I Want to Believe?
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown is a pretty swanky place, but Ron Bailey would rather be somewhere else. It’s a rainy Saturday morning in October, and Reason magazine is hosting a two-day event called “Reason in D.C.” It is mainly for donors to the foundation that publishes the magazine. Bailey, the libertarian journal’s science correspondent, is getting ready to head a panel discussing global climate change.
As he prepares to take the stage he mutters, “I’m going to have to go up and experience some pain.”
Bailey has a reason to be apprehensive. He was once one of the leading skeptics of climate change. Yet in recent years he has shifted. He now believes that global warming is real, man-made, and potentially a serious problem. This stance has led him to embrace taxes as a solution.
He must now explain himself to some of the very people whose generosity helps keep the magazine that employs him afloat.
“It is really annoying to have to even remotely agree with Al Gore,” the lanky 6’, 5” science reporter tells the audience. And yet, he says, libertarians need to accept this and do something to respond to it. And he cannot see a free-market way to do that.
“So, the question is, ‘What is the least bad way to regulate?’ And that is why I have come out in favor of a carbon tax,” Bailey explains.
Co-panelist Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has a long history of opposition to climate and energy regulations, shakes his head. Even if we must “do something,” why must we do that?
“Why must that ‘something’ be the increase of statist power?” he asks. “The costs of energy rationing are not trivial.”
The debate is spirited but civil. Despite Bailey’s earlier fears, his remarks do not result in any hostility from the audience. Most listen raptly and seem intrigued by his presentation.
“It was intellectually very stimulating,” says Reason subscriber Ron Gray afterwards. He isn’t sold on carbon taxes though. “I’m not sure it can be implemented in an effective fashion.”
Still, the applause is a relief for Bailey. His turnabout has otherwise been an awkward, lonely experience. It has driven a wedge between him and friends and colleagues like Smith. Meanwhile, it has won him virtually no support from the environmentalist movement, which still views him as an enemy.
But as the polite reception at the Reason event shows, his switch hasn’t been that big of a deal in the libertarian policy world. And that might be the most surprising thing: If a hard-core skeptic like Ron Bailey can change his mind, where does that suggest the debate on global warming is heading?
A few years ago a debate like the one Reason hosted would have been unthinkable in a conservative or libertarian setting. Throughout the 80s and 90s free marketers disputed — when they weren’t actually mocking — the whole notion of global warming.
Many still feel that way. The Politico recently reported that 26% of Republican voters think global warming is a hoax. Senator James Inhofe, ranking Republican on Environment and Public Works Committee, said in 2005 that the threat of catastrophic global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
It was a natural position for the Right to take when global warming first became an issue, says Steven Hayward, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Most conservatives — and I was among them — said, ‘Who is telling us that this is the new crisis?’” Hawyard says. “It is the same people who were wrong about all of the previous [environmental] crises,” like overpopulation or peak oil.
Besides, Hayward and others on his side of the debate repeatedly insist, the science just wasn’t clear at the time. There were sound reasons to be skeptical. Most now concede there is a warming trend, but many dispute its severity.
One of the leading doubters was Bailey. Beginning in 1989, he wrote a series of columns and essays for leading publications like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, National Review, and Reason, among many others. Most of them had the same basic theme: Proponents of global warming fears are dangerous kooks.
“[W]hile environmental problems do exist, the end of the world is not at hand. With Earth in the Balance, Gore has joined the ranks of the end-of-the-second-millennium low-budget prophets,” Bailey wrote in a 1992 book review for NR.
Bailey continued to press this argument throughout the decade at think tanks like the Cato Institute and CEI, where he won the first Warren T. Brookes writing fellowship. In 1993, he authored Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Environmental Apocalypse.
In the book’s global warming chapter, entitled “The Sky Is Falling,” he wrote: “To the dismay of the apocalypse boosters, their data, on which the headlines are based, appear to be simply wrong. Satellites orbiting the earth for the last 13 years that detect atmospheric temperature differences as small as 0.01C degrees confirm that there has been only a statistically insignificant upward trend of 0.06 degrees in global atmospheric temperatures during the 1980s.”
