I Crashed a Climate Change Denial Conference in Las Vegas
Jul 22 2014
I’ve been researching the climate denial industry for almost three years and the best way to gather information about this incredibly small yet influential clique is to hang out with them. I attended their 2012 conference of the Heartland Institute, an oil and tobacco funded free market think tank that spends a lot of time and effort trying to call bullshit on what is clearly not bullshit – the science of climate change. My presence was clearly unwelcome – but I guess they forgot to scrub me from their email invitation list, because I got invited again this year, to their 9th International Conference on Climate Change in the deep heat of the Nevada desert amid the chaos of Las Vegas casinos.
The choice of Vegas by Heartland seemed brilliantly provocative. A celebration of high-stakes capitalism in the very gambling dens where $92 billion is lost each year in pursuit of the American dream. The dazzling lights, the grotesquely oversized hotels, the free drinks.
Perhaps nowhere on earth is more profligate and wasteful of increasingly scarce natural resources than this twisted utopia. The Republican Party reportedly blackballed Vegas for its 2016 convention fearing its Christian supporters would be repelled by this den of iniquity – and that its legislators would be lured into its brothels and casinos. Scientists have explicitly stated we are “loading the dice” by raising temperatures so that extreme weather and deadly catastrophes will become more frequent – gambling with our future, basically. Joseph Bast, the president of Heartland, was surely thumbing his nose at his detractors.
Heartland has had a torrid two years. Dr Peter Gleick, a hydro-climatologist and author, took the unusual step of posing as a board member and tricking Heartland staff into sending him a trove of highly secret internal documents. The papers revealed that Heartland was working with a coal industry consultant in order to enter American schools and attack climate science.
Two months later, and just ahead of their 2012 conference in hometown Chicago, Heartland made the bizarre decision to erect a huge advertising billboard attacking climate science on the basis that the terrorist Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, had apparently been concerned about global warming. This gave their archenemies Greenpeace US and Forecast the Facts the ammunition they needed to successfully lobby funders to withdraw.
The Vegas conference was going a good opportunity to enter this strange world again. But did I really want to spend a week in the middle of dustbowl America with three hundred climate cranks who would crowd around trying to tell me how wrong I am about everything if they knew the first thing about me?
"When I finally got there I was confronted by a stout, hairy American wearing tight black underpants."
24 hours later and I touched down at the Vegas airport in the dead of night, bathed in light. The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, a gold-plated monument to excess, appeared to be next to the runway. Still it took 20 minutes and $20 dollars for a cab driver to get me there.
This sub-prime feeling hotel was the perfect setting for Heartland. The deregulated casinos glared as they took people’s money and the acrid smell of tobacco was pervasive. The hotel was brash, huge, and run down. All fur coat and moth eaten. There were loud renovations taking place when I arrived. The front desk had double booked my room, so when I finally got there I was confronted by a stout, hairy American wearing tight black underpants. Mercifully I was relocated.
The morning after my arrival I met Christopher Monckton, who had agreed to have breakfast with me. Within minutes I found myself almost entirely lost in confusing nonsense. Monckton repeated his claim to be a member of the House of Lords, which has been denied by the House of Lords, and having been the scientific advisor to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s when she first championed climate science, which has also been debunked.
The aristocrat, a classically trained architect and one-time journalist, told me he had produced a very simple climate model that proved actual scientists had exaggerated the threat of climate science and that there was no evidence that heating the atmosphere was dangerous.
Monckton has worked closely with the ominous sounding neoliberal think tank, the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). They even hired a plane so he could parachute uninvited into the Durban climate conference. CFACT has enjoyed significant funding from ExxonMobil and other oil and car industrialists. So I asked Monckton if he had benefited from ExMo’s largesse. “The cheque has not yet arrived in the post,” he joked, before asking if I was “left wing”.
Monckton then told me he attended climate conferences because it was better than sitting at home on his sofa and he cared for the future of society. He had refused his $1,000 Heartland fee. I asked him how this chimed with his belief in the free market, that rested on the idea that people only respond to financial incentives. He grinned.
