How a Climate Denier Flipped

April 29, 2017


One-time denier talks about his change of heart.
Says we shouldn’t be mean to deniers.
Hurts their feelings.

Sorry. I’m not here to make you feel like, even though you’ve collaborated with the most brutal, dishonest and evil monsters on the planet – you’re still a good person.

Harsh? Wait till your grandchildren find out what you’ve been up to.

The Intercept:

Sharon Lerner: What did you think when you first encountered the concept of climate change back in the 1990s?

Jerry Taylor: From 1991 through 2000, I was a pretty good warrior on that front. I was absolutely convinced of the case for skepticism with regard to climate science and of the excessive costs of doing much about it even if it were a problem. I used to write skeptic talking points for a living.

SL: What was your turning point?

JT: It started in the early 2000s. I was one of the climate skeptics who do battle on TV and I was doing a show with Joe Romm. On air, I said that, back in 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen testified in front of the Senate, he predicted we’d see a tremendous amount of warming. I argued it’d been more than a decade and we could now see by looking at the temperature record that he wasn’t accurate. After we got done with the program and were back in green room, getting the makeup taken off, Joe said to me, “Did you even read that testimony you’ve just talked about?” And when I told him it had been a while, he said “I’m daring you to go back and double check this.” He told me that some of Hansen’s projections were spot on. So I went back to my office and I re-read Hanson’s testimony. And Joe was correct. So I then I talked to the climate skeptics who had made this argument to me, and it turns out they had done so with full knowledge they were being misleading.

SL: So that was it? You changed your mind?

JT: It was more gradual. After that, I began to do more of that due diligence, and the more I did, the more I found that variations on this story kept arising again and again. Either the explanations for findings were dodgy, sketchy or misleading or the underlying science didn’t hold up. Eventually, I tried to get out of the science narratives that I had been trafficking in and just fell back on the economics. Because you can very well accept that climate change exists and still find arguments against climate action because the costs of doing something are so great.

SL: And the economic case eventually crumbled, too?

JT: The first blow in that argument was offered by my friend Jonathan Adler, who was at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Jon wrote a very interesting paper in which he argued that even if the skeptic narratives are correct, the old narratives I was telling wasn’t an argument against climate action. Just because the costs and the benefits are more or less going to be a wash, he said, that doesn’t mean that the losers in climate change are just going to have to suck it up so Exxon and Koch Industries can make a good chunk of money.

The final blow against my position, which caused me to crumble, was from a fellow named Bob Litterman, who had been the head of risk management at Goldman Sachs. Bob said, “The climate risks aren’t any different from financial risks I had to deal with at Goldman. We don’t know what’s going to happen in any given year in the market. There’s a distribution of possible outcomes. You have to consider the entire distribution of possible outcomes when you make decisions like this.” After he left my office, I said “there’s nothing but rubble here.”

SL: How do you feel about the work you did in those years?

JT: I regret a lot of it. I wish I had taken more care and done more due diligence on the arguments I had been forwarding. I also introduced one of my brothers, James Taylor, to the folks at the Heartland Institute. Heartland’s rise to dominate market share in climate denialism largely occurred under my brother. Boy do I regret that.

SL: And he still is still a climate denier. So what is that like? Do you talk about climate change at Thanksgiving?

JT: We agree to disagree and don’t discuss it. And we don’t spend a lot of Thanksgivings together.

SL: Having been so central to Republican thought and leadership on energy, what can you say about what doesn’t work to convince conservative climate skeptics that climate change is real and important?

JT: If you talk about the need to transform civilization and to engage in the functional equivalent of World War III, you may as well just forget it. To most conservatives, that’s just nails on a chalkboard. Or if you say, you’re corrupted and a shill and ignorant. That’s no way to convince anybody of anything. What are the chances they’re going to say, Gee, you’re right? All that does is entrench someone in their own position.

SL: So what does work?

JT: In our business, talking to Republican and conservative elites, talking about the science in a dispassionate, reasonable, non-screedy, calm, careful way is powerful, because a lot of these people have no idea that a lot of the things they’re trafficking in are either the sheerest nonsense or utterly disingenuous.

I also make the conservative case for climate change. We don’t call people conservative when they put all their chips on one number of a roulette wheel. That’s not conservative. It’s pretty frigging crazy. It’s dangerous, risky. Conservatives think this way about foreign policy. We know that if North Korea has a nuclear weapon, they’re probably not going to use it. But we don’t act as if that’s a certainty. We hedge our bets. Climate change is like that. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Given that fact, shouldn’t we hedge?

