Special Report

Taking Aim at Chicken Little

Hope and despair at the 2008 International Conference On Climate Change.

By 3.5.08

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NEW YORK -- "It is inexcusable for scientists to torture animals," the playwright Henrik Ibsen once remarked. "Let them make their experiments on journalists and politicians."

After years of being labeled everything from devotees of a neo-Flat Earth Society to the equivalent of Holocaust deniers by an opposition that refuses to seriously engage them -- i.e. declaring unsettled science settled, refusing to publicly debate spurious claims made in one's Academy Award winning documentaries, repeatedly using scorn as a crutch to steady lack of reason -- the global warming skeptics gathered at the Heartland Institute's 2008 International Conference on Climate Change held at the Times Square Marriott certainly appeared fully on board with Ibsen's proposition.

For the record, judging by a sampling of articles, the conference was, indeed, a torturous experience for mainstream media journalists. It's a phenomenon not difficult to decipher: As one might imagine, the reputations of politicians Al "babies are burning" Gore, John "Cassandra-like hysterics are cool" McCain and the Exxon-threatening statist Olympia Snowe have not fared so well in the eyes of global warming skeptics. Nevertheless, the purest vitriol was reserved for the media. Hardly a session passed without a panelist cracking a chiding joke about Newsweek's 1975 global cooling story or decrying the simplistic sensationalism that drives the media from one never-quite-materializing catastrophe to the next. The cover of the conference program carried a picture of a bullhorn and the not-so-subtle query, "Can you hear us now?" Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast went so far as to openly lay out the skeptics' plan to "go around" an objectivity-challenged Fourth Estate for any reporter who would listen.

"Alarmism has peaked," Bast crowed to TAS, as a never-ending stream of ecstatic well-wishers filed by to congratulate him on a shockingly successful, sold-out conference. "Left-wing environmentalists have had a huge funding advantage and unfettered access to and uncritical support from the mainstream media for years now. What do they have to show for it? More than half of Americans still doubt man-made global warming is a crisis. If they couldn't get it under these circumstances, they can't get to 50 percent. The tide is turning."

Surrounded by more than 500 skeptics in a space where alarmist bogeymen such as outspoken former Margaret Thatcher advisor Lord Christopher Monckton, star of his own documentary response to what he dubs "Al Gore's sci-fi horror comedy movie" Apocalypse? No!, and Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years author S. Fred Singer were fairly gushed over, Bast's prediction was easy to believe. At the very least these were people unafraid of intellectual combat. The goodie bags at registration contained a copy of Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, for example, to allow attendees to familiarize themselves with the other side's arguments before viewing the accompanying DVD The Great Global Warming Swindle. Try to imagine Al Gore encouraging the same level of rigorous pro- and con- study at one of his lectures. It's unthinkable.

Yet there was an outsized reveling in the outsider status of the skeptic movement that, while certainly attractive -- this was a room full of Jim Starks who weren't going to let any nasty climate modeling Buzz Gundersons get away with calling them chicken -- nonetheless implicitly acknowledged the movement has yet to penetrate the popular culture, even if in their gut average Americans sense something is off in the over-the-top apocalyptic visions the alarmists and media are constantly force feeding them.

"I know your hair is not long and some of you don't have any hair, but you're the most radical people I know," Phelim McAleer, Irish producer of Not Evil Just Wrong and Mine Your Own Business, complimented attendees of the "Global Warming Censored" panel.

Doubtless it is a thing of beauty when any group rebels against the increasingly populous thought police. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of avoiding a massive regulatory and economic burden, it's also precisely the problem.

"Americans seem to be having the same debate we had in Europe five years ago about regulation," Carlos Stagnaro, the amiable director of Italy's Istituto Bruno Leoni who had flown in specifically for the conference and praised its organizers at length. "I truly hope you have a different outcome."

It will take, one suspects, more than a radical fringe to prevent it.

ARE YOU GLAD IN THIS DAY and age we do not have to use an outhouse?

Do you appreciate that you can travel as far and wide as your budget allows?

