Liar, 70, dies
Rush Limbaugh was one of the pioneers of climate denial. The consequences will outlive us all.
“Rush Limbaugh, more than any other individual, is responsible for shifting conservative opinion to deny the existence of global warming.” -John K. Wilson, author of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh’s Assault on Reason.
A prominent climate change denier with a popular radio show died on Wednesdsay. He was 70.
Rush Limbaugh’s death sparked a flood of obituaries focused on his broad political legacy. The Associated Press called him “one of the most powerful voices in politics, influencing the rightward push of American conservatism and the rise of Donald Trump.” The New York Times called him “a singular figure” who “pushed baseless claims and toxic rumors long before Twitter and Reddit became havens for such disinformation.”
HuffPost’s obituary, particularly extensive, also centered Limbaugh’s legacy on Trump. “Trump’s ascension to the presidency couldn’t have happened without Limbaugh’s brand of right-wing media,” it read.
But none of those obituaries mentioned the climate, which is heating at a dangerous and unprecedented rate in large part because of Limbaugh’s lies.
Rush Limbaugh was one of the pioneers of anti-environmentalism, science denial, and climate change conspiracy. For 30 years, he falsely told his audience of more than 15 million listeners on nearly 600 U.S. stations that the entire scientific profession had been indoctrinated by liberals and were unworthy of trust.
It is in part because of Limbaugh’s bombastic but popular climate lies that mainstream Republican politicians stopped working toward good-faith policy solutions to the climate crisis, and started embracing denial, said John K. Wilson, author of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh’s Assault on Reason.
“Climate change denial is one of the greatest and most terrible gifts Limbaugh gave to conservatism,” he said. “It will continue for years and decades to come.”
HEATED spoke with Wilson about Limbaugh’s climate legacy on Wednesday, as millions of Texans suffered from a freak winter storm made more likely by the climate crisis. Their suffering was compounded by the ineptitude of the state’s Republican politicians, who refused to prepare their power and water infrastructure for the effects of climate change.
Limbaugh is survived by his lies and their consequences. HEATED’s full interview with Wilson is below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Emily Atkin: Tell me a little bit about your background and knowledge in all things Rush Limbaugh.
John K. Wilson: I've studied conservatives for a long time. I wrote a book 10 years ago called The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh's Assault on Reason. I tried in that book to delineate who Limbaugh was, and what was wrong with his ideas. I've been following him for a long time as a listener and as a political journalist.
EA: So in your opinion, does that mean the most dangerous man in America is dead?
JKW: Trump may have supplanted him. But his ideological progeny in some sense is Donald Trump. But “The most dangerous man in America” is sort of an ironic term. A few people called him that, and then he started calling himself that as a way to brag about himself and his importance, and how much he was hated by the left.
EA: I read your chapter on Rush and climate change. If what you say about him is true, then he certainly was dangerous in the sense that he’s a big reason why climate denial is at the center of the Republican Party politics today. Is that a correct interpretation of your chapter?
JKW: Absolutely. Rush espoused a lot of traditional conservative positions, but he didn't necessarily change a lot of things within the party. He didn't change a lot of people's approaches to abortion, or other kinds of issues. But when it came to climate change, he really moved the Republican Party, which at first had a lot of reasonable people who were willing to listen to the science. And Rush Limbaugh really moved them to a strong ideological position. He turned climate change into a litmus test for Republicans.
EA: How did he do that? How does one manage to turn climate change into a litmus test by using no science?
JKW: It's a lot easier when you don't have to use science. The confident repetition of a lie is usually more powerful than the careful explanation of the truth. And that’s how he did it: by just saying it over and over again. Rush Limbaugh has talked more about climate change on broadcast media than anyone in history, more than any anchor, reporter, politician, or expert. He has talked about it over and over again for more than 30 years on a show that's on 15 hours a week. And that kind of repetition of a lie has been incredibly powerful and influential.
EA: Yeah. I was reading through all the examples of his climate denial in your book earlier today, and honestly—it's hard to depress me. But it was super depressing.
JKW: Thank you.
