Welcome to anti-Cop26: The climate-change denial expo in Vegas where attendees talk anything but science

·9-min read
‘It feels like a low-level, alt-right rally – which reaches its peak with a video appearance by Naomi Seibt, the young, blonde, German rock star of the climate-denial movement’  (iStock/The Independent)
‘It feels like a low-level, alt-right rally – which reaches its peak with a video appearance by Naomi Seibt, the young, blonde, German rock star of the climate-denial movement’ (iStock/The Independent)

All the signage and branding is forest green, decorated with a leaf emblem, for the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change. It’s being held in an event room at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and attendees – most of them white-haired, older gentlemen – chat animatedly as they saunter past the Roman columns and statues at the famed hotel, talking about science and climate and energy.

There are retired teachers, scientists, engineers, members of ultra-conservative think tanks and lobby groups. The books being handed out for free look a little fringe or inflammatory – with covers featuring war scenes and explosions – but it’s not until the speeches begin at the opening dinner that it becomes abundantly clear that science and climate are not the primary focus of this conference.

Within about an hour, booming, charismatic speakers – both at the podium and through video – rope in rants about everything from critical race theory and the media to mask mandates and Marxism.

It feels like a low-level, alt-right rally – which reaches its peak with a video appearance by Naomi Seibt, the young, blonde, German rock star of the climate-denial movement. She’s often referred to as “the anti-Greta”, as she is known for pushing views diametrically opposed to those of Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Research published last week revealed that 99.9 per cent of studies now show that the climate crisis is human-driven, on a par with scientific certainty about evolution. The world is on track for temperature rises in excess of 3C this century – despite a safe limit of 1.5C set by the Paris Agreement. At 3C, the world will see more hurricanes, fires, ice-cap melting and other extreme weather conditions.

This year’s UN climate summit, Cop26, is widely seen as the moment when countries must raise their ambitions and goals to avert climate disaster by reducing global carbon emission by roughly half by 2030.

Books, pamphlets and other literature at the Heartland Institute’s October climate-change conference in Las Vegas sought to deconstruct mainstream arguments and established research (Sheila Flynn)
Books, pamphlets and other literature at the Heartland Institute’s October climate-change conference in Las Vegas sought to deconstruct mainstream arguments and established research (Sheila Flynn)

It is a goal that the oil and gas industry is not taking lying down, despite its overtures to transitioning to a greener future. Since the Paris Agreement, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas majors – ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total – have invested more than $1bn of shareholder funds on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying, according to InfluenceMap.

And then there’s Vegas.

The Heartland Institute was traditionally funded by fossil fuels but says most financing now comes from private donations.

Dr John Cook, professor at the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and founder of the Skeptical Science website, told The Independent last year that Heartland was “one of the particularly prolific producers of climate science misinformation, whereas a lot of others tend to focus on policy”.

The Chicago-based right-wing think tank bills itself as playing an “essential role in the national (and increasingly international) movement for personal liberty and limited government”, saying it has been “the subject of unfair criticism and even libel by various liberal advocacy groups, elected officials and even Wikipedia”.

At the keynote breakfast speech on the closing morning of the three-day conference, Ms Seibt, a Heartland favourite, echoes this position.

“The climate debate has been driving a narrative of fear and delusion for years – but now we find ourselves in a cluster of fear porn, not only from a climate crisis but also from a global health apocalypse, allegedly,” Ms Seibt tells the conference, her long hair flowing over a silver jacket, her glamorous eye make-up flawless.

“I find myself in a community of heroes who will not succumb to the pressures of defamation, because they know how important the truth is,” she continues. “We don’t believe in instant gratification. We know that we need to go through a dark and dangerous tunnel to get our true freedoms back, because what’s the alternative? Lying to ourselves? Putting on a mask and living the same meaningless matrix, pretentious, Marxist lives like everybody else?”

The tone of Heartland literature – and many presentations – is persecuted but defiant and provocative. The Vegas weekend involves the presentation of the combatively-named Dauntless Purveyor of Climate Truth award, for example.

“Try as they might, governments couldn’t keep us locked down forever,” Heartland president James Taylor proclaims in the institute’s quarterly performance report being distributed at the conference. 

The branding at the Heartland Institute’s International Climate on Conference Change gave no hint as to the event’s diametrically-opposed views to mainstream climate science (Sheila Flynn)
The branding at the Heartland Institute’s International Climate on Conference Change gave no hint as to the event’s diametrically-opposed views to mainstream climate science (Sheila Flynn)

“Now that we are regaining some of our freedoms, Heartland is sticking it to the environmental left ... The worst of the lockdowns are over, and freedom is rising again.

“With Heartland’s powerful impact on the global warming debate, it’s no wonder the Big Government left fears returning to a free and open society!”

The overarching messages during the conference – at least the ones related to climate – posit that the Earth has always undergone extreme weather cycles. Speakers claim that climate changes are happening so gradually that a catastrophe lies only far in the future and shouldn’t be cause for “alarmism” right now.

They argue that the cause has been hijacked by “the media” and “the left”, among other influences, to enforce an agenda of misinformation that will lead to worldwide tyranny.

“I spent the past 18 months compiling iron-clad evidence about the Great Reset and about those behind it,” says Justin Haskins, Heartland’s editorial director, in a recorded video message. 

