In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report warning of severe consequences if global climate change were allowed to continue unabated. To counteract this, IPCC’s report said, would require the U.S. and other major nations to set a course to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050 — meaning any emissions of carbon dioxide, a leading driver of climate change, would need to be balanced by an equal amount removed from the atmosphere.
Despite this, there are many who have continued to fight back against action on climate change, citing mixes of economic issues and pseudoscience. “A Climate Conversation,” a new documentary from advocates based in Colorado’s Front Range, gives voice to this opposition, presenting scientific-looking evidence against the conventional wisdom on climate change. But is the evidence really all it appears to be?
The film was directed by filmmaker Colton Moyer, produced by Colorado geophysicist Walt Johnson (who also provided commentary), and narrated by conservative KLZ talk radio host Kim Monson.
“Ask the average person what [climate change] is and how they feel about it, and you’re bound to get a wide variety of answers,” Monson says in the film’s opening sequence. “And this is supposed to be a topic that we all agree on, according to what we’ve been told by the powers that be. You’ve probably heard the statistic that 97% of scientists agree on climate change, specifically when it comes to human involvement in its creation. Well, then, who wants to be on the wrong side of that equation?”
The film features commentary from members of multiple climate-focused nonprofit organizations, all of which have previously disputed what many advocates and scientists treat as fact: that humans are responsible for climate change, and failure to combat it will lead to drastic societal and ecological consequences. Despite this, they eschew the label ‘climate denier,’ preferring to instead call themselves ‘climate skeptics’ or ‘climate realists.’
“It’s incomplete information,” said Johnson in an interview. “You’re getting little cherry-picked pieces that are being sold, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. … That’s motivated me.”
But while the film uses scientific-sounding language and data to make its points, none of the experts are climate scientists: one is a geologist, two are engineers, and all of them have long-term ties as consultants or advocates for the oil and gas industry.
This comes at a time when scientific acceptance of what many activists call a “climate crisis” is gaining more mainstream prominence. Late last month, NBC News aired a segment discussing whether President Joe Biden should officially declare a national emergency to address climate issues.
“There’s very strong agreement that it is harmful, that the climate crisis is harmful,” Micah Parkin, the executive director of environmental advocacy group 350 Colorado, told the Colorado Times Recorder. “There’s been consensus for well over a decade that it’s harmful, probably couple of decades at this point. And, you know, I think that that’s that’s been very well agreed upon in the scientific community for a very long time.”
On Thursday, Sept. 28, Rockley’s Event Center in Lakewood hosted a special preview screening of “A Climate Conversation,” multiple weeks in advance of the film’s public debut on right-wing media outlet Newsmax on October 14. The event was led by Johnson’s wife, former state Rep. Ramey Johnson, now a member of Lakewood City Council, and featured a panel discussion by the experts interviewed for the documentary.
This was the film’s second official premier, with the first taking place at the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Chance in February of this year.
The event received an unexpectedly large turnout, with roughly 300 tickets purchased according to the event coordinators. The event was apparently also widely promoted within Colorado’s political sphere, with many apparently invited regardless of political affiliation.
Multiple big-name Colorado conservatives showed up: former congressman Tom Tancredo, former state senator and current party activist Kevin Lundberg, failed 2022 congressional candidate Laurel Imer were all mentioned by Councilwoman Johnson in her opening remarks. Randy Corporon, the state party’s Republican National Committeeman and Denver radio host — who had promoted the event on his show the weekend before — had planned to attend but was unable to.
But the audience was not exclusively Republican; State Rep. Sheila Lieder, a Jefferson County Democrat, was also mentioned as being in attendance. Lieder’s capitol office did not return an email requesting comment; this article will be updated with any response received.
Multiple local municipal candidates also made an appearance: Jefferson County School Board candidates Amara Hildebrand and Thomas Wicke, Lakewood City Council candidate Fred Clifford, and mayoral candidate Catherine Kentner, were noted as attending. Kentner, who describes herself as “a Mayor for all,” told the Colorado Times Recorder that she had been invited by Lakewood councilmember Mary Janssen.
“I decided to go because “A Mayor for All” is not just a catchphrase for me. I am the only [mayoral] candidate who attended both this event and accepted and attended an invitation to meet with the organization Clean Energy Lakewood (CEL),” Kentner wrote in an email. She emphasized her convictions as an environmentalist, saying her takeaway from the event was “that people want clean water, healthy air and ample parks and green spaces.”
“We have done everything to keep tonight apolitical,” Councilwoman Johnson said in her opening remarks. “This is not a Democrat issue and it is not a Republican issue. It’s for all of us to be more enlightened and educated because a lot of public policy is being done regarding what they call climate change.”
While she and other organizers claimed the event was politically neutral, she went on to note that this did not stop local science organizations from taking their own stance on the film.
“The Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists and the Denver Earth Resource Library would not advertise this because it was too political,” she said. This elicited widespread groans from the audience.
The messaging from the event hosts was clear: this was to be a science-based discussion, with the goal of pushing ideas from outside mainstream discourse into public view, in the hopes that more people will see “that there’s more to the argument than what they’ve been given,” as producer Walt Johnson put it. Blu-rays were sold for $20 apiece after the show, but discounts were offered for those who wished to buy multiple copies.
