Here at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas, an aging crowd has gathered for the largest climate change skeptic conference in the world. Sponsored by the Heartland Institute—an oil and gas industry-funded think tank famous for its 90s-era role in taking tobacco money to deny the health risks associated with smoking—speakers at the opening session last night stressed that despite being well outside the scientific mainstream, their beliefs will one day win the battle of ideas on climate policy.
Then, things quickly got weird when the most prominent speaker of the evening opened his mouth.
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), taking the stage after brief remarks from a meteorologist and several Heartland officials, kicked things off with a wild rant about how nearly every environmental scandal of the last three decades has turned out to be a hoax.
"The ozone hole is sort of like global warming, and was sort of an exaggerated position on some readings," Rohrabacher mused. "Remember acid rain?" asked the congressman. That too "became a non-issue" after a report claimed that human activity had little relation to the problem. The liberals, Rohrabacher said, never apologized to President Ronald Reagan for lambasting his refusal to act on it in the 1980s.
In between these remarks came another whopper.
"I don't know whether or not fluoridating the water helps people's teeth become better or not," said Rohrabacher, invoking his childhood memories. "I don't know that," he continued, "But I do know that in this country, we should be the ones who should be deciding what we put into our bodies one way or the other, not the federal government or the local government putting fluoride into our water!"
The water fluoridation screed elicited support from the crowd. But I noticed the gentleman sitting next to me, a corporate attorney named Larry Kogan seeking to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s endangerment finding on climate science—which paved the way for the regulation of carbon emissions—with a grimace on his face. He had clapped for every other applause line, but sat on his hands for this one.
None of Rohrabacher's claims, of course, resemble anything close to reality. The ozone depletion problem, which is well documented, was addressed effectively through regulations to curb chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from certain products. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which passed with bipartisan support, back when the Koch brothers held less sway over the GOP and pro-environment Republicans could still get elected to Congress, largely solved the problem of acid rain by creating a cap and trade program to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
The evils of water fluoridation have been a favorite conspiracy theory that took root in the American psyche thanks to the efforts of the John Birch Society, the right-wing precursor to the Tea Party. Fringe activists have claimed that fluoridation lowers IQ and causes cancer—but there is no evidence to support either theory. Decades of research show that adding fluoride to drinking water is indeed one of the most effective strategies for reducing tooth decay.
Notably, Rohrabacher is a member of the House Science Committee, which oversees federal policy concerning science and innovation. The congressman has been a close ally of the climate change denial movement and of fossil fuel lobbyists pushing to block action on carbon pollution. In various outbursts over the years, Rohrabacher has mocked the concept of global warming. Last year, he argued that the science is an elaborate "fraud" designed to establish "global government."
The room in Vegas, filled with famous climate change skeptics from the Cato Institute and supporters from other industry-funded conservative bastions, soon emptied for the casino on the other end of the resort. Several stayed until the very end to shake hands with Kilez More, an Austrian rapper invited to perform a climate change denial song he wrote.
As Rohrabacher took his seat after his remarks on Monday, Heartland Institute president Joe Bast thanked him profusely. "We need about 300 more of you in Congress, Mr. Congressman," he said. "That was outstanding."