James Taylor — no, not the singer — is the man to call when you want an official-sounding, educated voice on why climate change isn’t happening (it is), why humans haven’t caused it (we have) or why it’s actually good for the planet (it isn’t).
It’s all but impossible to find a reputable climate scientist that agrees with Taylor but his views are popular with the fossil fuel industry and climate-change deniers. He’s a senior fellow with the Heartland Institute, which is notorious for a series of 2012 billboards in Chicago with the phrase “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” alongside pictures of The Unabomber, Fidel Castro and Osama bin Laden. Heartland was at one point funded by oil and gas giants, including Exxon Mobil.
So why is he speaking in Miami Beach next week at a workshop to teach journalists and editors about covering climate change?
“It’s like having a debate on gun control and not inviting the NRA,” said Alejandro Alvarado, an associate professor at Florida International University and co-organizer of the event. “The key word here is workshop. This is not a science forum. It is a workshop.”
For decades, climate scientists have been frustrated by media reporting that, under the lazy banner of balance, would quote industry-funded skeptics casting public doubt on research accepted as proven by an overwhelming majority of experts in the field. Taylor has long been one of those go-to voices in a campaign that has been effective enough that Republican politicians in Florida — starting with Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — can shrug their shoulders at looming threats like sea rise with little worry of upsetting their supporters.
Scheduled the night before a daylong series of lectures and workshops meant to educate journalists on how to cover the issue, the billed “conversation” between Taylor and local climate activist Greg Hamra of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby ruffled feathers with local environmentalists and even one of the featured speakers.
NBC Meteorologist John Morales called the talk an “unfortunate False Equivalency event.” He tweeted his email to FIU refusing to moderate the conversation, where he said he hoped the university would reconsider the idea of the debate entirely.
“Instead, I'm moderating a #sealevelrise panel the next day, and countering the misinformation by training students on the scientific method and False Balance in journalism. I will have a very very recent example,” he tweeted.
Local environmentalist Jon Ullman echoed the sentiment in a tweet. “I call B.S.,” he wrote. “@FIU should revisit its decision to invite a climate denier to speak at a climate conference. It’s a question of credibility.”
That was FIU Professor David Bray’s initial reaction as well, that the invitation essentially put a “climate distortionist” — as Bray called Taylor — on the same level as the experts and scientists in the room. But after a conversation with the organizers, Bray said he sees the benefit of a live “debunking” chat.
“Given that climate science deniers now occupy the highest positions in the U.S. government, it’s important that these positions be publicly exposed for what they are,” he said. “These are not rational arguments to be had.”
Alvarado said Taylor’s event is an educational experience for attendees. Journalists need to know what the pushback to legitimate climate science sounds like, he said, which informs reporting on why leaders aren’t enacting solutions. They need to know how to ask the right questions and predict the counterarguments.
Especially when those counterarguments come from policymakers, like the Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. Pruitt asked Heartland to compile a team of scientists to challenge accepted and peer-reviewed climate scientists for a “red team, blue team” debate.
“They are an influential part of the landscape. they are influential with this administration,” Alvarado said. ‘These guys are influencing policy.”
Hamra, Taylor’s counterweight in the conversation, sees it the same way. He said he’s there to help students and journalists “understand when to stop taking the bait. This is not a science debate.”
Despite the controversy, the conversation between Taylor and Hamra is still on for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at FIU’s Miami Beach Urban studios. The event is free and open to the public, although space is limited and attendees must pre-register. The conversation will also be live-streamed.
This story has been updated to reflect that Exxon Mobil has not donated to the Heartland Institute in years.