BBC BLOGS - Ethical Man blog
« Previous | Main | Next »

Climate plans part of wider battle over American freedom

Justin Rowlatt | 10:36 UK time, Tuesday, 3 November 2009


In the US state of Virginia the talk is of revolution. In the basement of a restaurant in Richmond we met 100 or so American patriots -ordinary people who claim to be the vanguard of a great new movement, a movement for American liberty.

"Lower taxes, less government, more freedom", is their rallying cry.

The words of Patrick Henry, a son of Virginia and one of the founding fathers of the United States, ricocheted around the room: "Give me liberty, or give me death."

The echo of the American Revolution is deliberate. This movement takes as its manifesto the Declaration of Independence itself. Many supporters say they carry a copy of it with them at all times.

The meeting in the Richmond basement was organised by a group called FreedomWorks. Supporters describe themselves as "conservative" but they are not necessarily Republicans.

Greenhouse gas cap and trade

Their call to arms focuses on two issues: healthcare reform and - you guessed it - President Barack Obama's plan for a cap and trade system to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

It presents its aggressively libertarian, small government agenda as a direct challenge to the politics of the new administration.

It claims to be engaged in nothing less than a battle for American freedom.

The scale of this new revolutionary army became apparent in September with a giant rally in Washington to commemorate the day after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.

A day when, the movement says: "we were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created".

How many actually attended is contested. According to the official count tens of thousands marched; the organisers say hundreds of thousands, even millions turned out. But there is no question this movement has wide appeal.

It has been picked up and fostered by the right-wing media, in particular Fox News and its anchormen Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

Potent appeal

But this cannot be dismissed as a trivial media confection.

The notion of freedom this movement promotes has potent appeal here in the US.

It is rooted in the founding principles of the US themselves - the "inalienable" rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the Declaration of Independence holds to be "self-evident".

This is the idea that individuals have inherent rights, including property rights, which may not be arbitrarily overridden.

(An idea that is, incidentally, arguably Britain's greatest legacy to the US).

The movement argues that the Declaration is a charter for small government and quotes George Washington in support: "Government is like fire, a handy servant, but a dangerous master."

They claim that the Obama administration's cap and trade plans, together with its stimulus package and its plans for healthcare reform, represent an unwarranted incursion into the rights of Americans.

Unworried by climate change

These conservatives are changing the context in which the Obama administration has to make its case for government action on climate.

The argument that the effects of climate change will make pursuing life, liberty and happiness very difficult just does not wash with them.

Most of the people I spoke at the Richmond meeting did not believe climate change is something they need worry about.

A recent poll found most Americans agree. Just 35% describe global warming as a "serious problem".

Debate on how to tackle a problem becomes very difficult when people do not believe it is a problem that needs to be solved.

As the meeting broke up one man took me aside to say he was not persuaded by the arguments he had heard.

"You are in a state that fought for the freedom to keep people in slavery," Phil told me.

Meaning of freedom

Indeed, Patrick Henry, who demanded liberty or death as he helped launch the revolt against British tyranny, subsequently worked to defend the slave trade as an attorney.

Phil told me the story of Gabriel, a slave who, 24 years after the Declaration of Independence, attempted to lead a rebellion against the slave owners here in Richmond Virginia.

Gabriel turned Patrick Henry's words around - "Death or liberty" was his slogan.

Liberty eluded Gabriel. He was betrayed and his rebellion was crushed by the Virginia state militia before it had even begun.

Gabriel was hanged just a couple of blocks away from the cellar where the FreedomWorks meeting was held.

"Freedom means different things to different people," Phil said as he left the meeting.


  • Comment number 1.

    Oh, lordy, this should prove 'interesting'.

    [ducks well below the parapet and awaits further analagous venues from history to be cited in support of viewpoints- I think there was one recently about some EU-sceptics having a meeting in a hall that might have been used if the Nazis had invaded - which takes the whole Godwin's Law furore currently again swirling the twittersphere to a whole, new, tragi-comic level]

  • Comment number 2.


    "Just 35% describe global warming as a 'serious problem'." Rather more than the 14% of the UK population then (Science Museum poll as reported).

    Many issues have be conflated into the names given to concerns about everything from sustainability, destruction of virgin forests, through to the use of fossil fuels, pollution and the changes in the weather over the long and short term.

    For example I am concerned about many of these issues however I am not sure that the changes in our weather have been influenced at all by our use of fossil fuels in our economic development. I am quite sure that the drive for bio-fuels on the other hand is destroying virgin rain forest. The virtue of carbon taxes is that they increase economic pressure for all of use to be more efficient users of fuel which is always a good thing, however I am personally sure that CO2 does not cause Global Warming - CO2 reflects temperature but does not drive temperature.

    The good people of Virginia would not like my attitude that demands that we leave the planet is a good condition for our descendent even if this impinges on our 'freedom' (to be selfish). Stopping using dirty coal (i.e. without removing the sulphur that gives us acid rain) is a good thing, but substituting bio-fuels is most definitely worse. I would be content to use their coal to generate electricity and emit CO2 or pass the CO2 and waste heat into greenhouse to boost food production. NB CO2 is an absolute necessity for plant growth!)

