Politics & Policy

WikiLeaks Exposes Podesta-Steyer Climate McCarthyism

Tom Steyer at a Center for American Progress conference in 2014. (Reuters photo: Gary Cameron)
How the Center for American Progress campaigned to suppress speech

The latest WikiLeaks dump contains plenty of insider dirt on John Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress and the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton. Perhaps the tawdriest story to be exposed by Podesta’s pilfered e-mails is the bragging by an employee of ThinkProgress, an arm of the Center for American Progress, about how they got Roger Pielke Jr.’s scalp.

A July 2014 e-mail from Judd Legum, an editor at ThinkProgress, to billionaire Democratic climate activist (and former coal-mine investor) Tom Steyer exposes the climate-change McCarthyism that the Left — and its myriad allies in the liberal media — use to discredit or silence anyone who doesn’t adhere to the orthodoxy of the climate catastrophists.

In the e-mail, Legum boasted to Steyer about how ThinkProgress had silenced Pielke by preventing him from publishing at Nate Silver’s then-new website, fivethirtyeight.com, on the issue of climate change. Legum was also asking Steyer, indirectly, for more money. Steyer and Podesta both sit on the board of the Center for American Progress. Between 2008 and 2014, Steyer gave the Center for American Progress some $3.85 million. I’ll come back to the specifics of that e-mail shortly.

First, some background. Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado since 2001, holds degrees in mathematics, public policy, and political science. He has authored or co-authored seven books. He has won several awards for his academic work. For about two decades, he was a prolific writer and speaker on climate issues. In 2013, he testified before Congress and declared that there is “exceedingly little scientific support for claims found in the media and political debate that hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and drought have increased in frequency or intensity on climate timescales either in the United States or globally.” During that same testimony, he said that global weather-related losses have not increased since 1990 as a proportion of GDP. He went on, saying that there were also no observable increases in floods, tornadoes, or droughts.

Pielke’s work was backed up by data and, in many cases, by the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But that didn’t matter to Podesta’s attack dogs at ThinkProgress. Long before his congressional testimony, Pielke had been the subject of a years-long smear campaign led by ThinkProgress’s Joe Romm. In fact, Romm had what can only be described as an obsession with Pielke. In a recent Twitter posting, Pielke wrote: “Propaganda works: I count more than 160 articles at the Center for American Progress trashing me over the years.”

A review of those articles shows that the vast majority of them were written by Romm. In reply to Romm’s increasingly shrill attacks, Pielke was civil, even gentlemanly. In 2010, Pielke challenged Romm to a public debate — in Romm’s hometown, at a date and venue of his choosing — offering to contribute up to $10,000 to the winner’s favorite charity. Romm, to his eternal discredit, refused. Furthermore, on his blog, Romm routinely deleted comments he didn’t like, including those that called him out for ducking Pielke’s challenge to debate.

I have followed Pielke’s work for years. In 2007, while editing Energy Tribune, I published an interview with his father, Roger Pielke Sr., who is also a climate scientist. In 2009, I published an interview with the younger Pielke on the same subject. I find both of them to be careful observers and thoughtful writers. Last year, I reviewed one of Roger Jr.’s books for The Weekly Standard.

This week I spoke to Pielke by phone. Asked for his initial reaction to the ThinkProgress e-mail, he replied, “I was just a professor with a blog. I had no funding. Really? They are going to go brag to a billionaire to shut down a professor with a blog? If that’s the case, I guess I was doing some pretty good stuff.”

Pielke went on to say that Romm had waged a “campaign of personal destruction” against him. “Nothing less than removing my voice from the public space was acceptable.” That campaign was carried out by Romm and other members of the Green Slime Machine at liberal media outlets like the Daily Kos and Huffington Post. Among other things, those outlets labeled Pielke a “disinformer” and “climate confusionist.” They did so even though Pielke’s views on climate are decidedly mainstream: He favors a carbon tax, increased energy efficiency, and a global effort at “removing incentives for fossil fuels and creating incentives for carbon neutral sources, including both nuclear and renewable.”

