Late in the summer of 1989, John Christy discovered the earth wasn’t warming. Satellites spinning through the atmosphere reported no upward trend line, and above the tropics, the University of Alabama atmospheric sciences professor and his research partner, the NASA scientist Roy Spencer, learned that the satellites had actually recorded cooling. The two men were the first to crunch the enormous volume of data captured by the satellites since their launch a decade earlier, the first to build a database that showed the surface readings depicting a warming earth were overblown. They were pioneers. They submitted a paper to Science magazine, and in March the following year, they became celebrities. NPR called. The Los Angeles Times called. Jay Leno made a joke about it on national TV.
Such attention today would not faze Christy. He’s testified numerous times before federal lawmakers. He has done so many interviews with reporters that he’s begun repeating himself. This year he began advising the director of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is now so widely seen as an obstacle to climate action that on Earth Day week in 2017, late at night, seven 5.7 mm rounds snapped through the office window next to his. The FBI told him the shooter had likely mistaken his neighbor’s office for his. But in the spring of 1990, Christy was in his late 30s, without tenure and surprised, suddenly, by the attention. “It was the first time I had gone through something like that,” he said.
Two years earlier, in 1988, the country seemed to have come to the opposite conclusion. “The greenhouse effect has been detected,” the NASA scientist James Hansen told the U.S. Senate during that dry, hot summer when the Midwest plunged into Dust Bowl–like drought, “and it is changing our climate now.” He was “99 percent” certain that artificial greenhouse gases were warming the planet, he said, and government must sharply cut emissions to fight the crisis. The front page of the New York Times the next day announced global warming had begun. That fall, the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization established the global authority on climate science—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Delegates from some 60 nations met in the Netherlands a year later, in 1989, to approve the outlines of a binding treaty to limit carbon emissions.
Global warming threatens every living thing on earth, but cutting the pollution that causes it threatens the profits of enough executives, the climate researcher Richard Heede told the Guardian, to fit on a couple of Greyhound buses. Some of those—though not all of them—decided money was more important, and to protect their money they invested in a network of free-market think tanks and advocacy groups to manufacture celebrities of academia like Christy. These were academics who, crucially, already believed the climate crisis was no crisis at all, academics so ideologically aligned with the free-market values of the polluters that they couldn’t be bothered with the damning data signaling a crisis. These academics were true believers.
While people around this warming earth protest inaction—locking legs and locking arms, blocking roads and blocking bridges, wielding signs that say there is no planet b and i’m sure the dinosaurs thought they had time too—the United States, which is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, actively represses climate science throughout federal agencies and slashes environmental regulations to the glee of the network that bolsters these contrarian celebrities. The Trump administration, infamous for alternative facts, has vigorously renewed demand for an alternative science that was losing salience. Many of the alternative scientists and nonscientists have died, retired, or gone quiet since Christy discovered the earth wasn’t warming. But I found eight other professors who linger—call them the holdouts.
In 1998, months after countries finally adopted the first international agreement to cut carbon emissions, a coalition of some of the U.S.’s largest oil companies (including ExxonMobil and Chevron), industry trade groups, and free-market advocacy hubs convened the “Global Climate Science Team.” Their mission: recruit scientists to undercut climate science. “These will be individuals who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate. Rather,” the group’s plan stated, “this team will consist of new faces who will add their voices to those recognized scientists who are already vocal.” (Five years earlier, Western Fuels Association had already been recruiting scientists “who are skeptical about much of what seemed generally accepted about the potential for climate change,” according to a 1993 annual report, but the Global Climate Science Team refined the strategy.)
- While people around this warming earth protest inaction, the United States, which is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, actively represses climate science throughout federal agencies and slashes environmental regulations.
