The techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley should think twice about aligning with climate deniers
As Mark Ames wrote yesterday, the Reboot 2014 conference has officially kicked off in San Francisco. Its stated goal is to leverage Silicon Valley's technical talent to help foster "liberty," which is really just shorthand for "libertarianism." After all, the marquee speakers are free market rockstar Rand Paul and Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie, and the event is sponsored by the oil and gas magnates Charles and David Koch.
Ames' piece is a great primer on the history of homophobia and racism that pervades the slimy brand of libertarianism the Kochs and their cronies want to bring to Silicon Valley. But there's another issue close to the Koch crew's hearts that should give pause to many of Silicon Valley's most iconic figures: Climate change denial.
In an op-ed published on Thursday at Forbes, contributor Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. puts forth his vision of Silicon Valley as a libertarian playground, where anti-regulation techies and policy gurus can celebrate a "Separation of Technology and State." And as befits Forbes, which along with occasionally committing random acts of journalism has become a mouthpiece for any special interest no matter how compromised, Mr. Crews has a clear agenda. He is the Policy Director for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Koch-funded libertarian think tank and one of the world's leading propagandists of climate change denial.
Lies, damned lies, and climate denial
CEI's denier bonafides are easy to spot, but here are two examples of the institute's willfully misleading record on climate change:
In 2006, CEI produced two television ads claiming that carbon dioxide in all its forms and quantities is a great boon for the environment and that global warming is not responsible for shrinking ice sheets in Antarctica. Shortly thereafter, the scientist responsible for the research cited by the ads said CEI misrepresented his research.
"These television ads are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate," said Curt Davis, director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "They are selectively using only parts of my previous research to support their claims. They are not telling the entire story to the public."
Then in 2010, CEI "scholar" Christopher C. Horner wrote a book called, "Power Grab: How Obama’s Green Policies Will Steal Your Freedom and Bankrupt America." To hear Horner tell it, climate change is an myth perpetuated by alarmists and socialists, coal is a clean and sustainable energy source that doesn't destroy the environment and communities, and that Obama's supposed crusade to save the environment is really just a smokescreen to tighten the federal government's iron grip on the lives of red-blooded Americans.
Never mind that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that "warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities." Never mind that the decline of coal in recent decades has been driven not by federal regulations but by market forces (hear that, libertarians? The market!), like the rise of natural gas and reductions in energy usage. And never mind that, until only recently, environmentalists saw little to celebrate in President Obama's record on green initiatives. During his years as a Senator, Obama still held close ties to the coal industry in his home-state, championing coal-to-liquid-fuel technology which, as the New Republic's Alec McGillis notes, produces double the carbon emissions of traditional petroleum. "The only two regimes to have tried it at mass scale are Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa," McGillis writes.
The CEI's incentive for building climate denial narratives with no regard for the truth is pretty clear: The institute's list of leading donors is a murderer's row of oil and gas interests, including Amoco, Texaco, ExxonMobil, and, not to be outdone, the Koch family.
But it's not just energy companies that have given massive sums to CEI. The institute's donor list also includes some of Silicon Valley's most dominant tech firms. Google was the biggest single donor at CEI's annual fundraising dinner in 2013, giving $50,000. Facebook added a cool $25,000 to the stack, and Microsoft tossed in $5,000. At that event, which like Reboot was also headlined by Rand Paul, telecommunications firms also made donations, with Comcast giving $10,000 and Verizon giving $7,500.
Google also has strong ties to CEI through its Google Policy Fellowship, which sends college students to work at think tanks and other organizations with an eye toward shaping Internet and technology policy. According to the Fellowship's homepage, Google has shipped some wide-eyed recruit to CEI every year since the program was started in 2008. Google's support of climate change denial isn't limited to its ties to CEI either -- just weeks after the institute's gala dinner, it hosted a fundraiser for Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) who, despite improbably serving on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, is one of Congress' most strident climate change deniers.
The increasingly strong ties between tech companies and oil/gas interests have not gone unnoticed in Silicon Valley. FWD.us, the pro-immigration political action committee supported by Mark Zuckerberg, Ron Conway, John Doerr, and Bill Gates, found itself under attack by some of Silicon Valley's most prominent supporters of environmental initiatives after it produced two controversial television spots. One was an endorsement for the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists argue will increase greenhouse gases and pose the risk of leaks and spills. (That said, the State Department determined that while tapping Canadian oil sands would indeed increase emissions, those resources will likely be tapped by somebody regardless of whether the pipeline is approved). The second ad came out in support of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The backlash was immediate: Elon Musk, who between Tesla Motors and Solar City is the tech industry's patron saint of sustainable energy, left FWD.us, striking a major blow to the group's credibility. Yammer founder and PayPal Mafioso David Sacks also bailed. And Vinod Khosla, one of the Valley's leading investors in the clean-tech space, tweeted, "Will Fwd.us prostitute climate destruction & other values to get a few engineers hired & get immmigration [sic] reform?" Curiously, John Doerr, who famously welled up during an emotional TED Talk on clean energy, stayed largely silent throughout the controversy, and is still listed as a supporter on FWD.us' website. Were those merely crocodile tears, Mr. Doerr?
The response to the FWD.us fiasco shows the danger of aligning with groups that, despite sharing a few common goals, are also strong advocates for initiatives that go against fundamental principles of the community or industry these firms represent. This tactic rears its head again and again in the fight against mass NSA surveillance, like when Greenpeace teamed up with the extremist Tenth Amendment Center, which seeks nothing less than the total dismantling of the EPA, among other federal social programs.
Certainly, tech companies and hard-line libertarians are closely aligned on many issues, some of which are perfectly reasonable. State laws that bar Tesla from selling its cars directly to customers and force the company to sell through auto dealerships that add virtually no value in terms of safety or efficiency, are indefensible.
But as former AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case argues, we're moving away from a "disrupt now, ask questions later" model, and that the most successful tech firms in the third wave of the Internet will be those willing to work with government bodies, not just against them.
By allowing into their fold staunchly anti-government political operatives, tech firms risk losing the ability to operate and negotiate terms in a regulatory environment. And when those same operatives are themselves aligned with homophobic, racist, or anti-science constituencies, tech firms should run away faster than you can say "Who is John Galt."
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]