John Podesta: Climate Change Deniers are the ‘Know-Nothings’ of this Generation

John Podesta, CEO of the Center for American Progress, told Climate Progress that climate change deniers are the “Know Nothings” of this generation.   The former Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton was referencing the American nativist political group in the mid 1800’s that spread irrational fear about immigrants.

“I’d call them the know nothings of the 21st Century – the people who are really just denying reality,” he said in an interview at the National Clean Energy Summit.  Watch it:

Podesta has pushed hard to keep climate change action at the forefront of policy, a key reason he launched this blog five years ago.  He called on President Obama to step up and fight the “damaging initiatives from House Republicans,” asking: “At the end of the day, does he beat back this assault on the science?”

I think it’s really quite critical. It’s one of the most important issues that the country will face and the world will change…  I think one of the reasons that you saw a drop in support or some questioning of whether this should be a priority … people stopped talking, they stopped educating, they stopped making this a high-priority issue.  The press stopped dealing with it…  So we need to be constantly educating on this issue.

While the President has indicated he will stand behind the EPA’s decision to regulate carbon emissions and other pollutants, he has given the issue very little rhetorical support, allowing leading Republicans to hijack the “debate.” His most high-profile stance on climate came in a recent interview with a child reporter from Scholastic News, in which he explained the basic science and said that it’s “going to be something that we’re really going to have to focus on.”

If Obama is to help make the “Know Nothing” climate deniers a relic of history like the last Know Nothing party, he needs to talk about the issue in much higher-profile setting.

18 Responses to John Podesta: Climate Change Deniers are the ‘Know-Nothings’ of this Generation

  1. prokaryotes says:

    More Chief of Staffs about Climate Change

    Global climate change presents a serious national security threat which could impact Americans at home, impact United States military operations and heighten global tensions, according to a new study released by a blue-ribbon panel of retired admirals and generals from all branches of the armed services.

    The study, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” explores ways projected climate change is a threat multiplier in already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states — the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.

    The CNA Corporation brought together eleven retired three-star and four-star admirals and generals to provide advice, expertise and perspective on the impact of climate change. CNAC writers and researchers compiled the report under the board’s direction and review.

    The report includes several formal findings:

    Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security.
    Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.
    Projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world.
    Climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.

    General Gordon R. Sullivan, USA (Ret.)
    Former Chief of Staff, U.S. Army
    Chairman, Military Advisory Board

    Admiral Mullen and the “Strategic Imperative” of Energy Security
    Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen set the tone:
    We in the Defense Department have a role to play here – not solely because we should be good stewards of our environment and our scarce resources but also because there is a strategic imperative for us to reduce risk, improve efficiencies, and preserve our freedom of action whenever we can. …

    So, to start with, let’s agree that our concept of energy must change. Rather than look at energy as a commodity or a means to an end, we need to see it as an integral part of a system … a system that recognizes the linkages between consumption and our ability to pursue enduring interests.

    When we find reliable and renewable sources of energy, we will see benefit to our infrastructure, our environment, our bottom line … and I believe most of all … our people. And the benefits from “sustainability” won’t just apply to the military.

    Beyond these immediate benefits, we may even be able to help stem the tide of strategic security issues related to climate change.

    This is no small matter. In addition to the newly developing waterways near the polar icecaps, in 2008, the National Intelligence Council identified twenty of our bases that are physically at risk as a result of the rising level of the ocean.

    And regardless of what the cause of these changes is – the impacts around the world could be sobering – and far-reaching.

    As glaciers melt and shrink at a faster rate, water supplies have been diminishing in parts of Asia.

    Rising sea levels could lead to mass migration and displacement similar to what we have seen in Pakistan’s flood … and climate shifts could drastically reduce the arable land needed to feed a burgeoning population as we have seen in Africa.

    This scarcity of – and potential competition for – resources like water, food, and space – compounded by an influx of refugees if coastal lands are lost … could not only create a humanitarian crisis, but create conditions of hopelessness that could lead to failed states … and make populations vulnerable to radicalization.

    These challenges highlight the systemic implications – and multiple-order effects – inherent in energy security and climate change.

    We need to go aggressively after the artificial denial about the science on climate change – the Risk Implications are to far reaching to let this go on!

  2. While I agree with Podesta’s sentiments, he seems to be ignorant about the 19th-century Know-Nothings. They were called that because when asked about their political organization, they were supposed to reply that they knew nothing. The Know-Nothing name referred only to that.

    [JR: Just meant to be metaphorical, I think. But, it must be said that Romney has embraced the specific Know-Nothing strategy.]

  3. Further arguing with global warming deniers is pointless. Denialism is a magical delusion movement designed to waste time.

    If there were no denier distractions, we would be talking about what we should actually do to mitigate and adapt. And those are far more difficult discussions.

    It is as if we actively seek out the denialist squabbles in order to avoid discussing the far more difficult subject of mitigation. What is the fastest way to reduce carbon emissions the most?

    I makes me very uncomfortable to say that we cannot delay, then get stuck in the defeatist task to trying to teach science to those who openly boast of their delusion. They have derailed discussion of the real action to reduce carbon immediately.

  4. Susan Anderson says:

    Ever since Earth2100 was aired (prime time CBS, June 2009; sadly it disappeared almost without buzz, except for those claiming it was propaganda) John Podesta has been one of my heroes, as is Joe Romm.

    It is as Pauli said almost past time for tearing our hair and trying to get people to listen to sense, but I am slightly cheered to know that Obama will at least share the truth with kids, though he appears to have some idea that action can wait. I was wondering if he had totally lost his marbles on climate change.

