NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—On the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, in a small, airless ballroom in the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, a few dozen people gathered to be reassured that the planet was not facing imminent catastrophe. “There’s so much disinformation out there, so much propaganda,” moaned Jim Lakely, communications director at The Heartland Institute. The panel was titled “Trump’s America First Energy Plan: Restoring Our Prosperity and Destroying Eco-Left Memes.”
“You’re gonna walk out of this room today knowing why you’re skeptical that humans are causing a climate crisis,” Lakely promised, a serene mountain landscape screensaver filling the projector screen to his left. “You’ll see with your own eyes that we’re not causing a climate crisis.”
My mind briefly flickered to the 80-degree February weather we’d enjoyed the day prior before settling on the panelists, four slightly rumpled white men whose task it was to serve up the Heartland Institute’s main dish: the latest contorted iteration of modern American climate denialism. The idea is not so much that the climate isn’t changing, but that it isn’t changing very much, and that we aren’t sure how responsible humans are, and that scientists disagree, and that warmer weather is nice.
“You’re standing in the way of what they really want, which is to command and control the economy,” Lakely informed a nodding audience. “Cause if you can convince the people that the only way we can save the planet is to force you to do what I say? What does that sound like? Sounds like communism, sounds like socialism. It sounds like authoritarianism.”
One of the main goals of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank which was founded in 1984, is to undermine the strong scientific consensus on climate change in favor of findings that promote the continued burning of fossil fuels. Splashy climate conferences and the promotion of certain school curriculums have been features of Heartland’s strategy; in 2017 they sent misleading materials to thousands of K-12 and college educators. Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute and former head of Trump’s EPA transition team, received Heartland’s “Speaks Truth to Power Award” last year.
The panel’s first speaker was David Legates, a professor of geography at the University of Delaware. Legates, who has a wide face and the cropped, roundish hair of a 13th century friar, gave a talk on “The Overstatement of CO2 as a Pollutant.”
“Carbon dioxide is the building block of plants, so the idea is the more carbon dioxide, the better plants grow,” Legates began. Of course, while rising CO2 levels have been shown to help plant growth, scientists believe that the side effects of rising temperatures, change in rainfall levels and extreme weather events are likely to negate that impact; there’s also some research showing that higher CO2 levels can decrease the nutritional value of crops. And as climate scientist Gavin Schmidt previously told Jezebel, only a fraction of CO2 emissions are going to vegetation, with the rest pouring into the atmosphere and the ocean, increasing global warming and ocean acidification, respectively.
During one particularly striking scientific cherry-pick, Legates attempted to rebut research demonstrating the deteriorating effects of ocean acidification on snail shells by pulling up photographs of crawfish and crabs that had grown after being exposed to higher CO2 levels. Several audience members gasped; one let out a barking, victorious laugh.
“Now, that one’s a keeper,” Legates said. “Those are the kind of crabs we want to find.”
It is true that increased CO2 has been shown to bulk up crustaceans like lobsters, crabs, and shrimp; it’s weird, though, to imply that crabs getting huge means everything is fine. For most other sea creatures vulnerable to acidification (and even the super-crabs, who scientists believe may be feeling “loopy”), everything is not. Legates also assured his audience that they ought not believe the “hype” about the recent death of large sections of the Great Barrier Reef.
This bigger-is-better mentality isn’t actually all that surprising in the context of what was ultimately a robust defense of bounty. Take what you need, the panelists urged—enjoy your “economic freedom,” your jumbo crabs. No need to commit “economic suicide” like the suckers who stayed in the Paris Accord. The planet will work itself out.
Legates has served as an expert at the Exxon-funded George C. Marshall Institute, which has since transitioned into the CO2 Coalition, another “the more CO2 the better!”-style organization with ties to the fossil fuel industry (the CO2 Coalition, whose founder has compared the “demonization of CO2" to the Holocaust, is at CPAC as well). Legates also has ties to Wei Hock “Willie” Soon, whose research—some of it co-authored by Legates—was found in 2015 to be funded almost entirely by fossil fuel interests. The University of Delaware declined a congressional request that year to disclose the sources of funding for Legates’ work; when I asked after the panel, Legates told me he was placed on what he termed a “federal do-not-fund list” after the controversy. “I do all this on my own,” he snapped.
The “major oil companies,” Heartland CEO and President Tim Huelskamp said at the panel, “do not fund Heartland, although we’d be happy to take their support.”
In fact, the group has received funding from ExxonMobil, and the Mercer family has donated generously to the Heartland Institute, which is just one in an alarmingly long list of anti-environmental groups that the Trump patrons bankroll. It will probably come as no surprise that Heartland has also been associated with petrochemical billionaires David and Charles Koch, the latter who, after spending over a decade funneling tens of millions of dollars into various organizations promoting climate skepticism, told ABC News in 2016 that he believes the earth is warming in a “mild, manageable way.”
“The science debate is over and we won,” Huelskamp said, incorrectly, at the end of the panel. “There is no scientific consensus that the world’s going to end. We won that debate.”
If so, I can’t think of a better prize than an army of confused, gargantuan Maryland crabs.