Such are but two of the twenty questions listed on the Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy brochure quiz designed to help determine whether or not you are an energy aficionado. Answer fifteen in the affirmative, the legend explains, and you qualify as "an average energy consumer." Twenty "Yes" answers and your "energy dependent" self had better "pull a twenty dollar bill out of your wallet" to join the organization. Cheapskate that I am, I searched desperately for a question I could reasonably answer in the negative. It wasn't easy.

Do you wonder when a cure for cancer or other resistant ailments will be discovered?

Have you, or anyone you know, ever repainted something that was in satisfactory condition just because you wanted a different color?

It was time, I supposed, to send an email out to everyone I know requesting information about their painting habits. Who, I began to wonder, would be able to get out of paying out this $20? I imagined dropping the brochure in the mail with a note: Actually, I'm completely uninterested in the alleviation of suffering, I'd like to trudge outside for my morning constitutional and I'd really rather stay home on my vacation and watch the Project Runway marathon.

No, really, I understand and even believe the group's mission ("advocating for your right to use energy as you see fit") is worthwhile. Energy fuels our standard of living. At the Competitive Enterprise Institute booth they had a satellite picture of a pitch black North Korea next to a well-lit South Korea. None of us want to immigrate to the Kim Jong-Il Worker's Paradise. Still, the quiz reminded me of the buttons I sometimes saw at anti-war protests that stacked the word War atop Education with the box next to the latter checked.

Ostensibly this distillation appeared brilliant to the wearer and her compatriots. To those outside the tribe, though? Not so much, probably.

ALAS, MUCH OF THE CONFERENCE EXUDED a certain (perhaps unavoidable) insularity that was difficult for a skeptical layman to muscle some substantive understanding out of. By the end of the first day, I had sat through so many panels attempting to make sense out of a relentless parade of graphs, panels and lengthy, inscrutable equations -- Yr =Yyr â€" 1 + 2XTyr + yr+ 1...take that Al Gore! -- I felt like a junior high student dropped into a post-graduate quantum physics class.

When I think of moments at the conference that grabbed me, few had anything to do with a mess of plotlines on a PowerPoint slide. Instead, it was Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute's presentation explaining how when alternative fuels are mandated "the chainsaws will not be far behind," clearing land for crops and wiping out hundreds of species global warming never would have touched. Or of civil rights icon and Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality Roy Innis eloquently bemoaning ideological environmentalists' "selfish esoteric passions for a pristine environment" while "minority groups bear the brunt of the cost of compromise between environmental and energy needs." (This is, incidentally, the subject of Innis's new book Energy Keepers Energy Killers: The New Civil Rights Battle.)

Then there was Marc Morano regaling a crowd with stories of victories against all odds in the political trenches, filmmaker Ann McElhinney offering the pithy rejoinder "Forget about Republicans in your bedrooms, these guys want to get into every room of the house and change all the light bulbs," and Lord Monckton comparing the good intentions of past collectivist, coercive movements, from Mao's "Great Leap Backward" to the devastating, deadly ban on DDT wisely, finally lifted by the World Health Organization in 2006 to the current statist demands of global warming hysterics.

"Somebody has got to stick to the science and it might as well be us," Lord Monckton said. But will they realize that so much of winning the political argument is how you frame it?

BAST IS ALREADY PLANNING Heartland's next step. There's going to be a speaker's bureau and another convention this time next year in London. The group has already distributed 500,000 copies of its 25-page booklet debunking the existence of anything approaching a scientific consensus on climate change. More will be printed, he vowed. Supremely confident, Bast believes a corner has been turned and the invasive regulations both parties' candidates are now trumpeting will not gain traction.

"The political debate is a farce, a puppet show," Bast said with a wave of his hand. "They'll all posture as the great savior of humanity. One will promise to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and the other will jump in and say, 'No, I'll cut 90 percent by 2040.' They have no power to deliver. No politician is going to pursue policies sure to raise gas prices another one or two dollars a gallon."

And if they try, Bast is certain skeptics will have made enough inroads to make the case to the American people that the doomsday scenarios are all hot air. The man can seem more than a tad over-optimistic at times, especially when five minutes after I speak with him I meet a man whose own wife will hardly speak to him, so disappointed is she that he came to the "deniers' conference." Would Chicken Little have gotten so much press if she had shouted, "The sky is...probably going to stay just about where it is"? We'll presumably find out soon enough.

American Spectator Contributing Editor Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.

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