After I had paid for his breakfast he said something that really surprised me. We were walking past the slot machines when I asked him what he thought of Vegas. He said he believed gambling to be immoral. The casinos were profiting from people’s lack of a good education and fundamental misunderstanding of mathematics. He said Heartland had, in fact, chosen Vegas to make the point that climate scientists had failed to understand risk.
Bearded Joseph Bast opened the conference that evening. He said, “Speaking of funding and for the record, except for $150 from the Illinois Coal Association and another $150 from Liberty Coin Service, a great little coin shop in Lansing, Michigan, owned by my old friend Pat Heller, no corporate money was raised for this conference. And no, not a nickel from the Koch brothers" – owners of Koch Industries, the largest privately held firm in the United States and a major player in the oil refinery industry. The humorously small donations were meant to prove that Big Oil was not behind this jamboree.
The remarks came seconds after he thanked his co-sponsors, who included the Media Research Center, Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute, CFACT, and the George C. Marshall Institute – many of which have been funded by oil corporations and some by Charles Koch foundations.
The fact checking website Media Matters for America put out a blog post about some of the speakers’ various links to oil. But their website was blocked in the hotel and the Heartland delegates, all doughty defenders of free speech, were left in the dark.
Then the shadow-side of this comic dishonesty and hypocrisy became almost too much to bear. Dr S Fred Singer, a folk hero around here, was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. He in turn presented the Frederick Seitz Award. If one man can take credit for inventing climate denial it is Singer. The old man once claimed, rather brilliantly, that, “My connection to oil during the past decade is as a Wesson Fellow at the Hoover Institution; the Wesson money derives from salad oil.” Exxon had given Singer $10,000 in funding just a few years earlier.
The late Dr Seitz had many achievements in his lifetime. But the one I will remember him for was contributing indirectly to the deaths of millions of Americans. He sat on the medical research committee of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and oversaw $45 million in medical funding which his critics claimed “served the tobacco industry’s purposes.” Much of my close family has been wiped out by smoking related diseases, so this one sticks out for me.
The Heartland conference was now in full swing and my brain began to melt. There was the usual monotony of badly put together Powerpoint slides, rambling speeches and desperate attempts to resurrect climate science controversies buried by actual scientists almost three decades ago. The speakers were being paid around $1,000 to attend, plus flights and large hotel suites.
The hundreds of sceptics around me not once questioned the bizarre, the illogical, the poorly constructed claims that swirled in front of our eyes. This parody of science was a deadly hybrid of 1970s Open University programmes and sub-Cirque du Soleil.
In the intervals I managed to speak to some of the key deniers. Dr Patrick Michaels has been vilified by Greenpeace and was one of the early generation of scientists to take money from coal companies to argue against mainstream climate science. He once admitted on national television that 40 percent of his funding comes from the oil industry.
He told me how as a young scientist he challenged what he thought of as a monolithic orthodoxy of climate change only to see his government research grants dwindle. Believing himself to be among the most brilliant he was insulted that he was in fact one of the worst paid in his profession. Thankfully, car companies were willing to secretly pay him to help them fight environmental legal battles.
Later I spoke to Dr Willie Soon, one of the few professional scientists in the room. He was once funded by Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute and one way or another by Charles Koch. Greenpeace used Freedom of Information laws to expose his financial support from oil barons through his university. Soon told me Exxon broke off his funding, without so much as a kiss goodbye. Soon was another sad sack who seemed convinced of his own brilliance and dumbfounded at the lack of recognition. At Heartland he was given a glass trophy and a round of applause.
I was then witness to a suited Greenpeace activist dressing down Anthony Watts, the one-time weatherman who blogs at Watts Up With That?, in a hallway. Watts broke the story of Climategate, when thousands of private emails between climate scientists were hacked and published online. The emails were presented as evidence of a lurid and global conspiracy to fool the public into fearing global warming. They weren't.
Then I ran into James Delingpole, the one-time Telegraph Online journalist who spewed vitriol at climate scientists and their defenders. I was about to undergo the kind of nasty, bitter confrontation I wanted to avoid.
Delingpole went to Oxford University with the British Prime Minister David Cameron but his novels didn’t do brilliantly and he was never invited into London Society. Delingpole’s other claim to fame was being made to look a complete fool when Sir Paul Nurse, filming for the BBC, asked if he had read the abstract of any scientific papers (the short introduction which sets out the significance of the study). Delingpole, who claims to have found a remarkable global conspiracy to fake climate research, admitted he hadn’t. So I just asked James if he had read any abstracts since. “No”. I couldn’t quite believe it.