    I think there may be quite a large proportion of people who are on both sides of the argument that have nuanced opinions based on the facts, but people in the media see everything as black and white and anyone to demurs in the slightest is labelled a heretic.

    The IPCC absolutest science is full of holes and when its façade collapses under the weight of evidence they risk damaging the World just because everything will be thrown out - what they are right about and what they in error about (CO2 as 'the' cause!)

  • Comment number 3.

    what can we do to stop climate change if we do not start right now???
    Everything has its commencement. can we has slavery-free Americans if pres Lincoln feared a bloody civil war? he is a bold man and a great president.
    i think Obama is also a bold man, and he will be a great president if he's keen with his plans.
    Copping with climate change is also a great way to develop economy and technology as well.i think against it, what we have will be a misery and catastrophic future.
    "freedom is a different thinks for different people" but i have strong believe that Climate change is a really serious problem for human

  • Comment number 4.

    phils' comment about virginia fighting for the freedom to keep people enslaved is flawed. the people of the south fought primarily for states rights which this country was founded upon. the union was founded on the principal that the states would run their own affairs while the central government would represent us all. the concept is similar to the european union. however, the federal government took it upon themselves to dictate to the states, not the other way around, which is how it was intended. that was the major reason for the civil war, not slavery. abolition of slavery was an admirable goal but not the primary one. it was about central control of the union. as for climate change many americans believe it to be untrue and just another way to restrict out liberties. now we are being told that we must sign the copenhagen treaty to fight climate change. this we will not stand for as we will not give up our sovereignty to a world government. the people of every country should stand up and say "NO" to the tyranny that the copenhagen treaty represents.

  • Comment number 5.

    It is hard to take the climate change elites and leaders seriously when they tut-tutt to the massses about having to change our lifestyles while their carbon footprint is gigantic from their use of private jets, large homes, limosinues and world wide meetings which they must attend. A carbon tax will lower consumption of carbon by making it more expensive for the masses; a regressive tax for the masses while the elites of the world lecture on and on. I believe that global warming.... its now climate change right.. is vastly overstated as an excuse for elites to find some excuse to control the masses. At best, climate change leaders are hipocrites. Many Americans have an individualism that is not well understood by non-Americans and with the election of Obama and his pending legislation, are becoming more vocal. Obama won the election, but many of the independts and centrists who voted for him are unpleasantly surprised at his leftist/collectivist tendencies.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm very disturbed by these "libertarian" groups who parade themselves as freedom-loving Americans who are down on government, however, when the feces hits the fan in whatever private sector that pays the majority of their bills they're quiet to government intervention. They (so-called "libertarians") accuse health care reform of being an intrusive socialist effort by the government but they piss on the ACLU for getting up in arms when Bush wanted our library records. What do they truly stand for? Money and power. Their true aim is to stamp out any effort that seeks to reform the plutocratic status quo. As an American, I'm not nervous and while I did vote for Obama, I knew that his election would only slow the downward spiral America is on, however, it pains me to see these beautiful mobs tainted by groups like Freedomworks. They don't care about people, they care about money and influence in the government they say they can't stand.

  • Comment number 7.

    These people say they carry a copy of the Declaration of Independence but apparantly, they don't read it. Otherwise, I'm not sure how they could be against the Gov't being involved Health Care, Education, Security, Retirement(Social Security), Communication, Transportation. The Declaration states the Gov't is formed to "secure" these rights...If the Founding Fathers were alive today, they'd be shouted down as "Socialists".

    Life = health care, security
    Liberty = Education, Transportation, Communication
    Pursuit of Happiness = Retirement and all of the above

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men..."

  • Comment number 8.

    Freedom is a scary state of being. You have to be willing to lose everything to keep it.

    The "Climate Change" and "Cap and Trade" bill are nothing but blatant attempts to dissolve the borders of the United States and strip us of our power as citizens. Everyone is quick to cherry pick our Bill of Rights as it suits them, but no one has the courage to simply adopt it to their own countries.

    Apparently, Europe and the rest of the world are eager to kneel before a shadow world world government.
    America came to the rescue of Europe and the world in WW2 to defend freedom. We will never kneel.
    We are not sorry.

    Anyone who thinks we won't fight to the last against this attempt to make Americans subservient in the world is sorely mistaken.

  • Comment number 9.

    "Freedom means different things to different people"
    Exactly right, but it also means that no one can use their freedom to injure or deny the freedom of others. Cap and Trade, and & other large government policies that don't provide for individual choice or just compensation do exactly that. They deny freedom for a supposed common good. The real question liberals are continuously asking is what is the common good and how do you go about convincing or coercing individuals to give up individual freedom for this common good. This invariably leads to government dictation of what is good or socially just for individuals regardless of the fact that individuals were given explicit protection under the Constitution to exercise their freedom and decide for themselves what is good for them.

  • Comment number 10.

