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Reformed Climate Deniers Don’t Deserve Redemption

Democrats are seeking advice from people who once opposed action on global warming. They should be seeking accountability.

Paul Miller/Bloomberg/Getty

Last month, Republican pollster and messaging guru Frank Luntz sat down in front of a small committee of Senate Democrats and told a personal story about how wildfire almost consumed his California home. “The courageous firefighters of Los Angeles, they saved my home,” he said. “But others aren’t so lucky. Rising sea levels, melting ice caps, tornadoes, and hurricanes more ferocious than ever. It is happening.”

The statement isn’t particularly controversial until you consider the source. Luntz is a former influential climate change denier who authored the now-infamous 2002 memo advising the Republican Party to sow confusion about global warming. Republicans should “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate,” Luntz wrote, or else the public might start supporting aggressive clean energy legislation. The party followed Luntz’s advice faithfully and with remarkable success for the next two decades.

But at last month’s hearing—titled “The Right Thing To Do: Conservatives for Climate Action”—Luntz said the public should move on. “That was a lifetime ago,” he said. “I’ve changed.” And now, instead of helping Republicans come up with messaging to avoid climate policy, Luntz said he wants to help Democrats come up with effective messaging to enact it. “But in return, you have to put policies ahead of politics,” Luntz said. “You have to make the commitment not to make it partisan.”

There will undoubtedly be more of these turns to the light in the future—pleas for forgiveness from Republicans and others who once denied the crisis unfolding before their eyes. The Arctic is on fire, storms are churning menacingly in the Atlantic, heat records are falling like dominos. Denial, though never particularly tenable, becomes more of a high-wire act every day.

Most converts should feel welcome in the political discussion about climate change; it’s a virtue to admit fault, after all. But those like Luntz—who actively furthered the climate crisis and continues to refuse to admit it—should be shunned. They have no practical use in the extremely urgent effort to solve global warming. They helped to break the world, and thus can’t be trusted to help fix it.

Luntz is not the first agent of climate denial to admit he was in the wrong. Jerry Taylor, the president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning think tank, has said that he was “a pretty good warrior” for climate skeptics and deniers in the 1990s. But by the early 2000s he started to come around, and eventually grew to understand that he had been misled. Jim Bridenstine, while a GOP member of Congress from Oklahoma, once spouted some of the most tired of denier talking points on the floor of the House of Representatives: He claimed global temperatures had stopped rising in the early 2000s, that “sun output and ocean cycles” were responsible for any changes, and talked about the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age as if they blew the lid off a conspiracy. After Bridenstine’s contentious confirmation last year as the administrator of NASA, though, he has publicly accepted the scientific consensus.

Richard Muller, a former physicist at Berkeley (now professor emeritus), also once had serious doubts about what climate science was really telling us. He even set up a research organization called Berkeley Earth to essentially check the rest of the scientific community’s work. But through that work, he eventually concluded that human-caused warming was real. “Call me a converted skeptic,” he wrote in a 2012 New York Times op-ed.

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz thinks converts like these could help solve the climate crisis—which is why he invited Luntz to last month’s hearing. “There’s not any one person that is going to change the minds of Republican politicians,” he told me in a phone call. “The object of the game is to solve climate change, not to punish those who have gotten us to this point.” It’s an understandable position. Schatz wants to bring as many voices to the conversation as possible, in the hopes that it might break the dam of Republican resistance and ease our collective path forward.

But Luntz’s messaging expertise is for public consumption, and the relevant Republican resistance at this point is from politicians. The public, for the most part, has come around on the dangerous reality of climate change; Gallup polling from earlier this year found that for the first time, more than half the country qualifies as “concerned believers”—meaning they think climate change is a big, worrisome problem. At the same time, what Gallup calls the “mixed middle” has diminished. Those are the people who hold conflicting sets of views, such as that warming is a problem but that humans aren’t responsible, or that humans are responsible but we don’t need to do much to fix it.

But the “cool skeptics”—a.k.a., the deniers—have held steady, at or just below 20 percent of the country, for the last half decade. There is thus little chance of convincing them any time soon—and even less reason to try. The most recent of the UN climate reports said humanity has a bit more than a decade to enact aggressive carbon reduction policies before irreversible catastrophic impacts begin.

Even if Republicans’ come-to-Jesus moments swayed public opinion, they would have to include an honest reckoning of the harm caused. Solving climate change isn’t only about transitioning away from fossil fuels; that transition needs to be a fair and just one for everyone, particularly those that have been, or will be, harmed by climate change’s effects. Embracing public figures who helped cause those harms, without any gestures toward accountability, risks alienating those who have long supported climate action.

Luntz has given no indication that he’s up for such a reckoning. Indeed, as he lamented that climate change had become a “partisan issue” and urged Democrats to “put policies ahead of politics” (are they not?), Luntz failed to acknowledge his own role in putting the lives of millions of people at risk of death and disease. Luntz, in other words, wants Democrats to forget about how he enabled Republicans to delay any meaningful action on the issue until this very day. And he wants Democrats to now take his advice on how to fix the problem he won’t admit he helped cause. He’s doing this at the same time that he’s cozying up to the Trump administration through his longtime friend, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Thanks, but no thanks. Luntz’s messaging ideas aren’t exactly groundbreaking anyway. He suggests avoiding the word “sustainability” in favor of words like “cleaner” and “healthier,” and talking about the benefits of climate action instead of the consequences of inaction. It’s perhaps useful advice, but the best case to do something about climate change is being made, unsurprisingly, by the climate itself. As the effects continue to multiply, almost half the country now thinks global warming will “pose a serious threat in their lifetime.”

Democrats may see Luntz’s expert messaging advice as valuable, but by allowing him to testify in a Senate hearing without proper atonement, they send their own message: that former agents of denial won’t be held accountable for the chaos they sowed. Surely, Luntz won’t be the last prominent denier to seek such validation. Hopefully, he’ll be the last to receive it.