The year the team drafted the plan, ExxonMobil—then the world’s second largest emitter of carbon emissions, behind Chevron—began dumping money into a network of free-market groups—often, unambiguously, for work on climate change, according to an analysis of data provided by the Climate Investigations Center and the database ExxonSecrets, an initiative led by the environmental group Greenpeace. For some of these groups, ExxonMobil would become the single largest corporate donor. The company, for example, had been making small donations of $5,000 to $20,000 in the mid-1990s to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free-market think tank, but in 1997 it gave the institute $95,000 earmarked for climate change work. In 2000, Exxon gave CEI $230,000 in non-climate-specific funds. (ExxonMobil’s corporate media office did not respond to requests for an interview, but CEI President Kent Lassman said in an email, “Alarmist policies to restructure American life pose a grave threat to human health and financial security.”)
Another ExxonMobil beneficiary was the Heartland Institute, which spent its early years in the 1980s focused on issues in its home state of Illinois; a decade later, Heartland entered the national stage with climate change as a core issue. It would be a profitable decision. Heartland’s public tax records compiled by Conservative Transparency, a group that aims “to dismantle false attacks on progressive policies,” reveal meager contributions through 1997, ranging from $2,578 to $25,000, but in 1998 the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation made a $150,000 grant, according to Media Matters. Two years later, ExxonMobil gave $115,000 earmarked for work on climate change. (Heartland’s spokesperson said the notion that the think tank’s work on climate change is possible because of the fossil fuel industry, or done at the direction of it, is a lie and a smear. “It’s 100% false,” Jim Lakely said in an email to me.) The George C. Marshall Institute, founded in 1984 to assess scientific issues that influence public policy, also expanded thanks to ExxonMobil’s support, before it dissolved in 2015, spinning its climate change work off into the CO2 Coalition. In 2001, the Marshall Institute received a $60,000 grant for work on climate change and has received a total of half a million dollars from the company since. And the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a group that scrutinizes environmental issues through a free-market lens, started with modest $5,000 grants in 1997 and 1998, which grew to $110,000 in 2000 and another $180,000 between 2003 and 2005 earmarked for climate work. (Marc Morano, CFACT’s spokesman, declined to address the think tank’s role in organizing the academics and defended the 1998 plan in an email. “It was a strategy meeting that was no different than what the political left does on a daily basis,” he wrote.)
John Christy is arguably the most credentialed climate-science contrarian, overseeing a team of some 60 researchers studying the atmosphere from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, publishing frequently on climate change in peer-reviewed literature, and testifying periodically on climate science before federal lawmakers.
Image: Portrait by Cameron Carnes.
These groups—CEI, Heartland, the CO2 Coalition, and CFACT—are among the most active today in brokering skeptical academics. ExxonMobil’s philanthropy was significant—giving more than $5 million that is publicly traceable to 37 groups for work exclusively on climate change between 1997 and 2005, according to research by Greenpeace. But larger donations also came from family foundations. According to a 2013 study in the journalClimate Change, the three biggest climate-doubt donors between 2003 and 2010 were Scaife family foundations, financed by the late oil, banking, and industrial magnate Richard Mellon Scaife; the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; and foundations affiliated with the Koch family, whose wealth, according to Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money, originally came from constructing oil refineries for Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. (I sought comment from the three foundations; only the Koch’s responded, through a spokesperson, who said, “We have been grossly mischaracterized on this issue.”) According to the 2013 study “Institutionalizing Delay,” published inClimatic Change, funding to think tanks and advocacy groups rocketed from sources whose transactions are impervious to public scrutiny, namely Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.
These think tanks and advocacy groups became brokers for a community of mostly older white male scientists and economists who all doubted the looming climate crisis. As the country considered the binding international treaty to cut carbon emissions in the late 90s and early 2000s, this network blasted the voices of these men into the nation’s dialogue. Without their work, says Jerry Taylor, the president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, lawmakers couldn’t support inaction. Taylor is skeptical of the skeptics today, but he once fought with them against action and knows the landscape well. “It’s not all that complicated,” he said. “There is a political demand for climate skepticism out of the academic community,” and by signaling it, lesser-known researchers can gain visibility and get private grants.
