How could someone who is so right be so wrong?

We would not be able to understand our world–and the peril our world faces from global warming–were it not for the indispensable work of former NASA climate scientist James Hansen over the decades. Hansen’s warnings of the risks of carbon pollutionand his stirring 1988 Senate testimony on what would happen if emissions were not slashed–generated tremendous concern from those who actually gave a damn about their children and grandchildren…and tremendous opposition from the fossil fuel industry, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to discredit him and other prominent climate scientists. Hansen’s 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity is one of the best books ever written about the climate crisis, and should join Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines and John Berger’s Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis on your bookshelf.

Hansen’s continued leadership–in particular his 2011 declaration that the Keystone XL pipeline project must be stopped at all costs and his call for federal legislation that would put a price on carbon emissions, with all collected revenues returned to the public as a dividend–is admirable, and frankly I’m reluctant to criticize a man who has done so much to protect this planet. However, when someone, no matter how principled, makes an inaccurate claim, that claim must be corrected–and when it comes to the current US political system, Hansen has made a claim that is profoundly inaccurate.

In an October 11, 2014 op-ed for the Des Moines Register, Hansen asserted:

Is it possible that Iowa, perhaps in cooperation with one or more neighboring states, such as Nebraska, Minnesota or Wisconsin, could help avert the tragedy? I believe it is conceivable that Midwest common sense could affect national and international policies by providing an example. A regional carbon fee cannot rise too high without disadvantaging local industry, because states do not have the practical ability to impose border tax adjustments. However, up to a reasonable level the net effect of a carbon fee would be beneficial, if the proceeds went to the public.

There is a conservative tendency in the Midwest. But conservatives are not the enemy of the planet. Historically conservatives have been the environment’s best friend. Conservation and creation care should be in the blood of conservatives.

A political divide has developed because conservatives fear that liberals will use the climate issue to increase taxes and government intrusion into their lives. These concerns provide fertile ground for anti-science nut-cases (those believing global warming is a hoax) to flourish.

Most conservatives I know are thoughtful. They do not want to go down in history as being responsible for blocking effective action to stabilize climate. Gaining their support for a rising revenue-neutral carbon fee, which is in fact a conservative approach, is possible.

Hansen has repeatedly suggesed that conservatives oppose action on climate merely because they fear liberal big-government solutions, and has chastised liberals for their alleged fetish for said big-government solutions:

* In a May 30, 2013 Huffington Post piece entitled “The American Party,” Hansen wrote:

Some Republicans are so well-oiled and coal-fired that they assert that human-made climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by scientists seeking research funding (allowing them to work 80 hours a week for a modest wage, after investing 7-10 years in obtaining their higher education). Realistic Republicans, seeing the power of extremists, hesitate to speak.

Well-oiled coal-fired Democrats exist too, but their main problem is addiction to spending our money. Even when they advocate fee-and-dividend, they propose to use much of the fee to “pay down the national debt” (read: “make the government bigger”) and to fund their pet energy technologies.

* In a June 13, 2013 interview with the Denver Post, Hansen stated:

“It has to be a carbon tax and it really has to come from conservatives…That money has to be given back to the public on a per capita basis so all legal residents of the country get an equal amount and that way the person who does better than average in limiting their carbon footprint would make money and then everybody in the country becomes an environmentalists whether they want to or not,” Hansen said…

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, have introduced a bill that would create a carbon tax, but that doesn’t make Hansen happy.

“As usual the Democrats are going to take some of the money, 40 percent of it,” Hansen said. “Conservatives have to put the foot down and say you can’t use this as another excuse to make government bigger. Democrats have a problem they can’t keep their hands off our wallets.”

* In a March 13, 2014 Senate hearing on the Keystone XL pipeline, Hansen testified:

“An important point is that such legislation I think needs to be introduced by conservatives, because I’m afraid liberals will try to take part of the money to make the government bigger. Not one dime should go to the government. 100 percent should go to the public.”

* In an October 14, 2014 interview with The Indypendent, Hansen declared:

“The solution does need to come from the conservative side because we can’t get the Democrats to keep their hands off the money,” he said. “The conservatives don’t want the government to get bigger. That’s what their afraid of.”

* In an October 14, 2014 interview with Iowa Public Radio, Hansen proclaimed:

“…Conservatives see this as threatening to them because the liberals, the policies advocated by liberals, would indeed increase taxes and increase control over people’s lives, increase regulations, and that’s what conservatives object to. So they, in turn, deny the issue and say it’s all a hoax, or at least the most extreme ones do.” (Remarks begin at the 8:10 mark)

For the moment, let us leave aside the implication that liberals want “big-government” solutions to reduce carbon pollution for ideological purposes, as opposed to wanting “big-government” solutions because there is simply no other way to slash emissions dramatically enough to avoid catastrophic warming. Let’s focus on Hansen’s claim that conservatives oppose action on climate because they fear “big-government solutions.” Really?

Earlier this week, we heard one such conservative, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), spouting off about climate change:

Ryan is running for re-election in his Wisconsin district against Democratic challenger Rob Zerman. According to a report by the Associated Press, the question of humanity’s responsibility for climate change came up during a debate on Monday between the two. “I don’t know the answer to that question,” Ryan said, when the moderator pressed each candidate on the topic. “I don’t think science does, either.”

Ryan also asserted that “we’ve had climate change forever,” and that the benefits of policies to cut carbon emissions “do not outweigh the costs.”

This is not Paul Ryan’s first go-round on the issue: back in July, the Congressman dismissively said that “climate change occurs no matter what,” and that efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants are “an excuse to grow government, raise taxes and slow down economic growth.”

Of course, Ryan is nothing more than a common streetwalker, ready to get on his back as soon as David Koch puts his money on the dresser. Yet he’s obviously not the only one–and this is the point: the reason conservatives oppose climate action is not because conservatives fear “big-government solutions,” but because the US conservative movement and the Republican Party have been completely corrupted by the fossil-fuel lobby–the very same fossil-fuel lobby that spent a quarter-century smearing Hansen as an alarmist.

As Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse noted earlier this year

Before Citizens United, there was an active heartbeat of Republican activity on climate change. Since then, the evidence has only become stronger. But after Citizens United uncorked all that big, dark money, and allowed it to cast its bullying shadow of intimidation over our democracy, Republicans—other than those few who parrot the polluter party line that climate change is just a big old hoax— they have all walked back from any major climate legislation.

We have Senators here who represent historic native villages, now washing into the sea and needing relocation because of climate change and sea-level rise. We have Senators who represent great American coastal cities, now overwashed by high tides because of climate change. We have Senators representing states swept by drought and wildfire. We have Senators whose home-state forests—by the hundreds of square miles—are being killed by the marauding pine beetle. We have Senators whose home states’ glaciers are disappearing before their very eyes. We have Senators whose states are having to raise offshore bridges and highways before rising seas. We have Senators whose emblematic home state species are dying off, like the New Hampshire moose, for instance swarmed by ticks, by the tens of thousands that snows no longer kill.

Yet almost none will work on a major climate bill. It’s not safe to, ever since Citizens United allowed the bullying, polluting special interests to bombard our elections, and threaten and promise to bombard our elections, with their attack ads.

I love James Hansen for his profound courage in the wake of the assault he has faced over the decades for stating the truth about what carbon pollution is doing to our planet. However, his assertion that conservatives oppose action on climate change merely because of opposition to “big-government solutions” is simply at variance with the facts. Conservatives oppose action on climate change because they have pledged allegiance to the fossil-fuel flag, and to the rapaciousness for which it stands: one nation, under Koch, inhospitable, with liberty and justice for some.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.