EA: You’re welcome. I don't listen to right wing shock jock radio that often, and it really seemed like climate denial was a common, almost insane theme. In the reporting process of gathering all his quotes on the subject, were there any that really stood out to you?
JKW: It’s hard to put a finger on one. I think the repetition is more important than any particular kind of example. You can always say, “He said this and it was completely false.” But it doesn't matter to Rush. The facts don't matter.
Limbaugh really trained generations of conservatives—multiple generations of conservatives—to associate the word “environmentalist” with “wacko.” That was one of the most powerful things he did, simply using that phrase over and over again. “Environmentalist wackos.”
Another one of the more important things in the chapter was where Rush instructs his listeners: “Do not listen to these scientists. Just listen to me. I'm America's anchorman. I'm the one who's going to tell you what the news is, who's going to translate all the news you need to know and tell you what is really true.” And that had an incredibly powerful effect of putting a lot of conservatives into these silos where they would only listen to other conservatives.
Rush did that for his own reasons. He wanted to have listeners who would be addicted to listening to him, never going elsewhere. But it also had a really powerful ideological effect of making sure that people who heard his misinformation would never really learn about the truth. And if they did, they would never believe it.
EA: So much of the story of modern climate denial surrounds the fossil fuel industry. The one thing that I don't yet understand about Rush Limbaugh is how his denial ties into that. Most of the people and organizations who originated climate denial were paid hacks. Was there any element of that for Rush?
JKW: I think that Rush was much more ideological. He would sometimes get sponsorships from the Heritage Foundation, other things like that on rare occasions. Sometimes corporate interests would sponsor him.
But for him, it was much more that he thought the idea of climate change was an attempt to shut down business. And acknowledging any aspect of truth to climate change would be giving a win to the leftists, giving a win to the “environmentalist wackos.” And he could never do that in his own head. He would never be able to admit that he was wrong. And he took this position so early on, and took it so strongly, that you could never bring himself to change anything about it.
He was influenced by some of the corporate hacks in the sense that, remember, Rush Limbaugh is somebody who has to fill up three hours a day with talking. And so he has to go out and look for information. And it's very convenient for him if there are these climate change deniers getting their op-eds placed in major newspapers and producing reports. They can just send on to Rush Limbaugh, and he can just recite them on the air as more proof that the environmental wackos are all wrong about this.
EA: It’s interesting to me that Rush Limbaugh, in your book, is described as one of the forefathers of climate denial. And yet I haven't really seen that take anywhere so far in obituaries. Why do you think that is?
JKW: It's just not at the heart of things that really got Rush into trouble over the years. Calling Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute. His drug problems. Insulting Michael J. Fox. These are the type of things where you can show a picture of somebody. Insulting the planet, denying climate change—that that doesn't that doesn't convey the same sort of offense.
In many ways, Rush Limbaugh is a lot like Donald Trump, who I also wrote a book about. He commits such a huge number of offenses, and spreads so many lies, that it becomes impossible for people to keep up with what they’re saying.
EA: How much responsibility does Rush Limbaugh bear for the sorry state of climate politics, and the awful state of the climate crisis right now?
JKW: I think he bears an enormous amount of responsibility. In more recent years, there have been so many imitators of him that it's hard to point to him as a source anymore of a huge amount of it. But I think in the early years, he was incredibly influential and he shaped a lot of these pundits who really continue proliferating the lie.
Without Rush Limbaugh, I think we would have had a much more rational debate.
EA: So the lies did not die with him.
JKW: Absolutely not. Climate change denial is one of the greatest and most terrible gifts Limbaugh gave to conservatism. It will continue for years and decades to come. It has become a bright line for a lot of conservatives now, where you can't afford to acknowledge climate change or you risk alienating the far wing of the party. And so it really has transformed the Republican Party on climate change.
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One last thing…
Don’t forget — Amy Westervelt, Mary Heglar, Brian Kahn and I are doing a happy hour live-reading of “Donald Trump: An Environmental Hero” on YouTube tonight! It’s at 7 p.m. EST. Link to the livestream below.
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Stay hydrated, eat plants, break a sweat, and have a great weekend!