Though Christy has the credentials to talk the climate talk, he’s backed himself into a corner, shoulder to shoulder with eight other professors who sound a lot like climate deniers. This scrum of academics can be broken into two categories: those who are credentialed to have opinions about the atmosphere, like Christy, and those who aren’t.
• David Legates is a University of Delaware climatology professor who was not available for comment but said at a 2018 Heartland Institute conference, “So the answer to my question: ‘Is carbon dioxide a pollutant or a benefit?’—it clearly isn’t a pollutant. It is definitely a benefit, and we can do with a little bit more of it.”
• David Deming is a University of Oklahoma geophysics and geology professor who did not respond to multiple emails and calls, but a 2018 Heartland Institute climate change report quoted him speculating apocalyptically about a future without fossil fuels, saying, “When the bottled water ran out, people would drink from streams and ponds and epidemic cholera would inevitably follow.”
• Tony Lupo is a Missouri University atmospheric sciences professor who gave me hours of his time and access to his classes, where, in April, he told his students the climate is changing. “The questions are why is it changing,” he said, “and to what degree are human activities playing a role?”
The five remaining professors have no higher-education background in earth sciences, but they nonetheless espouse doubt about very well established climate facts.
• Gerard Caneba is a Michigan Technological University chemical engineering professor who authored a 2018 book, Debunking Anthropogenic Climate Change Hysteria: A Chemical Engineer’s Scientific Viewpoint, and, in an email to me, said, “As I understand more and more the inner workings of the Earth system, it became evident to me that the current inexorable march of the anthropogenic global warming movement is unabashedly based not only on imperfect science but on an inferior form of science.”
• Larry Bell is a University of Houston space architecture professor who in an uninhibited hour-and-a-half-long phone call with me repeatedly returned to what he sees as the corruption of climate science. He spoke of “alarmist shit” and “funny business” and said climate regulations have always been about “social control.” “You reach a point when it’s tempting to attribute bad motive to people,” he said.
• Steven Hayward is a Berkeley Law visiting lecturer who declined to comment by email but said recently in a post for a conservative blog that climate science is a “fantasyland of climate theology” and the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg will be forgotten by the media for the “next shiny new thing.”
• Thomas Rustici is a George Mason University economics professor who could not be reached for comment but has told students, flatly, that global warming is no catastrophe.
• Scott Armstrong is a marketing professor retiring from the University of Pennsylvania who gave a presentation in June at a Lehigh University reunion titled “Do We Face Dangerous Global Warming?” Heartland promoted it on its website, linking to the slides.
The opinions of all nine, driven either scientifically or ideologically, are difficult to disentangle from the free-market campaign that helped make them celebrities in contrarian circles. Speaking with them today, it appears most of them didn’t just begin doubting climate science in order to boost stock prices at oil companies.
Christy has always been about the science. At the table in his office, he flipped through a blue three-ring binder stuffed with sheets of yellowed paper. He stopped on a page with a spreadsheet meticulously etched by mechanical pencil: weather observations from 1969, when Christy was in high school in Fresno, California. “I was just in love with the weather and data and recording things. I mean,” he said, turning the page, “I used to be able to write four lines in a quarter of an inch.”
For the early part of his career, there was room in what Christy calls “the establishment” for work that questioned the severity or cause of climate change. “The first studies were welcomed and had a big impact,” recalls Kevin Trenberth, one of Christy’s graduate school supervisors and now a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “At the time there was no political agenda attached.”
