Ex-'Professional Climate Denier' Aims to Convince Conservatives Threat is Real

A view of the United States Capitol Building. (iStock)

A former "professional climate denier" and his allies are mounting a campaign to persuade conservatives that the threat posed by climate change is real. Jerry Taylor, who in a previous life developed many of the arguments that conservatives cite against climate science, now runs the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning think tank that's working to debunk the very arguments he helped to advance. Another Republican, former congressman Bob Inglis, has separately founded his own organization, RepublicEn, with a similar mission.

Their distinct approach relies on conservative arguments to build support for climate science among the Republican establishment.

“We think it takes having conservatives hear solutions in the language of conservatism,” Inglis said in an interview with MIT publication Technology Review.

In the same interview, Taylor says that in meetings with Republican leaders, he typically opens with, “I understand why you’re skeptical. I probably wrote most of the talking points you’ve read. But I changed my mind, and let me explain why I did.”

Taylor says his fundamental shift in thinking occurred gradually and was largely spurred by arguments advanced by economists and other right-leaning thinkers. In an interview with Vox, he says that mounting scientific evidence became impossible to dismiss.

[T]he concern has been with us for over 30 years, and the case isn’t getting weaker. It seems to get stronger. And while one can do some gymnastics to continue to defend the "there’s nothing to see here, folks" argument, it became harder and harder.

Taylor is now on a mission to persuade other conservatives and he's relying on science-based methodologies that target party elites, as opposed to voters. That's because studies have shown that party leaders shape mass opinion, and not the other way around.

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A recent Gallup poll found that nearly 70 percent of Republicans believe global warming is “generally exaggerated,” while 67 percent of Democrats believe it poses a “serious threat.”

Dan Kahan, a Yale professor who authored a recent study on climate-science literacy, says that “Positions on climate change have become symbols of whose side you are on in a cultural conflict divorced from science."

Megan Mullin, an associate professor of environmental politics who helped author a similar study, tells Technology Review:

The real focus shouldn’t be on convincing the public, hitting people over the head again and again with the science and dangers of climate change. Instead, the goal should be to change the minds of the elites. When they send clear and consistent signals, mass opinions that seemed strong and fixed can swing in the other direction, Mullin says.

For conservatives like Taylor and Inglis, that top-down approach is the key to  convincing the Republican base to support climate science.

"Beliefs about climate change — whether it’s happening, whether we should do anything — have been pretty stable. What moves around is right-wing opinion. And it tends to follow the leader," Taylor tells Vox.