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Opinion: A little-known ideology fuels historic wildfires and climate change

The term “gigafire” has entered our lexicon for the first time as the first million-acre fire raged across California earlier this month. 

In Colorado, footage of the dystopian Cameron Peak fire with high-speed winds on top of the raging flames and fire-soaked sky has gone viral.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen

Climate-induced megafires for longer periods throughout the year are now the new normal: The U.S. Forest Service is transitioning away from the concept of a four-month-long wildfire season to emphasize the need for year-round preparedness. 

Luckily, people are starting to understand that these fires are fueled by climate change. Yet few are talking about the right-wing, pro-fossil fuels ideology that has brought us here.

Over the past four decades, an obscure group that euphemistically referred to itself as the “Wise Use” movement has gained influence in conservative public policy circles. It’s an ideology that has infiltrated almost all of our major institutions: media, academia, think tanks, and nonprofits have sprung up to espouse the anti-government idea that nature is for profiteering.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Often funded by climate deniers like the billionaire Koch brothers or other wealthy individuals and corporations, it is as anti-science as it is pro-industry. And it’s an ideology that President Trump has embraced.

With blinders firmly in place, the climate-denier in chief has set the tone for the most anti-science administration in modern history. Trump has turned his administration over to an army of ideologically extremist staffers who have been longtime opponents of conservation, clean energy and protections for clean air and water.

Chief among the climate denier club is William Perry Pendley, who has served as the de facto head of the Bureau of Land Management – which manages 245 million acres of public land. 

Pendley was removed by a federal judge from his post earlier this year, but remains at the agency and is now in a court battle over whether his actions were legitimate.

He has long held extreme views, writing in an essay that the Founding Fathers “intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.” In April 2019, Pendley tweeted, “69 degrees and sunny today. Sky is falling tomorrow. #ClimateChangeIsReal NOT!”  As if that weren’t enough, Pendley has even made numerous insensitive statements about Indigenous people and other marginalized groups.

Yet Pendley is only one of a band of anti-government zealots, Astroturf front group alumni and right-wing fringe figures who have held key positions in the Trump administration. A new analysis by Public Citizen identified 17 current or former senior Trump Interior officials involved in the push to privatize and exploit lands protected by the federal government. 

There’s Karen Budd-Falen, the deputy solicitor for fish, wildlife and parks, who in 2011 claimed that the Endangered Species Act is “used as a sword to tear down the American economy, drive up food, energy and housing costs and wear down and take out rural communities and counties.” 

Then there is Special Assistant to the Interior Secretary Kathleen Benedetto, a former mining industry geologist and Endangered Species Act opponent who worked for several industry-friendly think tanks and advocacy groups including People for the West/People for the USA!, a now-defunct Wise Use group.

There’s also Doug Domenech, an assistant Interior secretary who was formerly the director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “fueling freedom” project, which aimed to combat the Obama administration’s plan to cut climate emissions from power plants. And Interior Department Solicitor Daniel Jorjani worked for five years as general counsel of the Koch-funded Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. 

Most recently, the Interior Department came under fire after HuffPost reporters broke the news that a newly hired Interior Department official, Jeremy Carl, had demeaned both the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender advocates.

Carl, a former senior fellow with the right-wing Claremont Institute, once wrote that climate activism “has far more to do with virtue-signaling, Republican-bashing, and rank hypocrisy than it does with actually addressing the climate issue in a meaningful way.”

Views like these are not unusual. Instead, they’re the norm in an ideologically driven race to hand over our environment and public lands to industry interests.

It’s also a mission that is explicit in the federal government’s response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, with energy companies benefiting from this year’s federal bailouts: Nearly $100 billion in bonds have been sold by 56 oil and gas companies since the Federal Reserve launched its unprecedented debt-market rescue last March, with the first three-quarters of the year recording the highest energy sector bond issuance of any year since at least 2010.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

If personnel is policy, we are doubling down on climate catastrophe. These fires won’t go away until we extinguish this destructive ideology, brought to you by fossil fuel companies and billionaires. No one should be permitted to hold public office if they reject the science of climate change and aren’t working toward solutions.

In addition to their formal oath of office to support and defend the Constitution, federal policy makers in environmental and health positions must base their actions on climate science, not ideological zealotry that idealizes oil and gas industry profits.


Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization.


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