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'In the business of poking holes'

How an ASU climatologist helped fuel the climate change skeptic movement


“They were in the business of poking holes and doing whatever they could to make the point which reflected their own beliefs." Illustration published on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

Editor’s Note: This story includes quotes from two separate interviews with Robert Balling, one in 2019 and another in 2021. Jerry Taylor and Mark Richardson's interviews were also from 2019.

Robert Balling built his career playing devil’s advocate. 

Balling, a climatology professor at the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning, saw warnings in the late 1980s that human-emitted carbon dioxide could be disastrous. He said he "saw a niche," to tell the other side. 

"The story was always, 'There’s more to the story,'" Balling said of his first book "The Heated Debate: Greenhouse Predictions Versus Climate Reality," published in 1992.

The book was one of the first texts that helped grow a climate change skeptic movement. Balling accepted the central pillar of human-caused global warming, but he questioned the predictions of dire consequences. Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died in February, took a liking to the book and talked about it on his popular show, according to Balling. 

"If you write a book called 'Heated Debate,' how people use what you write is out of your control," Balling said. "If you feel comfortable that you've adequately represented what's in a professional literature and somebody takes this part of the book and does whatever with it. How do I control that?"

As a distinguished climatologist who conducted research for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations, Balling considers his skepticism a virtue.

But climate and politics experts say Balling and other skeptics proved useful, even necessary, in the campaign by American conservative elites and fossil fuel executives to undermine environmental protection. 

Even as atmospheric carbon dioxide climbed to levels never before seen in human history, climate policy researchers and experts on the topic say conservative operatives carried out a decades-long political campaign, disguised as legitimate scientific discourse, to confuse the public and paralyze political action.

By funding a small cohort of qualified climate skeptics over the past 30 years, conservative think tanks and oil and gas giants like ExxonMobil successfully held off environmental laws and regulations they considered threats to beliefs of individual liberty and unconstrained, free-market capitalism. 

A 'frontal assault' on a scientific consensus

“The counter movement has effectively neutered parts of civil society,” said Peter Jacques, a professor at the University of Central Florida School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs.

The movement to delegitimize climate change hijacked the nation's political response so "elites get more and more what they want," and misinformation about climate change is "just getting worse," Jacques said. 

"The climate counter movement has become much more empowered, especially with President (Donald) Trump," Jacques said. 

Though the emergence of COVID-19 related conspiracies shocked him, they appeared to come "straight from the playbook of climate denial," he said.

His investigations into the climate skeptic movement uncovered its roots in conservative politics funded by the fossil fuel industry. His 2008 study pointed to conservative think tanks as the crucial structure behind climate skepticism.

While scientists acknowledge there were uncertainties about Earth’s sensitivity to human-emitted CO2, the consensus at the time encouraged phasing out fossil fuels, according to a report from the IPCC.

In the early 1990s, conservative think tanks "launched a full-scale counter movement in response to the perceived success of the environmental movement and its supporters," according to Jacques’ study.

These organizations publish books, host conferences and advocate for conservative and libertarian policies. Some of the main players in Jacques’ study include the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute.

The main goal of these organizations, Jacques said, is to advance free-market capitalism, the belief privately owned businesses and their markets should be mostly free from government interference.

But in the face of growing concerns and broad favor among Americans for environmental protection, think tanks had to get creative to fight environmentalism, Jacques said.

"Conservatives realized they couldn’t really attack with a frontal assault towards environmental protections because most Americans believed that was a good thing," Jacques said. 

So instead of attacking the values of environmentalism, they took aim against the facts and mainstream climate scientists.

Climate scientists, like NASA physicist Mark Richardson, said the result was a "concerted smear campaign" against climate scientists. 

"There certainly has been a very well-funded attempt for decades to emphasize these points of view way above the weight that they have in terms of the evidence," he said. 

Richardson co-authored a 2013 study that determined 97% of climate scientists attributed warming to human activities.

Balling, however, would consider himself part of that 97% who believe humans are warming the Earth, but he doesn’t buy into the idea “something horrible is about to happen," he said. 

"I’m confident that the world will be fine and that people in the next 50 (to) 100 years will be as well off if not more well off than we are," Balling said. 