Bailey continued in a similar vein after becoming Reason’s science writer in 1997. But close readers of his columns would have noticed that his arguments on the subject grew more tentative in the last few years.
Then, in 2005, he announced that he had been wrong all along.
In an online column titled, “We’re All Global Warmers Now,” Bailey wrote that anyone still clinging to notion that there is no warming “ought to hang it up. All data sets — satellite, surface, and balloon — have been pointing to rising global temperatures. In fact, they all have had upward pointing arrows for nearly a decade.”
Bailey explained that he had long relied on satellite data by climatologists John Christy and Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama, Huntsville to justify his own skepticism. That was the data that he cited in Eco-Scam for example.
Unfortunately for him, that data was wrong. An article in Science magazine pointed out that an error in the satellite data had introduced a “spurious cooling trend.” Once corrected, the satellite data fell in line with others showing a warming trend.
Bailey ruminated on his mistake in a later online Reason column jokingly entitled, “Confessions of an Alleged ExxonMobil Whore.” Actually, it was all an honest mistake, he said, and begged his readers’ indulgence.
“In hindsight I can only plead that there is no magic formula for deciding when enough evidence has accumulated that a fair-minded person must change his or her mind on a controversial scientific issue. With regard to global warming it finally did for me in the last year,” he wrote. He took solace in the fact that he was one of the first skeptics to convert.
He added that global warming “could well be a significant problem.”
A socialist when he went to college in the early 1970s, Bailey’s undergraduate years happened to coincide with a boom in books warning of a coming environmental apocalypse. In just a few years, natural resources would run out. Oil reserves would dry up. The air and rivers would turn toxic. Overpopulation would lead to famine and disease. To Bailey’s college professors, it was the gospel truth.
Meanwhile the young socialist’s idealism led him, ironically enough, towards libertarianism.
“I became a libertarian, politically speaking because — and I know this is going to sound sanctimonious but it is literally true — if you are really concerned about the poor people then you have to pick the system that in fact helps poor people. And the only one that has done that is democratic capitalism, period,” he says during a long interview at his Dupont Circle apartment.
By the mid-1980s he was writing for Forbes magazine. He hit upon the idea of writing an article revisiting environmentalist books and asking the authors how they had gotten their doomsday predictions so obviously wrong.
The answer he got from people like Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, was simple: We didn’t get anything wrong. The earth is still doomed. Ehrlich told a flabbergasted Bailey that he merely got his timing wrong.
“Well, by this point, he was off by two decades. So I said, ‘When is it going to happen?’ And he said, ‘After the year 2000,’” Bailey says, his disgust still evident almost two decades later.
Somebody had to unmask these people Bailey thought. He would be that man.
“What happened is that I decided to write (Eco-Scam) as I became more aware that environmentalism is not a science, it is an ideology. I was trying in my mind to find out why all of these things were accepted as true — even my professors had taught them to me — and the scientific evidence to back them up was the thinnest [stuff] possible,” he says.
And thus his career as a professional skeptic was born. It wasn’t easy. Unless one can manage a best-selling book or a regular TV gig, opinion journalism is not a pathway to riches. It can be especially hard if your area of expertise is deemed politically incorrect.
It is “virtually impossible” to have an honest debate on global warming, says Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “The debate is very, very heated and very passionate. It can get very personal. It can get quite nasty,” Taylor says.
Bailey tried anyway, regularly hitting the lecture circuit. It often hit back. Audiences could be difficult, even hostile, when challenged on climate change.
Environmentalist groups and liberal journals were eager to discredit or embarrass skeptics. Web sites like Exxonsecrets.org maintain dossiers on Bailey and his scandalous writings.
In early 2006, an article in the New Republic tried to tie Bailey to the Jack Abramoff scandal, based on the fact that Bailey had traveled to the North Marianas Islands on the Islands’ dime. (It was one of Abramoff’s clients.) Luckily for Bailey, he had disclosed this in the story he wrote about the trip, which wasn’t terribly complimentary of the islands. So the hit on Bailey fizzled.