But as the cause of climate change became ever more conclusive and the dangers more real, Christy told me he became frustrated with a science that to him had become dogma. “Climate change was a danger to human kind,” he said, remembering the sentiment that alienated him from his colleagues, “and if you have evidence against that, we don’t want to see it, or there is something wrong with it.” He got up from the table and returned with a several-inch-thick report. The IPCC had published it in 2001, and Christy helped write it. He opened it and flipped by memory to a page with a squiggly, vibrant orange, blue, and red line: the hockey stick, the indelible image of climate change. The hockey stick is a line graph charting a shaft, as the de facto name implies, of relatively stable global average temperatures for almost a millennium until, abruptly, in the late 1900s, it hooks sharply up. The hockey stick is a slapshot in Christy’s face. He scowled at it. “It’s an improperly done piece of, uh,” he said, then paused, reconsidered, then finished, “mathematics.”
- “It’s not all that complicated. There is a political demand for climate skepticism out of the academic community,” and by signaling it, lesser-known researchers can gain visibility and get private grants.
At 68, Christy is well established: He has taught and researched at the University of Alabama in Huntsville for 32 years. He is Alabama’s state climatologist, the interim dean of the university’s science college, and the director of a lab with some 60 researchers. The database he and Spencer created for their 1990 Science magazine paper spurred more research into satellite temperature monitoring, which found errors in his monitoring. (Christy told me he believes the errors found in his work have been minor.) I told him I’d emailed with Trenberth, who said he distanced himself from Christy around 2001, worried that every time a decision was called for in processing data, Christy was choosing values that gave little or no trend. Christy grimaced. “He doesn’t want to admit that my work stands on its own.” Christy, ethically in some ways, stands on his own, too. He’s not quoted as frequently or fervently in newspapers as the other eight holdouts. He refuses to take money from oil, mining, or automotive companies. Notably, he avoids the semi-annual international conferences led by the Heartland Institute, today the hub of doubt. “There is a sense that some of those in the skeptical camp are…” he said, pausing to search the beige walls of his office for the right words, “not scientifically grounded. Appearing in those venues, you get tainted.”
But Christy does have mud on his boots. In a deposition, he recalled that CEI paid him some $1,500 for writing a chapter in the 2002 book Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death, just one of several indications that he’s part of a larger whole. (When pressed later by an attorney in the deposition, he admitted under oath that global warming wasn’t an “eco-myth.”) He says he has testified in congressional hearings on climate change about 20 times. His testimony in 2009, 2011, and 2016 appears to have given cover to bills crafted to suppress federal climate science or kneecap greenhouse gas regulations, though none became law. (Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Chevron, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Peabody Energy, Edison Electric Institute, and other fossil fuel giants lobbied for the 2011 bill.) For his connections on Capitol Hill, at least in part, Christy must thank the financiers of the vast network designed to broadcast his views—financiers who cared more about money than the earth.
Though Christy may keep some distance from the network, Larry Bell, the University of Houston space architecture professor, does not. Bell made himself a kind of skeptic celebrity, writing the 2011 book, Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax, which, he said, landed him a regular column for Forbes.com until 2014. He is an adviser for CFACT and a member of the CO2 Coalition. He also advises the Heartland Institute, which has had a number of other affiliates at Forbes who’ve broadcasted doubt. Bell, now 81, established his career during the space race of the 1960s. He designed equipment that was used the first time an astronaut walked in space and founded the only graduate-degree program in space architecture. He has, in his own words, “a shitload of credibility in space,” and in his writing on climate change he claims this credibility also extends to the atmosphere of this planet. In his Forbes column he advocated for carbon fuels and shot down green energy and environmental regulation, and a central theme was climate science cast as a conspiracy. When he left the site in early 2014—Bell said Forbes “got squishy”—he moved his column to the far-right website NewsMax.
Bell believes climate change is a cover for communism. The refrain is common among contrarians. They denigrate environmentalists as “communist, un-American fanatics and diametrically opposed to prosperity, jobs, and profit,” according to a 2013 study of climate doubters, “Wise Contrarians,” published in the journal Celebrity Studies. For Bell in particular, who was shaped by the Cold War, the “climate thing” has always been about communism. After the Berlin Wall fell, three decades ago, Bell flew to Russia to visit its space program and recalls being shocked at what communism had done to the Russians. He believes that climate regulations, like communism, are fundamentally about redistribution, and that without competition a nation cannot prosper. “I don’t give a shit about climate,” he said, “other than how it’s being weaponized to frighten people.”
