A Climate of Conspiracy

“Climategate” is the latest conservative conspiracy theory in the age of Obama, write Eric Alterman and Mickey Ehrlich.

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U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern speaks during a press conference at the Major Economies Forum, Thursday, July 1, 2010. (AP/Riccardo De Luca)
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern speaks during a press conference at the Major Economies Forum, Thursday, July 1, 2010. (AP/Riccardo De Luca)

On November 19, emails stolen from scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England were leaked onto the web. Conservatives immediately claimed that these proved global warming to be a hoax and part of a worldwide conspiracy run by mad scientists who have quashed debate in order to institute a socialist, business-killing cap-and-trade policy. Thus was yet another conservative conspiracy theory in the age of Obama launched: “Climategate.” It’s getting hard to keep track of all of them.

We have written in this space about the promotion of baseless beliefs regarding President Obama’s birth and the authorship of his books. And while much of the mainstream media continues to ignore the conspiratorial nature of contemporary conservative politics’ arguments, the true leaders of the conservative movement in America—Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the like—have been leading the charge for these conspiracies and many more.

Conservative websites and airwaves abound with conspiracy theories to the point where it becomes nearly a full-time job to merely keep up with the various and secretive forces seeking to undermine our country and turn us into—well, it’s never quite clear. Terrorists? Communists? Socialists? Gays? Whatever.

On his TV show on Monday, Glenn Beck, with the help of Andrew Breitbart of the website Big Government, reasserted that the White House had ordered union members to beat up anti-health care protestors at town hall meetings this summer. Joseph Farah, the editor of World Net Daily, asserted on Tuesday that President Obama “publicly supports ethnic cleansing in the Middle East against Jews.” And recent polls indicated that 52 percent of Republicans believe that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Barack Obama, who, by the way, according to nearly half of Republicans recently polled, was born in Kenya. (And hey, did you know ACORN caused the financial crisis? Don’t tell me Lou Dobbs would dare to mislead you about that.)

Of course, it’s no secret that the noted climatologist Rush Limbaugh thinks global warming is a “scam” and “a hoax.” So, too, do many Fox News consumers. An informal online poll at showed that 80 percent of those who voted said that their views on global warming were unchanged and that they do not believe global warming research is accurate.

The leaked East Anglia emails that allegedly provided the “proof” of this view go back 10 years. Conservatives claim that the emails that were leaked undermine all scientific data that suggest global warming is occurring at the rates scientists say it is and that it is caused by humans. They also claim that the emails reveal an organized effort to silence critics of the climate consensus in the scientific community.

In fact, while the scientists in question were undoubtedly overzealous, and went way overboard in the name of debunking dangerous pseudoscience on the issue, as Jeff Masters has pointed out, “Even if every bit of mud slung at these scientists were true, the body of scientific work supporting the theory of human-caused climate change—which spans hundreds of thousands of scientific papers written by tens of thousands of scientists in dozens of different scientific disciplines—is too vast to be budged by the flaws in the works of the three or four scientists."

Nevertheless, on November 24, Stephen J. Dubner, who wrote about Climategate for the Freakonomics blog at, appeared on Fox Business Network with host David Asman. Asman introduced the segment by evoking efforts by Hitler and Stalin to manipulate science to achieve their evil ends. Asman said, preposterously, “Well, it can’t happen here, as many people have said, but apparently it has.” Asman’s guest completely allowed the comparison of climate scientists to the mass murderers to stand.

Dubner then claimed that the emails showed that scientists were “colluding” with Al Gore in “distorting evidence.” He insisted that “you can’t read these emails and feel that the IPCC’s or the major climate scientists’ findings and predictions about global warming are kosher.” He also claimed, without any evidence, that the hackers who illegally obtained the emails “either wanted to get in there because they knew there was something they should read. Or maybe there’s a whistle blower.” Dubner’s conjecture put him in league with Rush Limbaugh, who, the day before, guessed “maybe there’s a whistle blower inside the organization who is just unhappy about what’s going on.”

No one cites the possibility that the emails were hacked by people fishing for evidence whether it was there or not. The emails are only proof-positive about a global warming conspiracy to people who believed it before the emails were leaked. As Sean Hannity put it on November 24, “Now we find out that this institute is hiding from the people of Great Britain and the world that, in fact, climate change is a hoax, something I’ve been saying for a long time.”

In Great Britain, the blogs at the Telegraph have been awash with outrage over Climategate. On November 20, before the authenticity of the emails had been confirmed, James Delingpole wrote a piece with the hyperbolic title, “Climategate: The Final Nail in the Coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming?’” Delingpole proceeded to reel off mantras of climate change denial. He wrote, erroneously, that the world is in a period of cooling, and cited scientists who claim that dangerously high concentrations of carbon dioxide provide necessary food for plants.

On “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” George Will falsely asserted that the emails revealed an effort to “delete” evidence that showed a medieval warming period. Will has used his Washington Post column to undermine the evidence of global warming and the urgency for policies addressing it. Most recently he has written on the abundance of fossil fuels.

An editorial in The Washington Times bore the title, “Hiding Evidence of Global Cooling: Junk science exposed among climate-change believers.” The article referred to the “baloney practices that pass as sound science about climate change.” There is never any reference to evidence in the emails that disputes the broad scientific consensus on climate change.

In fact, as CAP’s Matthew Yglesias points out, the consensus on global warming extends to all governments in the world, including the world’s biggest polluter, China. In the current issue of Time, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, adds, “It is the ice melt from these glaciers [those quickly vanishing in the Himalyas due to global warming], that sustains irrigation. The melting of these glaciers is the most massive threat to food security that we have ever projected.” And, as the magazine’s Byron Walsh continues, “It is also a threat to global security. In developing nations such as China and India, growing prosperity means ever greater demand for—and potential battles over—water.”

Of course, talk like that is just part of the conspiracy. Glenn Beck promises that the upcoming U.N. summit on climate in Copenhagen designed to begin addressing problems like these, even if only in vague and undemanding terms, will mean “the end of U.S. sovereignty.”

Just who is actually running things, well, they never do say.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer in New York.

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Eric Alterman

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