SL: I frequently hear about Republican lawmakers who don’t believe their own climate denials. Do you know many people who are in that camp?

JT: I have talked to many of them in confidence. There are between 40 and 50 in the House and maybe 10 to 12 in the Senate. They’re all looking for a way out of the denialist penitentiary they’ve been put into by the Tea Party. But they’re not sure what the Republican response ought to look like exactly and when the political window is going to open.



27 Responses to “How a Climate Denier Flipped”

  1. Thomas Simon Says:

    Brilliant piece – thanks for posting it.

  2. Says we shouldn’t be mean to deniers.
    Hurts their feelings.

    I’m totally of the I don’t GAF camp. I hate them with a white hot passion. I’d like to see them in prison for crimes against humanity, because it is criminal to do what they’ve done.

    Harsh? Wait till your grandchildren find out what you’ve been up to.

    Exactly. They will be completely reviled, very deservedly.

  3. I get pretty mad at deniers too, but I can see why it might be important to try to be civil (to the real deniers, not the professional liars).

    I do fail at that often, though, in fact I’d say I failed at it today…. I get so sick of the same debunked arguments popping up over and over and over again.

    But we shouldn’t forget what the main goal is, which is to try to stop the worst from happening.

    • gasbuggy Says:

      They tend to source their arguments from sources that are set up to feed their deeply entrenched worldviews. They have been convinced that outside influences to sway them in another direction are part of a ‘globalist’ conspiracy. This is similar to the way some cult leaders maintain the loyalty of their flocks and say there joy depends upon sticking with that flock.

  4. redskylite Says:

    Interesting story – all kudos and applause to Joe Romm for making the man think and sowing the seeds. While I can forgive Jerry for holding denial/skeptical views, I am not so sure that I can forgive Jerry for spreading those uneducated views loudly in public media, maybe the media is jointly to blame for thinking the issue was up for debate and giving him a platform in the first place. I see his formal education was in political science and he has experience and expertise in building electronic games.

    I can understand people of my generation being skeptical, as the science wasn’t taught and media rarely mentioned the negative effects of the industrial revolution. Younger people seem to understand and accept the problems much more freely. J.T is in his fifties, a cut off time for the excuse of ignorance. May his descendants forgive him, and judge him on his current environmental work and efforts.

    The bad news is media are still persisting. . here’s Climate Feedback setting the record straight on the April 22 edition of CNN’s “New Day Saturday”.

    CNN airs misleading climate claims in interview.

  5. gasbuggy Says:

    This article shows an example of the millions of people who are pushing the skeptic positions without being directly paid by the petroleum support forces. They are pushing concepts that are corrupted, distorted and deliberately meant to mislead others. They are on a mission that brings them much joy by engaging in this practice.

    More on Jerry Taylor appears in the last third of the following article.

    How a Libertarian Think Tank Is Trying to Correct the ‘Degenerate’ Climate Science Debate in Washington, DC

  6. Torsten Says:

    From the interview:
    JT: I have talked to many of them in confidence. There are between 40 and 50 in the House and maybe 10 to 12 in the Senate. They’re all looking for a way out of the denialist penitentiary they’ve been put into by the Tea Party. But they’re not sure what the Republican response ought to look like exactly and when the political window is going to open.

    Which means they are not leaders. They are tools. Open the damned window yourselves, you useless culls.

    • funslinger62 Says:

      They can’t be leaders if they get voted out. They must use the right approach when “opening the window”. Many of them are junior members of congress with less power. While they can’t wait too long to start in earnest, they need to get their approach right. Don’t beat up on them just yet.

  7. webej Says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish between regular deniers and professional ones who actually put time and effort into disingenuously spreading lies and half truths, etc. The first are best approached by thinking they need therapy and help, to get over mistaken ideological loyalties or disingenuous talking points. The latter are in the main irredeemable.

    • gasbuggy Says:

      Note that most of the non-paid spreaders of the denial narratives are driven by strong ideological motivations. These positions have become an important part of their identity that bonds them with others.

