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The Far-Right

Nationwide public opinion polls have shown repeatedly that Americans care about the environment - they want things like protections for national parks, wilderness areas and old growth forests, mitigation of global warming, less pollution and better air quality (particularly where public health is involved), and the recovery of fish runs such as salmon and steelhead. These same polls also consistently indicate that Americans are willing to accept some tax increases and sacrifices to make these things happen.

But an increasingly vocal and confrontational minority wants otherwise. Over the last two decades numerous grassroots groups and think tanks have appeared on the scene. With grim relentlessness, they have launched literally thousands of large-scale lobbying and public relations efforts aimed at undermining any and all progress on environmental issues. These so-called "Astroturf" groups, who are funded almost exclusively by polluting and extraction industries and Far-Right foundations, have succeeded at striking a chord with many segments of the populace. With various social and financial stresses bearing down on many Americans particularly those LIVING in rural areas, populist rage has reached all time highs. With large public relations budgets Astroturf and other Far-Right groups have used these passions to align themselves with this sector, and few of them have made any effort to investigated the soundness of the message they were sold.

Estimates vary as to how widespread this so-called "brownlash" is. In 1993 a nationwide Gallup poll covering all socioeconomic categories estimated that roughly 11 percent of Americans were vehemently antienvironmental. Likewise, Rush Limbaugh has estimated his listening audience at around 20 million nationwide. Given that Rush, whose antienvironmental rhetoric is well known, is syndicated in almost every American city of 100,000 or more and is undoubtedly listened to by everyone who shares his extreme views, this number is consistent with the Gallup poll results. Similar viewer estimates for other Far-Right talk shows (e.g. Sean Hannity, Fox News, etc.) also support these estimates. Though the Gallup poll results are now over a decade old, public perception of environmental has changed little since. Based on these and other proxy measures, it's safe to say that roughly one in ten Americans is opposed to any and all environmental progress.

One in ten Americans is hardly a majority, or even a truly significant minority. Yet this sector of the populace has gained far more power in government and public forums than its numbers would imply. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, antienvironmental front groups receive staggering levels of funding from polluting and extraction industries and wealthy ultra-conservative foundations - all of which have very deep pockets and a clear financial interest in subverting environmental protections. Accurate estimates of Astroturf funding can be difficult to come by, as many groups are tight-lipped about it (as are some on the Left). But it appears that they receive roughly an order of magnitude more funding than their environmental counterparts—a fact that is not surprising given the resources available to the fossil fuel, automotive, mining, coal-fired power, and similar industries. It is unlikely that the Sierra Club or Greenpeace will ever compete against those juggernauts on a financially level playing field.

Second, environmental issues are almost always rooted in science, and the scientific community has had little success in making the subtleties of their disciplines and methods accessible to the general public. This has left most lawmakers and voting citizens isolated from the knowledge base that is most critical to these issues, which they end up perceiving as an abstruse realm of ideas and intellectual gymnastics isolated from the daily reality of their lives. It has also made them easy prey to well orchestrated attempts by Astroturf groups present pseudoscience, and in many cases even urban legends as though they were "sound science". The last few decades have seen public science education decay to the point where the general public has little if any ability to discriminate real science from the slick, cherry-picked imitations presented to them by Astroturf groups and ultra-conservative interests.

When Steven Milloy for instance, proclaimed in an Aug. 2003 Fox News editorial that,

"Of course, it's not even clear that any measurable 'global warming' has really occurred, much less that it's human-induced. Satellite and weather balloon measurements of atmospheric temperatures since the 1970s actually indicate slight cooling to no change."

(Milloy, 2003)

It’s unlikely that more than a handful of Fox News viewers were aware that the information his statement was based on was nearly a decade old, had been carefully picked out of several similar analyses that all yielded different results, and even the one dataset he referred to had been updated at least 3 times and no longer supported his claim. Furthermore, that dataset has since been discovered to have contained a simple math error that when corrected brought it into agreement with all other space-based and terrestrial datasets supporting global warming! (Mears and Wentz, 2005)

Given their target audience, Fox News relies almost exclusively on Far-Right think tanks and commentators like Milloy for the little science reporting they do—never on actual scientists trained in the relevant fields. It is unlikely that they would permit any response to statements like these from the scientific community lest their ratings suffer. In fact, until recently Fox—the voice of conservatism in America—was one of the only two major cable news outlets in the world that had no dedicated Science and technology section at its web site and no dedicated science reporters (the other being Al Jazeera). So statements like Milloy's—which would be grounds for flunking a high school atmospheric sciences exam—are broadcasted to nationwide audiences almost continually with little or no professional review, and gladly embraced millions who are not equipped to evaluate them but will resonate emotionally to the passion with which they are preached—even if in other contexts they care about environmental issues.


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