What we’re up against: Polluter-funded Tea Party climate zombie astroturfing

Rebel Without a Clue gets Americans for Prosperity’s anti-efficiency, anti-science indoctrination at Cancun

Two years ago, [Gena] Bell was a floral arranger in Cincinnati with plenty of time on her hands (she used to trim five Christmas trees in her suburban house) and strong opinions about the direction in which the United States was going (down).

Now, she was a full-time political activist, the head of a fast-growing Ohio tea party group and an influential voice in the movement. Influential enough that Americans for Prosperity, one of the most well-heeled tea party backers in the country, had invited her to help protest a U.N. climate change conference in Cancun.It bothered her that no one had told her why she had been invited, or just what she would be doing. But she hadn’t pushed too hard to find out before saying yes. It was tough to turn down a trip to Mexico in December.

Assuming we destroy a livable climate for our children and countless future generations, future historians (and our other billions of victims) will have many decades (if not centuries) of misery to contemplate why the richest country in the world, one built on scientific and technological ingenuity, refused to spend a small fraction of our wealth to avert multiple ever-worsening catastrophes that science projected we risk on our current emissions path (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice” and “ Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost”).

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They will no doubt study the failure of the Obama administration to seize the once-in-a-generation opportunity — the one brief shining moment where we had a Democratic president plus large majorities in the House and Senate (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2: He let die our best chance to preserve a livable climate and restore US leadership in clean energy — without a serious fight”). They’ll examine How the status quo media failed on climate change.

But ultimately, they will focus on the most successful and immoral disinformation campaign in human history — the anti-science, pro-pollution lies of the Merchants of Doubt. They will marvel at how that disinformation campaign captured an entire political party (see National Journal: “The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones”).

Their review should include this stunning front-page Washington Post story from Saturday, “Tea-party activists question if rebel political movement has changed for worse” — yes the headline is oxymoronic: How could a movement that from the start was backed by big corporate polluters and helping to plunge the nation and the world into climate chaos possibly change for the ‘worse’? But I digress.

The story of Gena Bell is a cautionary tale. I’ll excerpt the climate-related parts below. Warning: This is a two-head-vise story.

Bell changed into sandals and a summer top and got to work greeting fellow tea partiers arriving from Texas, California, all over the United States. Some she had met at tea party gatherings. Others she knew only as names in her perpetually overflowing e-mail inbox.

Nearly all of them, like Bell, had stumbled into the party after Barack Obama was elected president. They had found a calling in the early days of a chaotic, leaderless movement that beckoned to political novices who identified themselves as conservatives but felt little attachment to organized politics. With astonishing speed, the tea party evolved into a powerful force that helped overturn the political order in Washington.

But as a new cast of lawmakers takes the reins in the Capitol, Bell and many of her fellow tea partiers nationwide are feeling adrift, wondering what they are supposed to do next. The movement is changing, in their view, and not necessarily for the better.

The tea party’s success has drawn hundreds of politicians and groups seeking to fasten themselves to the movement, steer it and speak for it. Millions of dollars have flowed in from corporations and rich donors, all of whom have their own ideas about what the tea party should be. This struggle for the soul of the movement has left many of its original activists facing agonizing decisions: Do they, should they, still belong?

They worry that the tea party risks selling out and losing its independence. They fear that its ragtag, rebel spirit will be drained by Washington’s political pros and their establishment ways of doing business.

Uhh, memo to WashPost, it was never a “ragtag rebel” group — this ain’t Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. It’s more like the Empire itself striking back. The Koch family put together the Tea Party movement and much of the modern right-wing infrastructure.

Bell took a more expansive view. She had welcomed the attention and resources from outside groups. Now, even she was starting to have doubts. As she mulled her future, she considered stepping away altogether and doing the unthinkable: taking a job inside government.

Bell had been delighted when Americans for Prosperity invited her to Mexico. A free-market advocacy group founded by oil billionaire David Koch, AFP was one of the nation’s largest donors to GOP causes and candidates.

Again, AFP was involved with the Tea Party long before Cancun (see also Video proof David Koch, the polluting billionaire, pulls the strings of the Tea Party extremists”).