      Even though Jerry Taylor learned that he was being misled he remains deeply attached to his libertarian and conservative values, believing that he should work within his community to help others understand that a fraction of their belief systems needs to be modified. Most of these so-called climate change moderate republicans and libertarians still don’t view Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD) to be a dire near term threat. They still want to believe that capitalistic market forces can turn things around within the next 2-3 decades leading to a sustainable planet for humans.

      In other words they refuse to believe that revolutionary changes are needed to prevent this speeding freight train from smashing into a solid wall 100 feet ahead.

      • funslinger62 Says:

        Capitalistic market forces can be very strong. They are the very reason we are in this situation in the first place.

        If an appropriate carbon tax is added to prices to reflect the true cost to society, market forces can turn things around in two to three decades.

        • gasbuggy Says:

          Those, who are fully aware of how dire the situation is, understand that we don’t have two to three decades to act based upon monetary capitalistic forces.

          Also, how one determines, what is an appropriate carbon tax, is highly debatable. How is one to place a price on the extinction of most of the species on this planet by the release of even one more gigaton of carbon into the atmosphere? One could also tax all products so that upon the end of their human use all would have to be recycled back to a form that would have no significant impact upon all creatures that come after us. There are many examples of recycling that didn’t live up to the expectations product consumers had for that recycling.

  8. So the question is, have you given up or do you want to move the needle?
    Do you just want to throw your fist in the air with rage? (Look, I feel that too, and I vent that way myself, privately. Calling this a crimes against humanity is not hyperbole.)

    In other words, do you want to win the argument or win the war? The former feels good for few seconds. (your setup was cathartic to me.) The latter makes a difference and it takes diplomacy.

    We basically have three choices: reduce our emissions, prepare for a changing climate, and suffer. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more we reduce emissions, the less adaptation will be required, and the less suffering there will be.

    I absolutely hate the fact that I have to play word-games and mind-games with people who’ve been brainwashed for decades, but if that’s what is required, count me in. I’m a climate warrior because of it.

    My choices are shout and scream and NOT move the needle… OR, fight the tougher fight by talking to business leaders and Republican lawmakers, and slowly helping them muster the courage and leadership to step up, like Jerry Taylor is doing, and a surprising number of Republicans — 19 Rs so far — who’ve joined the Climate Solutions Caucus along with an equal number of Dems. Bloomberg News called it “a surprising step toward sanity.”

    This was NOT achieved by telling them what assholes they’ve been. It was done by meeting with them, treating them with respect, and engaging them by stating benefits that resonate with THEIR values, like the small-gov’t, market-based solution that is considered the #1 climate solution and the ONLY chance we have of remaning below 2°C. I’m talking about a revenue neutral carbon fee & dividend.
    If you just want to shout and scream, ignore the following. If you GET this and want to be part of the solution, then join CCL. We’re changing the conversation on Capitol Hill.

  9. andrewfez Says:

    I still talk to the denialists on Youtube. They’re all libertarian extremists. One specimen from yesterday on the potholer54 channel was extremely arrogant, demanding ‘peer reviewed’ evidence for even the smallest information (2+2=4) left and right and dismissing such as it was handed him, whilst trying to gaslight me regarding my interpretations of the studies. It finally got to the point he was denying the effects of DDT, second hand cigarette smoke, and calling the US government Hitler. But what was annoying – and is still annoying at present – was his minor oppositional research on myself. I always like to reserve the element of surprise against these guys – once they realize I know more about the economy, investing, and the energy market than they do, they back down. They’ve got a strong cultural authoritarian streak, and once they realize there’s a bigger fish in the room they become more reasonable and respectful. But when they rummage through my personal closet, it makes it harder to argue with them because then I have to live up to my street credit…

  10. Dan Moutal Says:

    >Sorry. I’m not here to make you feel like, even though you’ve collaborated with the most brutal, dishonest and evil monsters on the planet – you’re still a good person.

    We all make mistakes. If we are lucky, we learn from them and admit to them.

    I don’t care how much of a denier anyone used to be, if they have now accept the truth and are willing to work towards getting the truth accepted amongst those who continue to deny reality they will have my support.

    In fact there is probably a lot to learn from someone like Jerry Taylor in convincing conservatives.

    Ultimately what matters is not that deniers be punished, but that emissions drop to zero as quickly as possible. If that means holding my tongue and being nice to deniers, so be it. It is a small price to pay.

    BTW the key word in the previous paragraph is *if*.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      no doubt I was a little harsh above. But not nearly as harsh as climate denier’s grandchildren are going to be.

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