Climate change denial hit its stride in the Bush-Cheney era, precipitating today's climate disaster

Republicans didn't always deny the reality of climate change. Then, George W. Bush took office

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 19, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush (David Bohrer/U.S. National Archives via Getty Images)
Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush (David Bohrer/U.S. National Archives via Getty Images)

Once upon a time, the mainstream Republican Party did not deny the reality of climate science and even saw the environment as something to be valued and protected, not exploited.

"They staged a coup... the fox was now guarding the hen house from that point forward. Energy and environmental policy, and the Republican Party, was controlled by polluters and they would not look back."

This can be difficult to believe, much as it is hard to imagine that environmentalist presidents like Theodore Roosevelt (who conserved over 230 million acres of wilderness, at least for white people) and Richard Nixon (who originated the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA) actually identified as Republicans. As recently as the early 1990s, a Republican president (George H. W. Bush) was willing to sign landmark environmental legislation to clean up acid rain and amend the Clean Air Act.

Yet today more than three out of four Republicans deny that climate change is a major threat to America's well-being. When Donald Trump was president, he gutted the EPA at every turn and yanked America out of the Paris climate accord. Although Joe Biden reversed some but not all of Trump's policies after taking office, it is clear today that one of America's two major political parties denies objective reality when it comes to basic scientific fact.

According to many experts, it all traces back to the early 2000s — and the regime of America's most powerful Vice President, Dick Cheney.

"In terms of like the party's official stance being the rejection of environmental science — climate science, ozone depletion, what have you — that really hit its stride during the George W. Bush years," Dr. Michael E. Mann, a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "The New Climate War," told Salon. "That is the transition when Dick Cheney and the energy industry took over energy and environmental policy for the George W. Bush presidency. That's where they really veered sharply in the direction" of outright denialism.

Even at the time that this was happening, astute observers picked up on it. American science journalist Chris Mooney wrote the classic warning "The Republican War on Science" in 2005, smack dab in the middle of the Bush era, and dedicated his tome to exposing the deliberate efforts to conceal scientific facts from the public.

Notably, it was not limited to climate change: Fundamentalist Christian organizations opposed the scientific consensus on issues like evolution and bioethics, while private businesses opposed a wide range of environmental protection measures. Working together with the Republican Party — and particularly under the watchful, highly involved leadership of Vice President Cheney – the White House worked with Congress and the legislature to erode public trust in scientific research.

Years later, it has been confirmed that one of the chief policies of Bush's entire administration — that the United States needed to conquer Iraq because dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — was, in fact, also a lie. In a sense, the entire notion that one can replace reality with "alternative facts" began during this time.

"It was a harbinger of things to come because, of course, after this the bad faith attack by Republicans on climate science has now metastasized to our entire body politic and to the very notion of fact-based discourse," Mann told Salon.

A cottage industry has since emerged, best profiled by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their book "Merchants of Doubt," in which right-wing, free-market foundations and institutions pay scientists to undermine confidence in scientific fact. The strategy is simple and effective: With enough money pumped into talking heads who will say whatever special interests want the public to believe, you can make necessary reforms difficult, if not impossible. In addition to convincing millions that pseudoscience is the real deal, these interest groups confuse the issue for millions of other well-intentioned but scientifically illiterate Americans.

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"That's where they really veered sharply in the direction" of outright denialism.

"The industry had realized you could create the impression of controversy simply by asking questions," Oreskes and Conway explain at one point. On another occasion, they point out that the American public's tendency to want to "look at both sides" creates a logical trap that conservatives can exploit: "While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion," they write. "It is about evidence."

The evidence strongly indicates that global heating and climate change are real and are principally caused by humans. Since the late 19th century, the average global temperature has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degrees Celsius). Glaciers are retreating all over the world and the ice sheets on Greenland and the Antarctic are shrinking. All over the planet sea levels have risen by roughly 8 inches (20 centimeters) over the last 100 years — and that rate has picked up pace in the past two decades, which was nearly double that of last century and continues to accelerate.

If these trends are not stopped and reversed, conditions will become apocalyptic — a trend that is becoming more apparent across the globe. As sea levels continue to inch upward, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from coastal regions, especially cities. There will be regular occurrences of extreme weather events like wildfires, droughts and heatwaves, as well as more hurricanes and thunderstorms. Cities like Phoenix will become uninhabitable as their water disappears while much of New York City will be underwater.

And it all kicked into overdrive when Cheney decided to take over White House environmental policy. (Cheney was the former chairman and CEO of Halliburton Company from 1995 to 2000, a fossil fuel corporation that was handed numerous billion-dollar contracts during the Iraq Invasion.) If there was a single transformative moment, it occurred 20 years ago, after the fossil fuel industry had had enough of Bush's first pick for EPA administration, Christine Todd Whitman. They were particularly displeased when she declared that CO2 should be regulated as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act — a move that may have helped save the planet, had it been implemented.

"Midway through that first term, when the fossil fuel industry didn't like what was going on, they worked with front groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is a bad faith fossil fuel industry front group, and with Dick Cheney, who had close ties to the energy industry, and other energy companies — and they staged a coup," Mann recalled. "They literally came in, got rid of Christine Todd Whitman, and Dick Cheney took over energy policy in that administration. They basically shoved her aside. And the fox was now guarding the hen house from that point forward. Energy and environmental policy, and the Republican Party, was controlled by polluters and they would not look back. That has remained true ever since."

Nor has this legacy been limited to the environment: Mann noted that as recently as the COVID pandemic, the same network of right-wing groups acted in concert to discredit science when they worried that Trump's failure to effectively address it would hurt his reelection chances. It can even be seen outside the realm of science, such as in how Trump has convinced millions of Americans to believe a Big Lie that solely serves his narcissistic pride — namely, the idea that he didn't actually lose the 2020 presidential election.

While it would be a stretch to say that any single event caused all of this, certainly climate change is one of the most serious existential threats to humanity. Being able to trick a critical mass of the population into not recognizing that fact is, undeniably, a major feat of political manipulation — and consequently a milestone in human history, even if reams of other lies later were born from the same process.

"You probably saw the review that I wrote of 'Vice,'" Mann told Salon, referring to the 2018 biopic about Cheney. He referenced the "unmistakable montage at the end of that film. It probably goes over the heads of just about every viewer, but you and I and those of us who follow this closely could clearly recognize what the message was at the end of the film. This disaster that we have now is because of what transpired at that time."

"Specifically because of the actions of a Wyoming opportunist named Dick Cheney?" Salon asked Mann for clarification.

"Exactly!" Mann exclaimed. "I couldn't say it better myself."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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