The British Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific organization, darkly noted in 2006 that ExxonMobil had donated millions to groups that had projected “an inaccurate and misleading view of climate change.” The oil giant has given $250,000 to the Reason Foundation since 2000. You can see where the society was going with this.
Bailey mocked them in his “ExxonMobil Whore” column, saying, no, then-CEO Lee Raymond did not “hand me brown paper bags filled with stacks of unmarked bills in the back of taxis while whispering, ‘Ron, we’re counting on your widely read and highly influential articles to help stave off the Green onslaught against our soaring profits.’”
Bailey concedes he found it all rather wearisome. It also hardened his opinions of the environmentalists and the claims they made. It was part of the reason why he discounted global warming, he says.
“On global warming, the problem is ideologically I suspect it did cause me to …discount evidence which cut against the way I wanted it to be in that case. My justification to my self would be that I had seen [the environmentalists] be so wrong so many times before, why should I trust them this time?” he says.
But when the science appeared irrefutable, Bailey changed. It was not a complete conversion though. He still opposes most policies favored by environmentalists because he fears their cures may be worse than the disease.
“Cap and trade is not working. It is very complicated; it allows corporations and governments to game the system in all kinds of horrible ways. And you don’t get any benefit out of it. Even if you thought you were trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it is just not working. Therefore the economic policy solution is a carbon tax,” he says.
A carbon tax would mean that the government would simply increase the cost of fossil fuels in order to discourage their use and therefore reduce emissions. He likes the idea because he sees it as less prone to cheating and corruption. Innovation would spur better technology and better practices by industry. It’s also easily adjustable. If the warming trend gets better or worse, governments can alter the tax accordingly.
It is an interesting idea. Al Gore certainly thinks so. He has endorsed a carbon tax as well.
Liberal journalist Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, says it is “admirable” that Bailey conceded his error but has little further praise for him.
“He now accepts human causation, which is all to the good. However … he seems to think that some of the worst case projections are overdone and we’re only going to see mild warming,” Mooney said. “I don’t accept it. … I see no reason to assume global warming is going to be minor and manageable.”
Others are less kind. When the environmentalist Web sites began posting Bailey’s “confessions” story, commentators saw little reason to let him off the hook.
“(L)ibertarianism is a blindness and an echo chamber, lowering one’s I.Q. by about 30 points,” wrote Bart Anderson of energybulletin.net, in a typical posting. At the site treehugger.com, the mood ran more towards tarring and feathering Bailey.
That kind of stuff doesn’t bother him much. After all, he has similar feelings for the environmentalists.
“The difference (between us) is that I have admitted that I was wrong. When have they ever admitted that they were wrong about something?” Bailey asks.
But his switch has also strained relationships with erstwhile free-market friends.
“You’ll find that there are two groups [of thought] out there. You’ll find that one group is still inclined to argue that the evidence that industrial emissions are the primary driver of the warming we are feeling today is just not true,” said Cato’s Taylor.
The others think the earth is getting warmer, but debate the severity and need for a policy change. Taylor counts himself and Bailey among that group. But unlike Bailey, he’s against a carbon tax.
It happened months ago but Bailey is still steaming about an incident at a CEI dinner in which speaker John O’Sullivan made a joke about Pontius Pilate that Bailey believes was an oblique reference to him. (Bailey’s name was not mentioned by O’Sullivan.)
“I was not happy. I talked to Fred (Smith) afterwards and he found it hilarious,” Bailey fumes.
The desk in Fred Smith’s office at CEI’s K Street headquarters is littered with science fiction novels. Smith reads them voraciously. He loves to imagine the world as it might be in the future.
“One of the great strengths the Left has is that they propose ideal solutions, utopian solutions,” Smith says. “By doing so they gain the support of idealists, who as young people believe the world could be a much better place than it is.”
The free-market Right should do the same thing, he argues. It should not give up the moral high ground of promoting freedom over statism. Alas, Smith sighs, Bailey has done just that.
Smith, like all of the other libertarians interviewed for this article, agrees the earth is warming. He just isn’t sure that the warming is so bad that it requires his side to propose solutions.