    What a tremendous leap in logic! Slavery is not global warming. More importantly, just because people in the past misused the concept of freedom for their evil purposes (to justify slavery) doesn't make the concept invalid or relative. Your attempt at equating people who disapprove of cap and trade or don't believe that the science behind global warming is sound with people who believe in slavery is pompous and insulting.

  • Comment number 11.

    It has struck me that in many topical discussions that can inspire 'passions', media representatives that might be deemed less than supportive to certain libertarian views seem to be made at least welcome, if often teased, at gatherings.

    Whilst on the other side of the coin, there seems to be more of a move to exclusion at the very least, if not more draconian expectations of 'authority' to interfere... for the greater good.

    For example... 'She's baaaack': (though this one rather convinces me this is a parodic set-up)

    Doesn't make the arguments of any side any more valid, but it doesn't half require those less wedded to the basic precepts of freedom of speech to work harder to swing over those weighing arguments.

  • Comment number 12.

    Justin Rowlatt.

    "..the vanguard of a great new movement, a movement for American liberty.
    "Lower taxes, less government, more freedom", is their rallying cry."

    how's their gibberish different from that of the weirdos in Idaho and places Louis Theroux reported on?

  • Comment number 13.

    "A recent poll found most Americans agree. Just 35% describe global warming as a "serious problem"."

    These polls are a joke. I've seen about 5 in the last month all with different findings. This one for example suggests that 77% of Americans favor action on climate change. It genuinely beggars belief that the American people think they can only be free with a "free market" and they demand less and less regulation by government on every issue. All this does is shift the power from the government to the rich business leaders. Rich business leaders who care about nothing other than profit margins and getting richer, at any cost. Profits could be spent on improving people lives, instead the rich get rich taking from the poor who get poorer.

  • Comment number 14.

    The question of freedom, property rights, and externalities are central to this issue. How to resolve two conflicting rights? Do I have the right to foul the stream my neighbour also uses to drink from, just because I don't believe the FSA, EPA, or those 'politically-suspect grant-grubbing university researchers' who claim dioxins from my pulp mill are toxic? I suspect any sane, rational person would argue no, and that most libertarians would argue I'm violating the property rights of my neighbour by discharging pollution into the water. What then makes these self-ascribed libertarians think their right to pollute the atmosphere trumps others' right to a clean atmosphere and stable climate?

    Legislating emissions is anathema to these people because it is an act of government, and government is inherently suspect. Yet cap-and-trade - a market approach to the problem of pollution - is also fiercely opposed (though not wholly without reason as this article suggests - - its efficacy is somewhat suspect). The only option left then is what, the courts? I'd love to see the damages awarded the Maldives against the coal and oil industries, with an overwhelming majority of expert witnesses testifying in support of anthropogenic greenhouse warming (and what would that do to the cost of a litre of petrol?). But wait a second... Government is, by definition, the sole institution with a legal monopoly on the exercise of coercive force. Courts are therefore inherently governmental institutions - their authority resting on the ability to enforce their rulings. So would these libertarians accept the rulings of a court were it to find against them? And if legislation, market forces, and court rulings are all invalid methods of conflict resolution, what option remains other than brute force?

  • Comment number 15.

    #8 Eastvillage

    "America came to the rescue of Europe and the world in WW2 to defend freedom."

    Yeah yeah yeah the great American self deception, you did not come to our defence you joined in when you were forced to by the Japanese and the Germans. Try learning a bit of history that isn't from Hollywood or a comic book.

  • Comment number 16.

    As soon as you mentioned their media supporters you identifed them as ignorant. American Taliban...stupid people..their way or no way and by the way they will shout you down if you try to present any facts that might get in the way of their agenda. Media loves these fringe groups. We are seeing the powerless find power in shouting and making noise and threats. Emboldened by hate mongers of the media, who get rich getting these idiots to buy their nonsense, they run around shouting cliche slogans......socialism....America....Freedom. Less government, ask them what they want to cut and why......schools for minority for the poor.....non-christian everything....these are the new nazis.....just as stupid and just as used.....ask them if their favorite congressman has given up his/her governmental helathcare. Fools love to dance to the tune of others because it hurts their heads to think for themselves. In a Richmond basement with the other rats and vermin where they belong.

  • Comment number 17.

    Obama sent Sec'y of State Clinton to Asia in January...he's known since January that the Chi-coms and India will only accept the original Kyoto Protocol which allows them to pollute.

    Obama put off announcing the coming Afghan troop increase (and there WILL be an increase) because he didn't want a hot story before this Asian trip. On this Asian trip he is going to stand side-by-side with the Chi-com party masters and declare that the US will in no way interfere with China's expansion, domestic or international.

    So, Copenhagen is a joke. What is NOT dead is CARBON TAX. What the G-8 and G-20 leaders have been discussing is this great new way to tax the citizens. That is an easy-sell.

    Obama is putting on a magic show for the public. When he directs your attention one had better watch what his other hand is doing! The real deals are being made in secret, the pork is being pushed, the influence harvested.

    With the anticipated growth of China and India, China's exploitation of Africa, and Brazil's own expansionist ideas, there is NO WAY carbon emissions will go down.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.