This is a main point to anyone willing to listen: Climate change is a weapon. Thomas Rustici, the George Mason University economics professor, wants that to be clear. Rustici is not a scientist. He is an economist who has done research for the Charles Koch Foundation, a major funder of doubt. Koch family foundations poured more than $127 million into 92 organizations that attack climate science between 1997 and 2017, according to Greenpeace. Rustici, who has taught for nearly thirty years, has required students to readThe Science of Success by Charles Koch; and he’s recommended they read books by climate change contrarians such as Fred Singer, Robert Balling, and Patrick Michaels, who have all taken money from the oil and gas industry. Rustici also advised Ben Carson’s presidential campaign. Repeated efforts to reach Rustici were unsuccessful, but hours of audio recordings made by a student in 2012 and shared with the advocacy group UnKoch My Campus open a window into his ideology.
- For the early part of his career, there was room in what Christy calls “the establishment” for work that questioned the severity or cause of climate change. “The first studies were welcomed and had a big impact,” recalls Kevin Trenberth.
Rustici’s voice—the student who made the recordings confirmed it was him—bounds like a preacher’s. In the recordings he can be heard telling his students we will never run out of clean water, that our air isn’t getting dirtier, that there can be no famine in a land with private property rights and free trade, that agricultural productivity is boundless and those who doubt it are dumber than dirt, “and that’s an insult to dirt.” “Socialism starves people,” he said. “People in capitalist societies don’t starve.”
He goes on to call environmentalists “genetic liars” and “idiots” who “don’t think.” He describes environmentalism as a religion—an “outright in-your-face fraud”—that damages society. He claims most climate models are wrong and that global warming is a mere hypothesis. “The evidence that global warming is some kind of looming environmental catastrophe is just stupid. Quote me on it!” he said. “Will debate anyone on this, any day of the week. It is absolutely retarded to believe this is a catastrophe around the corner.”
A George Mason University spokesperson said Rustici’s statements represent his views only, not those of his employers, but added that the University does “support his right to academic freedom.”
For two decades now, this disparate group of professors, along with a squadron of other skeptics, has been united by a network of think tanks and advocacy groups, opening for each a deliberate community outside of the academy. As the climate counterattack unfolded in the early 2000s, Tony Lupo received an email from an affiliate of a libertarian website called Tech Central Station, he recalls, asking if he’d write for the site. Lupo was in his 30s and only a year or so into his job as an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at Missouri University. The website was founded in 1999 and in part opaquely funded by ExxonMobil. Lupo said yes. “I’m guessing that that’s what got me in touch with skeptics,” he said. The website promptly recruited other academics, including David Legates and Steven Hayward, and Roy Spencer, Christy’s research partner from NASA, and began spinning articles mocking climate-change science, with headlines such as “Let’s Be Honest About the Real Consensus” and “Global Warming: The Satellite Saga Continues.”
Scott Armstrong, the marketing professor from the University of Pennsylvania, said his key connector to the network was Willie Soon, an aerospace engineer and prominent climate skeptic who has built his career outside of academia. Soon is affiliated with the core groups that anchor the campaign to sow climate doubt—the Heartland Institute, CEI, and the CO2 Coalition, among others. Armstrong said if not for Soon, he wouldn’t have had access to Capitol Hill or been a signatory on so many public letters giving political cover to doubt. “Actually, Willie is sort of the quarterback for this thing,” Armstong said. “He keeps people informed about what’s happening, and there’s a number of email lists where we communicate.”
Documents obtained in 2015 by Greenpeace show Soon had accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry over the previous decade without disclosing the conflict of interest on most of his scientific papers; a 2018 lawsuit forced Soon to reveal some of the grants, from the ExxonMobil Foundation, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and the coal giant Southern Company. Reached by phone, Soon said he shouldn’t speak with reporters. The revelations stymied Soon’s career in science, but not his role in facilitating a community. (The Heartland Institute has described the controversy as “phony.”)
Other Heartland Institute affiliates have played similar roles. A draft 2012 budget from the think tank noted that a senior editor there, Craig Idso, then being paid $11,600 a month, was recruiting a “growing number” of contributing authors and editors—who would, in turn, be paid between $125 and $5,000 a month. One was Lupo, at $750 a month. Lupo told me it was an email from a member of the Idso family, he believes, that recruited him to Tech Central Station. And Bell said Fred Singer, who spoke at “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?,” the earliest publicly known event devoted to doubt, in 1991, planted the seed of uncertainty in the early 2000s. Spurned by the broader academic community, many find a home in the network. The 2013 “Wise Contrarians” study interviewed attendees of a 2011 Heartland Institute conference and found that those who felt excluded from the academy felt part of a community in conservative think tanks. (Lakely, Heartland’s spokesperson, said they’re proud of that. Staffers on Capitol Hill often solicit advice from Heartland on whom to invite to testify at hearings, he said, and this year he arranged for the testimony of three skeptics, including Legates. Heartland generally tries to coordinate opportunities for its skeptic affiliates to broadcast their messages through third parties, he said. “Heartland Institute did a lot to bring these people together,” Armstrong said.)
The network has done a lot to have its members heard.
- The Trump Administration, infamous for alternative facts, has vigorously renewed demand for an alternative science that was losing salience.
In February 2001, ExxonMobil faxed a memo to the Bush White House’s Center for Environmental Quality with a number of recommendations: Boot all Clinton-era scientists with “aggressive agendas” from “any decisional activities” on the IPCC and move scientists with a history of doubting the climate crisis into positions of authority, including Christy. In May 2001, the Bush administration ordered a reassessment of the nation’s position on climate change, but the findings were no boon for ExxonMobil: “Temperatures are, in fact, rising,” the report stated. The Bush administration ordered a broader reassessment the following year, in part to square Christy’s ongoing work with satellites with those from thermometers on land, which were recording warming. It found errors in Christy’s work and, when accounted for, his data showed warming. (Although Christy co-wrote the executive summary and three chapters, later that month, in a deposition, he struggled with the word “error.”)
But ExxonMobil had already achieved a victory when the Bush administration announced in March of that year that it would not sign the U.S. on to the Kyoto Protocol, the binding international treaty to cut carbon emissions. The Guardian reported the administration balked in part due to pressure from the oil giant. And the network sparked by its largesse continued fighting for inaction throughout the Bush years.
In August 2004, the late Senator John McCain had flown with a clutch of other senators to the Arctic island of Svalbard to observe the changing climate there and be briefed on an upcoming federal report, the first comprehensive peer-reviewed assessment on the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. When he returned, Tech Central Station wrote him a letter. It sought to undercut the report’s findings and claimed warming in the Arctic was no evidence of human-caused global warming. Ten scientists signed the letter. Lupo was one of them.
In 2006, Legates, Lupo, Christy, and five other scientists filed a brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case that ultimately found greenhouse gases are dangerous pollutants the EPA must regulate; the scientists had argued they were not. CEI provided them with counsel.
In 2007, Steven Hayward, then a senior fellow at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, starred in a movie titledAn Inconvenient Truth… or Convenient Fiction?, in which he polemicized against Al Gore’s influential 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The film was produced by the Pacific Research Institute, another think tank backed by the ExxonMobile, Koch, and Scaife family foundations.
And when Barack Obama announced in 2008 on the campaign trail that, “Few challenges facing America and the world are more urgent than combating climate change,” five months later, after he was sworn in, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank co-founded by Charles Koch, recruited Armstrong, Deming, Legates, and Lupo, along with more than 100 others dubious about the climate crisis, to sign a full-page ad in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. “With all due respect, Mr. President,” the ad read, “that is not true.”
In 2015, the House Natural Resources Committee requested records detailing Legates’ grant funding. Legates told the office to contact his private attorney, Noel Francisco. Two years later, Trump appointed Francisco solicitor general.
Battles won. Battles lost. “For the most part, these guys get that the game is up,” said Connor Gibson, a Greenpeace researcher, “but then you look over at Heartland.” In 2018, for instance, Heartland published another climate change report, titled “Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels.” Deming, Legates, and Lupo each served as authors or reviewers. Findings from that paper then made their way into policy debates by means of a public comment on the City of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. And a similar Heartland Report appeared on the Missouri Public Service Commission’s website. Both reports were produced by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), designed to be easily mistaken for the IPCC. “An extreme minority of voices was elevated through artificial means, with corporate money, with think tanks, and this support structure,” says Kert Davies, the director of the Climate Investigations Center, “and it became way bigger than it actually was, in terms of scientific validity.” When it was designed, in 1998, it was the perfect battle plan, says Gibson; this community will fight to the death for the cause because they truly believe in it.
The campaign to ignore climate change began unwinding after the Bush administra- tion, despite ExxonMobil’s urging, failed to rewrite the country’s position on climate change, Davies said, and the deniers have been losing slowly since. They failed to prevent Vermont from adopting California-style emission regulations in 2007, the first case in the country in which a judge ruled on a conflict between federal fuel economy laws and emission standards for new automobiles. Christy testified on behalf of the auto companies. And they failed in barring the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases as a pollutant in a 2007 case in which Legates, Lupo, and Christy, among other scientists, intervened. And with each IPCC report, the uncompromising reality of climate change has gotten more and more concrete, pushing their alternative science further to the fringes.
“And then they’re reborn in 2016, out of the ashes,” Davies said. President Trump reinvigorated the scrum, in part with his freewheeling rhetoric. Trump has called climate change “bullshit,” a Chinese “hoax,” and a “very, very expensive form of tax,” though in a 2018 CBS interview he did acknowledge that “something’s changing.” Pressed in the interview on the human-trigger, he said, “We have scientists who disagree with that.”
He certainly does. Armstrong, Bell, Deming, Legates, and more than 100 others wrote to him in February 2017 after he won the election, urging him to pull the United States out of international efforts to stabilize carbon emissions. But Trump’s scientists are aging, and a younger generation is not replacing them. Instead, they’re protesting them and their generation’s inaction. Gibson calls it a culture war, and one the campaign is losing. Davies says the momentum for action has finally stuck. “Major networks are talking about it. Things are so unusual now and the extremes are everywhere. Everybody is getting the what-the-fuck weather once a year,” he said. The impeachment hearings will be a distraction, “but who knows how long that will last.” The dialogue has reached another level. There was the Bill McKibben level then the Al Gore level, he said. “Now we have the Greta [Thunberg] level.”
In the White House Rose Garden, five months after Armstrong, Bell, Deming, Legates, and the others wrote to Trump, the president announced he was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Armstrong and Legates and other doubters praised Trump on the contrarian blog WattsUpWithThat.com. People clapped and hooted in the garden. “Thank you,” Trump said, lips pursed in trademark solemnity. “Thank you.”
Armstrong described to me his battle over the public perception of climate change as a calling. He feels rather like a fireman, he said, fighting to extinguish a home engulfed in flames. He knew his battle would be a difficult one, but it was one he had to fight. In a speech at a 2017 Heartland conference, where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Climate Science, Armstrong returned to the hero metaphor. “We do science because that’s what we do. We do it because we have no choice. We do it because it’s our duty.”
This story was reported in partnership with Type Investigations and was supported by the Larry J. Waller Fellowship in Investigative Reporting and the Duffy Fund.