Debunking Glenn Beck's cap and trade conspiracy theory

Over the last few days, Glenn Beck has been laying out a vast conspiracy theory, linking together President Obama, Al Gore, Goldman Sachs, Van Jones, various unions, the Joyce Foundation, Franklin Raines, Fannie Mae, and various other progressive individuals and organizations in a sinister plot to pass cap-and-trade legislation in order to generate profits and redistribute wealth. My colleagues Simon Maloy and Brian Frederick have done an excellent job of taking apart various pieces of Beck's theory; today, I'll show why its central premise is based on one big lie.

The fundamental claim of Beck's conspiracy is that carbon trading is a “scam,” and cap and trade is the method the scamsters have come up with to sell their schemes and get rich. Here's Beck laying this out on April 29:

If you know anything about cap and trade -- anything at all -- you probably noticed that Beck left out something rather important in his rather bizarre description. “You have to ask why” progressives are “pushing for cap and trade,” Beck asks. But he never gets around to explaining why progressives say they support cap and trade.

This is somewhat odd, because progressives' rationale for cap and trade is no secret: The purpose of cap and trade is to reduce carbon emissions and thus reduce the impact of catastrophic global warming. And that's where the wheels come off the wagon for Beck, because he doesn't even acknowledge the existence of man-caused global warming.

If you don't believe the Earth is warming, then it's easy to come to the conclusion that cap and trade is a “scam.” Unfortunately, you're arguing from a faulty premise.

Beck falsehoods: Carbon dioxide isn't harmful, global warming has halted, cap and trade is a “scam,” and its supporters may be traitors

All you need to do to understand where Beck is coming from on cap and trade is to watch Beck's April 28 Fox News program. During that show, Beck stated, “I'm going to harm the planet. I'm going to give some CO2 off,” and then exhaled. In case his audience wasn't getting it he added, “Dangerous. That should have been bottled and kept away from the planet because” -- and he exhaled again -- “that's a dangerous gas.”

Beck has repeatedly claimed that the Earth has seen no warming in the past decade. He's falsely claimed that Arctic sea ice is increasing. He's suggested that snowstorms in Washington, D.C. and New York, as well as cooler temperatures in New York during one summer, undermine the case for climate change.

When he's not lying about the evidence for climate change, Beck is stoking fears over efforts to stop it. He has promoted British lord Christopher Monckton's bizarre claim that a proposed U.N. treaty on climate change would undermine U.S. sovereignty in favor of “a communist world government.” He's falsely claimed that cap and trade legislation would give the president “emergency powers” to “take over industries.” He's stated that the U.S. is “now an Axis country” on climate change, “on the wrong side of history. ” And he's said that the “global warming movement” is “about population control” and that “some” cap and trade supporters are “treasonous.”

Back in reality: Scientific consensus confirms Earth is warming, cap and trade meant to stop it

A robust scientific consensus supports the theory that the Earth is warming due to man-caused excessive discharges of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Notably, in its 2007 Synthesis Report, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that "[m]ost of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-caused] GHG [greenhouse gas] concentrations." The report defined “very likely” as ">90%." Since then, scientists and scientific organization have confirmed that this scientific consensus remains intact.

Cap and trade is intended to limit the rise in global temperatures by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A January 2008 Center for American Progress fact sheet describes cap and trade:

The cap: Each large-scale emitter, or company, will have a limit on the amount of greenhouse gas that it can emit. The firm must have an “emissions permit” for every ton of carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere. These permits set an enforceable limit, or cap, on the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that the company is allowed to emit. Over time, the limits become stricter, allowing less and less pollution, until the ultimate reduction goal is met. This is similar to the cap and trade program enacted by the Clean Air Act of 1990, which reduced the sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, and it met the goals at a much lower cost than industry or government predicted.

The trade: It will be relatively cheaper or easier for some companies to reduce their emissions below their required limit than others. These more efficient companies, who emit less than their allowance, can sell their extra permits to companies that are not able to make reductions as easily. This creates a system that guarantees a set level of overall reductions, while rewarding the most efficient companies and ensuring that the cap can be met at the lowest possible cost to the economy.

In Beck's world, the only reason anyone could want to limit the production of harmless “puffs of air” is to make money for somebody. In the real world, lawmakers are trying to prevent environmental catastrophe.

Beck's conspiratorial web of connections

From that basic, flawed premise, Beck spins off his conspiracy threads. There's a Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) that trades carbon credits. Obama was on the board of the Joyce Foundation that issued grants that helped that exchange get off the ground. Al Gore founded a company with some former Goldman Sachs employees that invested in CCX. Fannie Mae patented technology used for carbon trade swaps.

All of these ties are self-reinforcing. Obama is evil so CCX must be evil; CCX is evil so Obama must be evil. Goldman is evil so the employees are evil so their new group is evil, Gore is evil so CCX is evil, and all the way back. Fannie's patent demonstrates both cap and trade's evil and Fannie's evil.

But it all comes back to global warming being a myth. If global warming is actually happening, people are backing cap and trade, at least in part, in order to stop it. And Beck looks like, well, an idiot.

Beck's poor grasp of his theory's details

Beck defends his conspiracy theory by claiming that Rupert Murdoch is really rich, and thus would never let Beck say “completely wrong” stuff on the air. Alas, Murdoch has not kept falsehoods and misleading claims from infiltrating Beck's glorious theory. For example:

  • Beck misleadingly claims Gore-founded group is “fifth largest investor” in conspiracy-linked climate exchange. Beck claimed on the April 26 and 29 editions of his Fox News program that Generation Investment Management, which was co-founded by Gore, is the “fifth largest co-owner,” “fifth-largest shareholder,” and “fifth largest investor” in CCX. He is very careful never to state how big GIM's investment actually is. Generation Investment Management owned only 2.98 percent of CCX's parent company, Climate Exchange PLC, as of January 29, according to Climate Exchange's website.
  • Beck's Patent Office sub-conspiracy doesn't make sense. On the April 29 edition of his show, Beck suggested that the date on which a patent for technology used for carbon trading was assigned to Fannie Mae was significant in that it was the day after the November 6, 2006, midterm elections. According to Beck: “As soon as the Democrats are elected -- in fact, this technology receives its patent the day after in 2006, the very next day that Congress was taken over by the Democrats. What a weird coincidence, hmm? I'm sure that's all it is.” Beck did not explain how a shift in the partisan makeup of Congress would have any impact on the patent-assigning processes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is administered by the Commerce Department, which remained under the control of the Bush administration. Moreover, if the shift of power in Congress were to somehow influence the Patent Office, it is not clear how the Democrats could have exerted that influence the day after the election, given that they didn't actually assume control of Congress until January 3, 2007.
  • Beck falsely claims Gore's partners were active Goldman employees, before quickly backtracking. On April 26, Beck highlighted three of Gore's partners at GIM -- David Blood, Peter Harris, and Mark Ferguson -- stating that each “works for Goldman Sachs.” Following the commercial, Beck stated that they were Gore's “former Goldman Sachs buddies.” Indeed, they left Goldman in 2004, which significantly undermines Beck's smear: Beck used their purported current status at Goldman to falsely link CCX to the civil suit against Goldman Sachs. But that suit deals with financial products the firm structured and marketed in 2007 -- well after the three had left Goldman.