ThinkProgress’s smear efforts reached an apogee in 2014, after Pielke published a single article on fivethirtyeight.com — the website Silver had launched with the goal of using data and statistics to inform a new style of journalism. Pielke’s article addressed the inflation-adjusted cost of hurricanes. “I made the fairly mundane but obvious observation that disaster costs are not increasing because of extreme weather events,” Pielke said.

‘I made the fairly mundane but obvious observation that disaster costs are not increasing because of extreme weather events,’​ Pielke said.

Nevertheless, Pielke’s article met a storm of protest, led by the bloggers at ThinkProgress, who published not one but two articles on the same day (March 19, 2014) that Pielke’s article was published on fivethirtyeight.com. The first person quoted in both of ThinkProgress’s articles was none other than Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, one of the originators of the much-disputed “hockey stick” graph. It is worth noting that four years ago this month (October 22, 2012, to be precise), Mann sued National Review, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Rand Simberg, and Mark Steyn for defamation. That litigation is still pending. (For Steyn’s paint-blistering take on Mann, the lawsuit, and climate McCarthyism, read his December 15, 2015, testimony before a U.S. Senate committee.)

And it wasn’t just ThinkProgress. Immediately after Pielke’s article appeared on fivethirtyeight.com, the Green Slime Machine went into overdrive. The Daily Kos expressed dismay that “Silver would hire as one of his science writers the egregious purveyor of disinformation on climate change, Roger Pielke, Jr.” Pielke was also trashed by writers at Slate, Earth Island Journal, and the Guardian. Rather than stand behind Pielke, Silver fired him. Silver didn’t even favor him with a phone call. Pielke told me that two and a half years later, Silver still hasn’t contacted him. “You can’t have a real journalistic enterprise if your only goal is to be popular,” Pielke told me.

Now, back to WikiLeaks. In Legum’s e-mail to Steyer, he wrote that “it’s fair to say” that without ThinkProgress’s continual trashing of Pielke and his work, “Pielke would still be writing on climate change for 538.” Legum continued, “He would be providing important cover for climate deniers backed by Silver’s very respected brand. But because of our work, he is not. I don’t think there is another site on the internet having this kind of impact on the climate debate.” Legum concluded his note by writing, “Thanks for your support of this work. Looking forward to doing even more in the coming months.”

So there you have it: One of Podesta’s highest-profile operatives is bragging to one of America’s richest climate activists that he and his team have silenced a prominent academic for the sin of disagreeing with Mann and other climatologists. ThinkProgress, Romm, and their fellow travelers denigrate anyone who might be getting money from the “wrong” funders. But when it comes to soliciting big bucks from Steyer — and then bragging about how effective you are at defaming people on the other side — well, that’s okay because, you know, climate change.

The WikiLeaks story about Pielke has, predictably, been ignored by the liberal media. No stories about it have appeared in the Daily Kos, Huffington Post, or Media Matters. It doesn’t fit their narrative. A few pieces about the Podesta-WikiLeaks story have appeared in conservative outlets, include a recent piece published on Breitbart by the British journalist James Delingpole, who got it exactly right. He wrote: “If the ‘science’ is as settled as it frequently claims, why is it necessary to orchestrate attacks on any scientist who speaks even slightly out of turn?”

Since the fivethirtyeight.com uproar, Pielke has quit publishing about climate change. He’s gone on to become a world-leading expert on sports and doping. He now heads the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, which is housed within the university’s athletics department. He has more than 8,000 followers on Twitter and is an active, maybe rabid, tweeter. “I’m having a blast,” he told me. Working on climate change, he said, “you wake up, it’s the same people arguing about the same stuff. In sports, you have no idea what idea you will be writing about. . . . There’s so much going on. There’s so much upheaval.”

What lessons did he learn from his stint in the climate-change discussion? He replied that the debate is “almost religious in its intensity.” Instead of having a rational discussion about the best ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the debate has become solely “about power, about who gets to speak and whose voices are deemed legitimate.” The smear campaign against him by Romm and ThinkProgress was designed “to make public speech costly.”

In a concluding thought, he told me: “After all this, I’m a big supporter of academic tenure. I have no doubt that if I didn’t have tenure, I’d be doing landscaping now.”

— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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