In the late 1980s, Republican politicians were more open to accepting the dangers presented by climate change, said Jerry Taylor, the former director of natural resource studies and vice president for development at the Cato Institute.

"Our job was to roll that back," Taylor said of Republican support for environmental protection. 

Taylor, who left the organization in 2014 and switched sides in the climate debate, said leaders at Cato were concerned about the "implications of granting the reality of climate change."

"If you grant the reality of climate change, the entire libertarian agenda, which is to minimize the role of government, gets blown apart," Taylor said. 

To fight back, Taylor said Cato and other think tanks sought to "make the argument that there were a lot of scientists who were skeptical about the extreme stories about climate change."

The Cato Institute’s stance on global warming is that it is “indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975,” however, it is a “very complicated and difficult issue that can provoke very unwise policy in response to political pressure.”

Richardson said the strategy resulted in a camp of credible skeptics, some with Ph.D.s in climate science, to be "overemphasized in the public sphere." 

"If you don’t want to believe (climate change) for whatever reason, you’re more willing to listen to someone who’s telling you the stuff you want to hear," he said. "If you have a Ph.D., that is almost like a shield you can then use."

“If you grant the reality of climate change, the entire libertarian agenda, which is to minimize the role of government, gets blown apart." Illustration published on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

'Skeptical all the way'

Casting doubt on climate change helped Balling get to where he is today, and he doesn’t regret any of it.  

"I wouldn’t do anything differently," he said.

Balling said his climate research and affinity for skepticism in the late 1980s led him to conferences where he rubbed shoulders with other global warming doubters such as Patrick Michaels.

A climatologist and former research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, Michaels became a leading global warming skeptic and the former director for the study of science at the Cato Institute.

Michaels often appeared in television interviews and at Congressional hearings to attack climate science and policy. The two bonded at a conference and partnered to write books. 

"Pat Michaels was pure, he was skeptical all the way," Balling said. "He would be like a caged tiger before we’d do these things."

While other scientists were focused on presenting research, Michaels was preparing for the debate, Balling said.

"Michaels was a killer."

Balling said Michaels "kickstarted" his role in the climate change skeptic camp. They wrote two books together — "The Satanic Gases," and "Climate of Extremes," both published by the Cato Institute. 

In the 90s, Balling said he stood in for Michaels in climate debates and conferences.

For over a decade, Balling traveled around the world to give dozens of presentations with titles like "A Climate of Doubt About Global Warming," and "Global Warming: Messy Models, Decent Data, and Pointless Policy" to a wide range of audiences from state legislatures and universities to fossil fuel associations and conservative think tanks, according to his curriculum vitae.

His newfound success was "unbelievable," Balling said. 

"It was like I lived on an airplane." 

Taylor, who knew Balling and worked with Michaels, said the duo's books sold well and were used by Cato to "elevate climate skepticism to a threshold of respectability."

Taylor said their work among others' was essential to their campaigns because "without that, there’s just not much there."

Balling acknowledged the "political dimension" to the global warming debate but said he wasn’t interested in it.

"You turn on any of the many radio stations where the conservative side is presenting their vision of climate change, but I tend to turn that off pretty quickly and listen to sports radio," Balling said.

And he doesn’t feel any of his work published by conservative think tanks was consequential in the politics surrounding global warming.

"Come on, I mean, it must not have had that big of an impact. We’ve had years of (the) Obama Administration," he said. "Any impact it would’ve had would’ve been well gone before any Trump came along."

Balling also said he didn’t directly work with the Cato Institute, but he instead worked for Michaels who had a close relationship with Cato. 

"What I did for Michaels when we worked together was scour the literature in climate science and consistently try to find what’s been published that would be used in a debate format," Balling said. "Somebody says 'X,' we’re going to say something else but grounded in the (scientific) literature." 

Publishing a scientific book for a think tank is much different from submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed journal, according to Jacques, "it's free speech."

During this time, Balling was at ASU publishing his climate research in peer-reviewed journals and working on projects sponsored by fossil fuel companies. 

After a conference in the late '90s, Balling said former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond approached him. As CEO, Raymond dismissed climate change and criticized policies to regulate fossil fuels. 

Raymond recommended Balling look into getting funded by Exxon, and he followed Raymond’s advice and applied for Exxon funding for two studies. Balling received nearly $100,000, which he said was paid to ASU to cover the research.