Delingpole has written off one of the most influential climate studies as “ludicrous, comedy” and claimed its author, Professor Michael Mann at Penn State University, has “little discernible talent”. But during our confrontation he confirmed he had never interviewed Mann, never read his book and never read any of his scientific papers. I was dumbfounded.
Delingpole was furious. He raged and spat and accused me of being a troll. He attacked my journalism, having not read any, and attacked my opinions, having not heard any. All of this was being filmed by two French filmmakers. I was shaking. More in anger than in sorrow. “Can I give you some friendly advice,” I said.
“I don’t want your friendly advice, Mr Montague”, he said.
“Why don’t you read the abstracts to three scientific papers. Then you won’t look like such a fool next time someone asks that question. It doesn’t take long.”
The argument fizzled out and we both went our separate ways, huffing. And then I felt sad for Delingpole. Why was he even at this conference? He could be at home with hisfamily, playing Scrabble. It seems he is driven by ambition, but had made it no further than the basement conference hall of a faded hotel in Vegas.
After three days locked into this air-conditioned hell Wednesday was upon us and the conference finally drew to a close. And I remembered we were in Vegas. I buttonholed Joseph Bast and asked whether he had indeed chosen Vegas as a brilliantly daring provocation to his critics. The spin of the roulette wheel reminded me at least of the madness of sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps that plunged millions of Americans into penury. Was it social commentary? “No”, he said. “The rooms were cheap”.
It would almost be possible to dismiss this whole crowd as a bunch of sad cranks. Somewhere between 9/11 Truthers and homeopathic doctors. Not just snake oil salesmen but snake oil customers at the same time. Immune to the accumulating evidence that free market economics is not only responsible for the economic crash of 2008, but also the ever-closer ecological catastrophe.
"They are full of shit. But they are having a real influence on American politics."
They would just be sad sacks if they were not also influential. Among the delegates swarm the sharks just as surely as they do in the Mandalay Bay Hotel aquarium. Myron Ebell of CEI who once conspired with a White House insider to downplay climate in a seminal government report. Senator James Inhofe who, by video call, told the troops to ready themselves to take Congress in November. They also influence lower level officials.
During one dinner I sat next to Rod Wright, a brilliantly funny and apparently savvy Democrat state senator from the environmentalist hotbed California. Rod, one of only two black people I saw out of a claimed 600 attendees, told me how he became suspicious of renewable energy, and then climate science more generally.
These suspicions were confirmed by the avalanche of literature he received from the Heartland Institute. His colleagues deserted him but he was steeled by the support of the free market think tank. “You have to sift information through your own filter”, he told me. “Their funding does not devalue their information. Everybody got money from somebody. Jesus said, ‘Let he without sin cast the first stone’.” He smiles, before adding. “I have looked at some of their work on insurance and I think they’re full of shit.” (I read later that Wright has been convicted of voter fraud).
They are full of shit. But they are having a real influence on American politics. They are just one of the hundreds of Koch and Exxon funded think tanks and fake grassroots campaigns that have frustrated and blocked Obama’s administration at every turn. As I leave the conference I find it hard to reconcile what I have learned. These people are just cranks but they are perverting American politics. I did learn in Vegas that attacks from these people are not going to hurt me.
In the casino the tragedy of the American Dream continues. Hardworking Americans sit emotionless pouring their salaries into slot machines. Believing the dream. But investing every last dime in a desperate and, for the overwhelming majority, simply hopeless attempt to escape. I watch a guy burn $2,500 in 20 minutes during a spiral of roulette stupidity.
When you see the homelessness in Vegas, and the drug addiction, and you know there is no real welfare state over here, no safety net. These Heartland folk are just a few pay cheques from freefall. They're not going to get headhunted by Stanford University any time soon. They believe themselves too educated to survive McJobs. They are clinging on. They’re hustling. That’s what you do in Vegas.
Brendan Montague is a London based investigative journalist who has published in The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and The Guardian. He is founder of the Request Initiative, which boasts Greenpeace UK among its NGO clients.