That the world is round has been established fact and common knowledge since ancient Greece, when the mathematician Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE) calculated its girth with remarkable accuracy.
But even today there is a Flat Earth Society, reincarnated in 2004, which couches stupendous disbelief in the incongruously modern accoutrement of a website.
A 2009 Huffington Science post described the Society as the ultimate and oldest conspiracy theory. It professes to believe that space photographs are faked along with all the tangible evidence of a spherical Earth. Nothing matters but what they feel beneath their feet, and that feels flat.
At least those people are few in number and harmless. Not so their political equivalent — the Republican Party.
The science of global warming — that it’s happening, that it’s bad, and that human activity is responsible — is virtually as settled as the proof that the world is round. The isolated kooks with doctorates who disagree resemble the “experts” who said cigarettes were harmless. Not by coincidence, the conspiracy to deny global warming follows the tobacco lobby’s old playbook: Deny, disparage, confuse.
From statehouses like Florida’s to both houses of Congress, the GOP is in deliberate denial. In Rick Scott‘s Florida, state employees are forbidden to utter “climate change” or “global warming.” North Carolina’s infamous legislature barred its scientists from factoring global warming into their assessments of coastal erosion. Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency is up there with Obamacare on the GOP hit list.
The party line is so pervasive that Rep. David Jolly caused a stir when he renounced it recently to an audience at the University of South Florida.
“I think the climate’s changing. I think man’s had an impact, and we need to stop arguing about the science,” he said. “… I truly do not understand why members of Congress argue over science.”
Actually, it’s easy to understand. The explanation is in Jane Mayer‘s “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”
The most important book so far in 2016, it explains in detail how successfully the billionaires have conspired against climate science, health care, environmental protection, campaign finance reform and just about everything else that matters.
The Tea Party, the best-known example of their success, wasn’t exactly spontaneous combustion. It was fed and fanned from the outset by the petrochemical billionaires David and Charles Koch, their allies in the super-rich right-wing, their acolytes on talk radio, and the propaganda machine that calls itself Fox News.
The Kochtopus, as some describe it, owes its grip not just to the campaign contributions that elect, defeat and intimidate politicians. The Gilded Age’s robber barons were comparative amateurs. The modern strategy is to manipulate public opinion and co-opt the grassroots. An example of that is in the history of Obamacare, which was popular when first proposed.
“If there was a single ultra-wealthy interest group that hoped to see Obama fail as he took office,” writes Mayer, “it was the fossil fuel industry… And if there was one test of its members’ concentrated financial power over the machinery of American democracy, it was this minority’s ability to stave off government action on climate change as science and the rest of the world were moving in the opposite direction. While Obama’s health-care bill was useful in riling up Tea Party protesters, his environmental and energy policies were the real target.”
The strategy included personal attacks on climate scientists. Mayer, a New Yorker staff writer, got a taste of that. While she researched the book, a private investigator went after her and a smear campaign accused her, falsely, of plagiarism.
Mayer cites a seminal study by Greenpeace. From 2005 to 2008, the Kochs sent almost $25 million “into dozens of different organizations fighting climate reform.”
A subsequent study by Robert Brulle, a Drexel University professor, identified some 140 conservative foundations involved in a “corporate lobbying campaign disguised as a tax-exempt, philanthropic endeavor,” waging a “permanent campaign to undermine Americans’ faith in climate science and to defeat any effort to regulate carbon emissions.”
Brulle identified $558 million in 5,299 grants to 91 different nonprofit organizations. The subversion of American democracy has been financed out of the Treasury’s back door.
The Koch influence, applied through charitable contributions as well as through such well-known fronts as Americans for Prosperity and such witless stooges as Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin, extended even to corrupting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
As Mayer describes an exhibit that opened in March 2010 at the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, “the message, funded by his fortune, was that the human race had evolved for the better in response to previous environmental challenges and would adapt in the face of climate change too.
“An interactive game suggested that if the climate on earth became intolerable, people might build ‘underground cities’ and develop ‘short, compact bodies’ or ‘curved spines’ so that ‘moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.'”
Democrats have hardly been immune to the science deniers and their campaign money, but it’s only the Republicans who have been thoroughly brainwashed.
There’s this to say for the Flat Earth Society: It compares favorably to the Republican Party in one respect. According to that Huffington Science article, its leaders accept the evidence of global warming even though much of it comes from NASA, an arch villain in their conspiracy theology.
They also believe in evolution.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina.