I Crashed A Climate Change Denial Conference In Las Vegas

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Originally published at VICE.com, excerpt republished with permission.

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?

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 parachuteuninvited 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.

CONTINUE READING THE REMAINDER AT VICE.COM

This article originally appeared on VICE.com. This excerpt is republished with permission.

Image credit: Alex Epstein, author of forthcoming The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, sports his I Heart Fossil Fuels T-Shirt. Photo by Brendan Montague.

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