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And calling AFP a “free-market advocacy group” isn’t journalism, it’s stenography. Their bottom line isn’t a ‘free-market, something that, in any case, this country has never seen. They want tax breaks for billionaires and corporate polluters, and an unfettered right to destroy a livable climate (see Tim Phillips on climate policy: “If we win the science argument, it’s game, set, and match”; AFP president: We have to make the EPA “a political albatross for members of Congress”). I would note that in the online edition, the WashPost gives AFP an active link to AFP’s disinforming website.

She was realistic enough to know that her skills as a Cincinnati tea party organizer wouldn’t have much sway at a U.N. conference. Back home, she had achieved prominence in her world. The trunk of her car was still stuffed with campaign signs. Politicians all over Ohio knew her by name and courted her endorsement. One newly elected county commissioner was so impressed with her work that he was trying to persuade her to put the tea party on hold and take a job as his chief of staff.

But how was any of that relevant to a global-warming summit?

“I’m not sure what we’re really going to be experiencing,” Bell had said on the flight down.

She was hoping the summit would present a chance to immerse herself in the climate change debate. Her hosts, however, had other plans for her that involved standing where she was told and smiling for the cameras. Her presence lent Americans for Prosperity grass-roots credibility. For Bell, the experience was aggravating. It fed her doubts about where the movement would take her next. It made her wonder if she would want to go.

Seriously!

Climate ‘zombie’ is perhaps the wrong term here. She is more like an anti-climate robot or puppet. And how exactly does someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject smiling for the camera give any grassroots credibility to the billionaire polluters?

Before politics took over their lives, Bell, 49, and her husband, Ed, spent a lot of time complaining about President Obama. They were increasingly agitated about the way things were going in Obama’s Washington. The Bells were troubled by the federal stimulus plan, the bailouts of the automobile and banking industries, and the president’s ideas about overhauling the nation’s health-care system. They were too expensive and too intrusive.

Four days a week, Gena and Ed worked out in the weight room at a YMCA with a handful of friends. Back then, Bell, a compact blonde, could bench-press her own weight. Between sets, she and her friends talked politics. They dubbed their group the Round Table, and all agreed that the government was overreaching into their lives. They bookmarked the Drudge Report and kept the radio on, following Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and local radio hosts.

Politicians, Bell said, “think that they’re smarter than us and that all their decisions are going to make our lives better. The fact is, they’re not.”

It is always worth noting that the right wing thrives on a twisted form of populism that is not against the concentration of wealth by individuals or corporations, but on anti-intellectualism and, increasingly, anti-science.

The Bells contrasted what they saw as Washington’s profligacy with their frugality. As the economy had soured, Gena and Ed, 51, had grown worried about their fortunes. Both her job in the floral industry and his as a printer seemed uncertain. They had sold their house and moved into a one-bedroom garden apartment.

They felt so alone that they even talked about chucking it all and building a place on some remote parcel of land out west. They looked in Colorado. In their fantasy, they would live off the land — and off the grid. Solar panels on the roof. Tankless water heater. They don’t have children, so no one depends on them. They bought a few guns and took up target practice.

Pause to clean up gray matter from the floor.

I apologize. Not even a double head-vise could have protected you from that last paragraph. Yes, the political movement that wants to destroy the US renewable energy industry, blocking all government efforts to promote renewable energy and thereby permanently handing to the Chinese leadership in a technology that we invented — the modern solar cell — has a fantasy of living off the grid using solar panels.

“I would have been pretty content a couple of years ago to go have a few years of very quiet living,” Bell said.

That dream faded in March 2009, when the couple heard on the radio about plans for Cincinnati’s first tea party rally. They went to see what it was all about and were astonished to find thousands of people in their area who shared their concerns. It was like the Round Table on steroids.

They decided on the spot to join.

“ ‘Oh my god, we’re not alone,’ “ Bell remembered telling Ed. “ ‘There’s a lot more people that think like us.’ That was a very emotional day.”

‘Bureaucrats Gone Wild’

The morning after they arrived in Mexico, Bell and about 60 other activists boarded white vans to make the 30-minute drive toward the U.N. delegates’ meeting.

The caravan stopped along a dusty shoulder, opposite a large convention center housing exhibits related to the conference. Bell and her fellow activists got out, stood along the side of the road and posed for pictures. They had all been given Americans for Prosperity T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Bureaucrats Gone Wild.” They held a giant novelty check made out for $100 billion, mocking a proposal to give that much money to developing nations to combat climate change.