Watch: Giant Pikachus make coal protest in Glasgow

Leaning into the camera, the bookcase behind him featuring items including an American flag, a Glenn Beck book, and a black-and-white pendant proclaiming “Liberty or Death” (both the colours and the phrase are associated with the alt-right movement), Mr Haskins looks every inch the zealot.

“Is it a conspiracy theory?” he asks of the climate crisis and “left” ideology. “Well, there is a conspiracy. At this point, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory; I think it’s a conspiracy fact.”

Ms Seibt builds upon these ideas, proclaiming in her recorded message that “social justice is a euphemism”.

“We believe in true, individual social connections – hugging each other, being there for each other, not this cold-blooded second-hand welfare slave system,” she says.

“Eco-fascism is a prime example of that. We win, because we are greater than our grudges, more adamant than our adversaries, more truthful than our tormentors, and more compassionate than the cowards who want to control us with their ... censorship.

“Truth is uncontrollable. The scientific method will prevail, because politicised science is not science at all. It is stagnation, and stagnation is the death of science.”

Ms Seibt and other speakers call for open scientific discourse and demand their voices be heard – while slamming the media repeatedly. One panellist shows – to applause – a photo of himself throwing a journalist out of an event. Another exhibits a political cartoon declaring the death of capitalism.

Heartland Institute’s Justin Haskins delivered an impassioned video message that spoke less about climate than it did about combatting socialism, Marxism and ‘misinformation’ from the ‘left' (Sheila Flynn)
Heartland Institute’s Justin Haskins delivered an impassioned video message that spoke less about climate than it did about combatting socialism, Marxism and ‘misinformation’ from the ‘left' (Sheila Flynn)

On Saturday, one speaker and filmmaker showcasing his own documentary – Climate Hustle 2 – doesn’t help the cause’s arguments for open discourse as he lambasts a reporter in the hallway outside the booked conference rooms.

“You’re just an uneducated reporter,” he shouts at a British television journalist querying him on scientific points, his voice rising.

Mr Morano runs a climate-change denial website in addition to directing and starring in Climate Hustle 2, narrated by Hercules: The Legendary Journeys actor Kevin Sorbo, which mocks celebrities who speak about climate.

The filmmaker himself has no scientific credentials. He does, however, have a demeanour reminiscent of Anthony Scaramucci.

“Now who’s the one spreading misinformation?” he shouts at the journalist when she tries to delve into statistics from research. He drowns her out: “You obviously have no source. You’re just repeating [yourself].”

Heartland Institute’s vice-president and director of communications, Jim Lakely, looks vaguely stricken by the exchange as it escalates – though he later tries damage control by telling The Independent that he “kind of” likes “a bit of argey-bargey”, and “the more animation the better.”

Not everyone at the conference is antagonistic, though. One attendee is an investment manager from Connecticut who, while sceptical of certain climate-crisis claims, says he came to the event because climate and energy are so intertwined with financial markets.

Another, George Taylor, tells The Independent he has PhDs in both mathematics and computer science and is more interested in exploring energy sources than listening to diatribes unsupported by facts.

“The whole point is to get your message to the other person and have them actually understand something they could walk away with,” Mr Taylor, based in Reno, tells The Independent – describing the previous night’s volatile scene between filmmaker Mr Morano and the journalist as “unproductive”.

“Rather than yelling and screaming and making it political, let’s get down to some numbers and some facts,” he tells The Independent, after detailing how a Nevada friend “gave him grief” about attending the conference. (She only reads “liberal” sources like The Washington Post, he adds.)

“There may be a significant amount that we don’t know, so we’re actually taking a guess and deciding to what degree are we going to take preventative action to ward off what may be a problem ... sometimes, you have to act in the absence of perfect knowledge.”

Amidst that uncertainty, however, Mr Taylor concedes that it would be more beneficial to impart “the facts without yelling and screaming and ranting”.

The Heartland Institute’s October Climate Conference in Las Vegas seemed more focused on political aims than environmental concerns (Sheila Flynn)
The Heartland Institute’s October Climate Conference in Las Vegas seemed more focused on political aims than environmental concerns (Sheila Flynn)

Regardless of what some consider the fringe element of climate science, however, many of the attendees – the ones less concerned with politics and more interested in research – do seem to have their hearts in the right place. They feel they genuinely are environmental activists – but on a whole different plane from the mainstream.

“Everyone here is smart – and everyone is sincere,” the wife of one panellist tells The Independent.

What that sincerity might lead to, however – after the weekend’s near-palpable undercurrent of right-wing ideology – remains in doubt.

Heartland’s Mr Haskins says: “Beneath the glowing stars-and-stripes veneer is a terminally ill superpower teetering on the edge – and the worst part is our most disruptive, dangerous days still lie ahead.

“At lavish cocktail parties in European resort towns and in the boardrooms of the world’s largest corporations, powerful and influential leaders are putting the finishing touches on the vast infrastructure need to alter our communities forever.”

The calls to action over the weekend are repeatedly spelled out: Run for office. Push back.

Resist.

“Our open, free minds are untouchable in the end – therefore panic will persist until we resist,” Ms Seibt tells rapt listeners.

“And we resist now.”

Watch: What is COP26 and how will it affect the future of climate change?

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