“How can anyone endorse carbon energy taxes and an emissions trading system? I don’t understand it. Well, Ron says we have to show that we are in favor of doing something,” Smith says, repeating the words “doing something” with amazement.
“Since when do free-market people see ‘doing something’ as expanding the role of the state to interfere with our lives? It seems to me that the whole idealism of our movement is to show ways how free people can solve their problems better.”
Smith and Bailey have known each other for about 20 years. He remains an adjunct scholar at the institute to this day. Despite their mutual exasperation, both speak fondly of each other. But they don’t speak often.
“I call up Ron from time to time and say, ‘Ron I am trying to understand. Give me one more chance,’” Smith says.
As an adjunct scholar, Bailey receives no money from CEI. He only does when he works on a specific project with them, such as Eco-Scam. But his last project for them was in 2000, and there are no plans for any future projects.
“I don’t think Ron could write — at least I have not seen him write — a piece that was consistent with a libertarian vision on global warming,” Smith says.
Bailey’s CEI bio was even recently taken off the institute’s online list of in-house experts, though it can still be found if one searches the Web site. (When I asked Smith about this later he said he was unaware that the bio wasn’t listed.) Asked to explain Bailey’s change, Smith say he believes Bailey was worn down by his years on the lecture circuit and appearing at debates opposite environmentalists.
“It is very, very lonely,” says Smith, who does quite a bit of it himself. “I think the psychological pressures of resisting the crowd are much higher than we realize. And I think some of us stumble.”
All of this is said in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone. Smith adds later: “Sometimes your friends marry the wrong woman and the best you can do is to say that ‘I think you are making a mistake,’ but still be friends. I think Ron is taking the wrong position on this, but I think we can still be friends.”
If his ties to CEI are shaky, Bailey’s position at Reason is secure. Nick Gillespie, until recently Reason’s editor-in-chief and Bailey’s boss, calls him “absolutely the most thoughtful and honest and authentic science reporter” out there. New Reason editor-in-chief Matt Welch is a fan too.
Bailey complains of being blackballed from some conservative publications but attributes that more to his writings on cloning and stem cells, which some social conservatives have taken exception to.
Otherwise his byline still turns up in places like the Wall Street Journal. Colleagues like Taylor and Hayward still count themselves as admirers of his writing.
Could Bailey’s shift be a portent? If a one-time skeptic like him can be converted, does that mean the debate on global warming itself is shifting? Gillespie thinks it might. He compares Bailey to the proverbial “canary in the coalmine.”
“When Ron Bailey shifts position that is really meaningful,” Gillespie says. “Wherever he is that is where the conventional wisdom among the broadly-defined Right, among libertarians and free-market people will be. If Ron Bailey is someplace, look for them to be there about 15-30 minutes later.”
Indeed, since Bailey’s conversion, others on the conservative/libertarian axis have come forward with similar conclusions.
“Ron changing his mind on global warming cemented my own transition to an AGW (i.e., man-made climate change) believer,” says Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle.
A June cover story in National Review declared: “It is no longer possible, scientifically or politically, to deny that human activities have very likely increased global temperatures; what remains in dispute is the precise magnitude of the human impact. Conservatives should accept this reality — and move on to the question of what we should do about it.” The author, Jim Manzi, does not support a carbon tax, but has taken flack from conservatives for the piece anyway.
A November story in the Politico quoted Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., a one-time skeptic turned recent convert, as saying that the GOP will get “hammered” if they do not address the issue.
“A lot of smart Republican thinkers are coming to the same conclusion,” according to the article, citing people like Newt Gingrich and Ken Mehlman as examples.
AEI’s Hayward favors a carbon tax too, arguing it could be a vehicle for broader tax reform.
Bailey himself dismisses the argument that he has anything to do with these changes out of hand, finding the whole notion both silly and exasperating. He is just a writer, he says. Who cares what he thinks?
“It is just hard to believe,” he says.
A few moments later, he adds, “Well, obviously somebody thinks I’m doing something right because they keep publishing me.”
–Sean Higgins is Washington correspondent for Investor’s Business Daily and a contributing editor to Doublethink.