In front of them stood Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, waiting for his cue to begin speaking into a video camera.

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to give $100 billion of American taxpayer money to developing nations through the United Nations,” he began. “We think that with a $1.3 trillion deficit, we don’t need to be doing something like that, especially for a bogus ideology that Al Gore is pushing.”

And cut. Everyone back into the vans.

So little time, so much gray matter to cram back in your head.

It would be nice if the Washington Post didn’t just repeat this string of lies by the AFP President in a major front-page story. I realize that in the new journalist code of ethics, if you are doing a long profile piece, you apparently don’t have to balance any misinformation that your subject says or hears — see Media stunner: When asked “Does it matter, from a journalistic point of view, whether [Freeman Dyson is] right or whether he’s wrong?” his NYT profiler replies “Oh, absolutely not.” For the record, the $100 billion doesn’t all come from the American taxpayer, it comes from all the rich countries — and no serious member of the human race can ignore the immorality of the richest country in the world destroying a livable climate for billions of poor people and refusing to help them out.

Next was a stop at the conference’s Climate Change Village, which looked like a large fairground of exhibits, tents and buildings. Here, Phillips shot another video mocking a “relaxation room” that had a floor made of palm fronds.

It started to dawn on Bell that her high hopes of informing herself about the complexities of the global-warming debate would not be realized on this trip. She was also put off by Phillips’s sarcastic tone.

God forbid Bell would be able to educate herself about the complexities of global warming or that she might be upset that one of the country’s biggest corporate polluters is using her as a greenwashing stooge. No, it’s his ‘sarcastic tone” that bugs her.

She looked around the relaxation room. “I like this place,” she said to Nita Thomas, her friend and fellow Cincinnati activist. “I would love to have a party here.”

Bell’s pique grew when Phillips shot another video belittling an exhibit that showed what an energy-efficient home might look like in the future: a small refrigerator, a low-flow shower heads and a clothes-washing basin that directed used water into a garden.

Phillips made fun of the model home’s five-gallon water heater. “Good luck with that — I’ve got three teenagers!” he said to the camera.

“I’m not on board with this,” Bell told Thomas. “Ed and I looked into that when we were looking at moving to Colorado.”

I believe that cranial reconstruction is covered by Obamacare, at least until the Tea Party defunds it.

So the Tea Party activist who believes in renewable energy and energy efficiency is bristling a tiny bit at the polluter-crats pulling her strings.

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It is good to see that the Washington Post has uncovered the dark underbelly of the AFP agenda. It isn’t enough for them to push climate destruction. They actually have to go out of their way to try to indoctrinate their subjects puppets partners in the evils of energy efficiency.

By lunchtime, the activists were on their way back to the CasaMagna resort. Their work for the day was done. Bell wouldn’t have a chance to talk to any U.N. delegates, listen to any proceedings or even get within shouting distance of the conference. She felt like a prop for Americans for Prosperity.

That’s not how Phillips sees it. He said his organization and activists such as Bell need and feed off one another.

“You can argue about motives,” he said. “But I view this as a partnership. What AFP can provide is logistical expertise and help, staff in 25 states, professionals in the political arena. We can provide some funding.”

OK, let’s argue about motives. AFP is a corporate polluter funded effort to promote the interests of corporate polluters — and the super-rich “AFP came calling to ask for her help on a local effort to end Ohio’s estate tax.” Not much to argue about, really.

On their second and final evening in Cancun, Bell and her activist friend Nita Thomas led an Internet video chat with a group of tea partiers assembled at a chicken wing joint in Cincinnati. Bell fretted that she didn’t have much to say, because she had seen so much less than she had hoped.

“Security is incredibly intense down here,” she told her viewers. She scoured her notes in vain for something substantive she had learned. “We’ve got two Navy warships that are posted off the coast, which you can see from our hotel window. And we passed tanks with the machine guns aimed at us, which was quite alarming.”

Bell was embarrassed by her performance.

Stop the presses. Here’s the headline the WashPost missed: Merchants of Doubt help destroy livable climate for billions — Tea Party leader ‘embarrassed’.

Sorry future generations.

Rebel Without a Cause is the wrong reference. It should be Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who, when asked, “What are you rebelling against?” famously replied, “What’ve you got?”