"I just think they were good neighbors," Balling said. "They funded everybody."

'How do you know what you think you know?'

"We see the forest and we see the trees, and they both thank us for the CO2 we're adding to the atmosphere," Balling wrote in a 2003 essay titled “The Forest and the Trees.” 

"So drive out to the forest and feel good about the CO2 coming out of your tailpipe!"

Plants see elevated carbon dioxide levels "as a gift of the Industrial Revolution," he wrote. 

"It's like they're going home again."

Increased CO2 promotes photosynthesis and plant growth, but the CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere today are higher than they’ve been in at least 500,000 years, according to NASA. Such a glut of heat-trapping gas is already destabilizing the climate, according to experts, resulting in sea level rise, droughts, floods and other severe weather. 

And the trees that absorb CO2 won’t make a dent with deforestation taking place on a massive scale. 

When asked about this essay, Balling told The State Press in an email that at the time, he was interested in the biological benefits of elevated CO2.

Taylor said most climate skeptics’ convictions are "genuinely held." Jacques also said he believed scientists, Balling included, stood by the integrity of their research.

Skeptics initially had valid reasons to be critical, Richardson said, and the complexity of the problem provided "space for more debate" about how detrimental climate change could be. 

For example, when satellite temperature data was studied in 1998, there was no warming in the atmosphere, which Balling emphasized at the time.

Since then, satellite data has shown rapid atmospheric warming

"As we get more and more evidence, it builds up into narrowing down this range of uncertainty that we have," Richardson said.

But as the evidence grew of extreme effects from climate change, Taylor said skeptics engaged in "dodgy reasoning and argument, even when they know it’s dodgy."

According to Jacques, dodgy reasoning is enough to fuel the movement. 

"The counter movement doesn't actually have to win any scientific arguments," Jacques said. "All they have to do is cast doubt to immobilize the policy debates. That's a win for them. That's all they want."

For a scientific consensus to be challenged, there has to be substantial doubt, and Taylor said that's what the campaign aimed for.

"They were in the business of poking holes and doing whatever they could to make the point which reflected their own beliefs," Taylor said. 

Combating climate change skepticism is important, but difficult, Jacques said.

"People really haven't been very good at vetting information," he said, mentioning the popularity of conspiracy theories in the U.S. today. He also said they're prevalent because most people don’t have time to vet this information thoroughly, so in the end, it comes down to representation and trust in a source. 

Jacques said everyone should ask themselves, "how did you get that opinion? Where did it come from? How do you know what you think you know about climate change?"

Leaving it all behind

The atmosphere around the debate became too heated for Balling, and he decided to leave it all behind in 2008.

“It wasn’t a very friendly game anymore,” he said. 

In 2009, some skeptics accused high-profile climate scientists of hiding temperature data that didn’t show warming based on thousands of leaked emails. 

The scandal was called "Climategate," but several official investigations and reviews of the emails found no wrongdoing by the scientists.

Balling knew at least one of the targeted scientists, and he felt the whole thing was "really unfair."

"It just seemed like people got into this gotcha mode," he said. "If that’s what this has come down to, I’m done."

Years after he shifted focus to run the Master of Advanced Study in Geographic Information Systems program, Balling’s past came back to haunt him. 

In 2015, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Tucson) asked ASU President Michael Crow to investigate Balling for alleged conflicts of interest and failure to disclose funding from The Heartland Foundation, a conservative think tank that hosted a conference where Balling spoke. 

Balling said ASU launched an investigation into his conduct, but nothing ever came from it. 

"I knew in my heart they weren’t going to find anything," Balling said. "I even had some family members ask if everything was OK. I said it’s fine, it’s all part of the greenhouse debating business."

It wasn’t like climate skeptics were "lying or deceiving anybody," Balling said.

In fact, Balling said, he and others were "trying over and over to say there’s more to the story." 

The climate debate continues to rage on, and while Balling no longer publicly engages in it, he reminisced on that “little circuit where you could go out and look at parts of the climate change debate.” 

“You get kind of swept up at the time, the sort of excitement of the whole debate and this travel,” Balling said. “All of a sudden you’re getting picked to do things for the United Nations.

“It was really a blessing, in some ways, to get to do it all."

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