the world where scientific fact is ignored.”
People have been rallying for environmental sustainability for decades, but the issues surronding climate change are more pressing than ever before. Photo courtesy of the “People’s Climate March.”
Brand is doing what he can to fight back against the anti-environmental agenda. With the Sierra Club of Maine, he’s charted six buses to take Mainers to the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. on April 29. According to Brand, although America “will survive Trump,” it’s important to resist and send a strong message that the people will continue to fight for justice, equality, and a safe and healthy natural environment.
“I’m hopeful that events like this will have long-term reverberations,” said Brand. “Of course, a march doesn’t reduce carbon emissions. But it galvanizes people. We will pump up people’s energy to do the resistance work that’s necessary right now.”
A couple satellite marches are happening locally (in both Augusta and Portland), organized by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, 350 Midcoast Maine, the Maine Conservation Alliance, and the Maine People’s Alliance.
“Climate-change from carbon pollution threatens our natural resource based economy, damages coastal towns with rising sea levels and extreme storms, and makes people sick, increasing Maine’s already high rate of asthma and tick-borne diseases,” said Judy Berk from the NRCM. “President Trump is not going to protect people and our environment from the threats of climate change, despite the fact that most Americans believe climate change is happening and we need to act now.”
Lockman’s bill was sent to the judiciary committee last month and will soon go before the full Legislature.