  5. Peter Mizla says:

    Podesta is right, but Obama’s mouth has been as tight as a clam when mentioning climate change or global warming.

    Yes we are facing very deep problems- but from my interaction with people from so many levels of society there is little concern, or even basic understanding of the science.

    The Special interests and their ‘Robber Baron’ influence have done a fantastic job of brainwashing the public.

  6. Peter Mizla says:


    I am using Chrome as a browser now- very FAST.

  7. Peter Sergienko says:

    What a great comment–thank you for saying this.

    At a very modest level I have worked on several local climate change initiatives, including some educational efforts. I have found it very useful to provide information to real people who are genuinely receptive to it. I’ve been fortunate to have such opportunities and can see the benefits of this work almost immediately. There are many people of good will who are generally aware of the problems, but who aren’t engaging with the issues in depth or as urgently as the science demands. More education really helps to motivate these folks.

    At the same time, it is a complete waste of time to argue with the ideologues, astro-turfers and paid denialists. It is literally a dead end.

    There’s something about human nature that compels us to devote disporportionate time and energy to address dissatisfaction. We need to resist that impulse. Instead, we need to turn our efforts toward the persuadable, transforming them into a political force for needed change.

  8. CW says:

    I agree almost completely — just the tiniest of quibbles in that we should still do the occasional retort as a way to convince not the deniers but those with an open mind who might be listening.

    But overall, yes, the balance is not right. We need to focus SO MUCH MORE on solutions and their many benefits, how to make them happen, shining examples, leading individuals and organizations and so on.

  9. Lollipop says:

    I agree up to a point. Those who have made a career for themselves of denial and those who are steadfastly committed to the idea should be ignored. But plenty of people deny because it is the default position of their political team. Those people can and must be constructively engaged. For most of us, talking to those people one at a time and patiently welcoming them into the fold is they best transition work we can do.

  10. Jeff Huggins says:

    I appreciate what John, CAP, and etc. are saying and doing. But CAP and all of us are getting a D-minus in terms of effectiveness. It’s pretty clear that the President is more influenced by Fox News (because he’s afraid of it and/or for some reason keeps wanting to compromise and find common ground with the “right” even as the “right” moves farther and farther to the “right”, or indeed into The Twilight Zone, dragging us all along with it, because the President keeps letting himself be dragged) than he is influenced by CAP. So what is all that about? It almost feels like we are becoming enablers of Obama’s ineffectiveness. What grade will CAP give itself — what grade could it possibly give itself, other than an F — if Obama chooses to approve of Keystone XL? Isn’t CAP supposed to be influential? Isn’t it located within a mile or so of the White House? If John P picks up the phone to call Bill or Hillary or the Pres or Steven Chu — and hopefully all of them — then don’t they return his calls? And what does he tell ’em?

    Sorry for the frustration, but these are real questions.

    Be Well,


  11. Bret says:

    The Christian Right still deny evolution, they believe that admitting climate science is the equivalent of apostasy.

    As much as Obama is a disappointment, he isn’t the enemy.

  12. Helen N. Hanna says:

    Podesta is right. President Obama really needs to face the reality of global warming, forcefully express his belief in science, and take the kind of action he once promised us. This is a dilemma that urgently requires genuine leadership, leadership which even the most unaware or misinformed citizens of our country have a right to expect.

  13. Daniel says:

    Well said, Mr. Huggins. Podesta and CAP, as well as progressive media and advocacy in general, need to form a coalition (The Coalition for Common Sense?) to become an aggressive, persistent, influential lobbying organization.

  14. Jo says:

    Ah, the Not See Party, hey?!

  15. Raymond DeBrane says:

    What really needs to be done to change the minds of the deniers in the general publc is get the scientists’ message out over the same radio and TV stations that the conservatives tune into. If this is not done, than there is little hope of changing the deniers’s minds who are brainwashed by the energy industry (mostly Koch Brothers)paid radio and TV shill comentators.

  16. Badgersouth says:

    Suggested reading:

    “Republican Presidential Candidates vs. Climate Science,” Skeptical Science, Aug 24, 2011

  17. SmilingAhab says:

    I’ll give you the golf clap for that one. Clever.

  18. L. Maeve Ward says:

    Sorry for the ignorance but what is CAP?

    I couldn’t agree more with the opinions expressed about climate change, deniers, etc. Also agree with the need to take action and not take time/energy focusing on the deniers’ screed. Thoughts: .Get the weather reporters to connect the dots. .Could this be used? A fact that can’t be denied: J. Nepalitano (sp) stated on an NRP news show recently that this past year has seen the greatest number of “natural” disasters and with its consequent monetary cost, ever in the US. .Also did anyone see, again on NPR, a documentary about evolution. There is a gap between the appearance of Homo Habilis and apes. No fossil evidence to show the progress. This documentary offered the idea that the appearance of this advanced creature might be the result of necessary adaptation to extremely swift climate change. (Which used to occur in what is now Africa.) So the historical record supposedly demonstrates both extreme climate swings and the ability to evolve into the brightest creatures ever. (Such hubris) So the innuendo (and that is the word) was: that’s what’s happening now: climate change has always taken place and look at the benefit. Very subtle. And guess what sponsoring name showed up immediately? David Koch. Not the first time I have seen him sponsor an NPR program. Is this new? Possible action step: boycott NPR??? Is it becoming a subtle version of FOX?

    [JR: The Center for American Progress, where I am a Senior Fellow.]