Climate deniers are in a tough spot these days. Once upon a time, they were able to pass themselves off to many people as practitioners of healthy skepticism, gadflies who were simply asking perfectly reasonable questions about the science behind anthropogenic global warming. But today, in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus and incontrovertible physical evidence that this global phenomenon is real, the deniers are coming to look more and more like what they are: willfully ignorant defenders of the fossil fuel status quo, the most publicly visible of whom are almost always connected to the oil and gas industry in some pecuniary way.
With their brand thus damaged, those behind the climate-denying media machine are understandably looking for a boost in public opinion. Enter Naomi Seibt, a 19-year-old German YouTuber who’s being touted as the “anti-Greta” by the Heartland Institute, a dark money–funded organization that’s paying her to cast doubt on climate science. At first the comparison to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager whose solo climate strike outside Sweden’s parliament building blossomed into a worldwide movement, seems ludicrous on its face. Do deniers actually believe that Seibt—or anyone—will be able to rally millions to the cause of skepticism, inspiring people all over the world to take to the streets and demand a global slowdown in climate action?
Almost certainly not. But given their desperation, they’re probably willing to try anything. That’s why the Heartland Institute is putting Seibt at the center of its effort to reach out to a new generation of young people who have, in the organization’s words, “marinated in apocalyptic nonsense their whole lives.”
This week, Seibt, who recently joined the Heartland Institute staff, makes her U.S. debut at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. At this year’s event, which is being held just outside Washington, D.C., nearly 20,000 right-leaning lawmakers, pundits, authors, analysts, celebrities, and political aspirants have gathered for four days of strategizing, networking, catastrophizing, and lionizing. To give you a sense of the general mood at CPAC, on the agenda this year are panel discussions bearing titles such as “Prescription for Failure: The Ills of Socialized Medicine,” “Rampaging Through America: The Left’s Takeover of Our Culture,” and (my personal favorite) “The Untold Successes of the Trump Administration and Where We Go From Here.”
In past years, climate change was clearly on the minds of CPAC attendees. Tellingly, of the more than 100 panel discussions, breakout sessions, book signings, and other events slated for this year’s conference, only one—the event showcasing Seibt—is dedicated to the subject. That can be taken as a sign that climate change (or, more specifically, its fevered disputation) may have lost much of its effectiveness as a political cudgel on the right. Also worth noting is that the sole climate-related event at CPAC 2020 falls under the category of “sponsored programming,” suggesting that the topic didn’t even command enough organic interest this year to earn its own slot on the agenda. The only reason CPAC attendees are even discussing climate change this time around, in other words, is because the Heartland Institute is willing to pay for the privilege.
It would seem the organization is putting a lot of faith in Seibt to make its radically anti-science message come across as anything other than radical—or angry, for that matter. In her introductory video for the Heartland Institute, she makes a point of depicting climate activists as misguided pawns rather than mortal enemies. “I really believe that many of them have good intentions,” she says, “that they are genuinely scared of the world ending, and that they are scared that their parents and grandparents are ruining the planet. It’s breaking relationships. It’s breaking up families.” In a sign of where climate denialism appears to be headed, she tries to frame it in humanist terms: “[I]t’s important that we act now and change this entire mainstream narrative of fear-mongering and climate alarmism, because it’s basically just holding us hostage in our own brains. Don’t let an agenda that is trying to depict you as an energy-sucking leech on the planet get into your brain and take away all of your passionate spirit.”
Since Seibt brought it up, let’s talk a little about “passionate spirit.” What does it look like to you? Can you identify it in your own face, in the rearview mirror, as you once again find yourself stuck in traffic on your drive to work? Does it bubble up inside you whenever you see the flare from a coal-fired power plant, shining brightly against a smoke-blackened sky in the middle of the afternoon? Does it pass like an electrical current from person to person inside a hotel conference room, as they listen to a paid spokesperson dress up the same old pitch for increased fossil fuel production in the gauzy rhetorical garb of self-care?
In fact, we’ve all borne witness to “passionate spirit” in action lately. It’s none of the above. Instead, it’s what kept Greta Thunberg sitting in the same spot—day after day, week after week, month after month—until powerful people finally began paying attention. It’s what led other young people to spark climate action efforts in their own cities, one after another, ultimately forming an international network of activists whose collective voice couldn’t be ignored. It’s what animates Native American water protectors fighting pipeline expansion in the Dakotas, and what compels kids who are barely into their teens to take their demand for a better world to the U.S. Capitol, even if it means getting themselves arrested.
It’s not to be found where Naomi Seibt and the Heartland Institute say it’s to be found. But it’s real. And if we channel it wisely, it’ll be what saves us.
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