“Get a blu-ray and play it for your kids, send it to your uncle, put it on TV, start a conversation that’s real, that has a hope in ending, well, in real progress,” said Dave O’Rourke (no relation), who acted as emcee and spokesman for the event.
Meet the Cast
“A Climate Conversation” is built around the framework of a Socratic discussion. Largely an academic framework, a Socratic discussion involves engaging in conversation through questioning the beliefs that underlie a participant’s statements, arguments, and assumptions. At its best, the Socratic method is meant to “demonstrate complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty, [not] to elicit facts about the world.”
The resulting film is one free from political fighting – with the experts interviewed largely agreeing that climate change is not especially harmful and no drastic action is needed to combat it. While the film proclaims that true scientists “should welcome challenges to theories,” it makes little effort to represent climate activists’ side of the debate or give them a chance to respond.
The film attempts to distance itself from the interests of oil and gas companies, which have spent big money over several decades on an aggressive disinformation campaign to delegitimize the scientific consensus that carbon emissions cause climate change. Johnson told the Colorado Times Recorder, and later the audience, that he had financed the film by taking funds out of his retirement account.
“I dipped into my retirement fund to do this,” he said. “My argument is, what I see coming, and if we continue on the same path that we are [with regards to climate policy] … We’re going to lose all of our independence. Really. We’re going to be a totalitarian society in order to do that. And that’s happened throughout history. And so there would be no need for a retirement fund.”
While it may be true that the film was not funded directly by oil and gas companies, Johnson’s retirement savings would presumably come at least partially from several years of using his expertise as a geophysicist to lead a “thriving oil discovery and consulting company,” according to his bio.
“I’ve had a diverse background. I’ve worked with major oil companies, minor oil companies,” he told the Colorado Times Recorder. “I was in executive management for the 20th largest oil company in the world. I’ve been on my own for now over 30 years. I formed my own company downtown to do technical work, geophysical engineering.” He also said he had worked in lithium mining (a subject the film is later critical of) and soil stability.
Johnson’s career aside, the film’s ties to the energy industry are worth noting. The Heartland Institute, a prominent conservative libertarian think tank which has spent decades pushing back against policies to regulate and combat climate change, was involved in the making of the film. Heartland Institute President James Taylor also joined the expert panel at the screening.
“Really, all the credit for this work should go to Walt,” Taylor told the Colorado Times Recorder. “He actually produced the film. We’re happy to help out where we can.”
Taylor went on to explain the Heartland Institute’s agenda in both the film and its broader work: pushing what he calls “climate realism” as an antidote to commonplace “climate alarmism,” a term often used to deride those pushing for comprehensive climate policy.
“So we believe that the term climate realism is really the best way to, I guess, describe what climate skeptics, as we’re also known, have been doing,” Taylor said. “But really we’re just trying to get to the truth of the matter. The Heartland Institute, we don’t have a financial dog in the fight. We get virtually no money, certainly not from any energy company. We’re just here because we believe in truth for truth’s sake. And in that sense, we’re climate realists.”
The Heartland Institute does not disclose its donors. From 1997 to 2006, it received at least $686,500 in grants from ExxonMobil. While it may no longer receive money from energy companies directly, large amounts of its funding come from dark money organizations, so its sources cannot be traced. Also, it has previously received large sums from foundations run by the Koch brothers, conservative magnates who made their fortune in the oil and gas industry.
Ronald C. Stein, who was interviewed for the film, is an engineer and a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute. He also runs a firm that is “known as a leader in delivering staffing solutions to major oil refineries.” Another interviewee, Ken Gregory, is a member of the Friends of Science Society, a Canadian nonprofit which pushes similar rhetoric to the Heartland Institute, and which has also received major funding from the oil and gas industry in the past. Gregory is also an engineer whose career has included many years working for petroleum companies.
Gregory’s main contribution to the film is reiterating the findings of a report he authored in 2021, which claims that the cost for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 has been underestimated to the tune of trillions of dollars. The report is itself just an analysis of a different cost estimation report by Thomas Tanton of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, another climate-skeptic group with heavy ties to the oil & gas industry.
Another expert, Gregory Wrightstone, is the Executive Director of the CO2 Coalition, which dedicates itself to “educating thought leaders, policy makers, and the public about the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy” – making the peculiar claim that CO2 emissions, of which the U.S. contributed more than 5 billion tons in 2021, are actually far better for the environment than climate activists and scientists have led the public to believe.
“[Climate scientists] are calling it the demon molecule,” Wrightstone says in the film. “I call it the miracle molecule.”
Like his fellow cast members, Wrightstone has an extensive career in the energy industry, including his time as VP of Exploration at Mountaineer Keystone (now known as Arsenal Resources), a natural gas company.
The CO2 Coalition takes its mission to educate seriously, having previously been ejected from a national science teachers’ conference for handing out comic books and lesson plans to attendees. During the panel after the film, Wrightstone told the audience that the CO2 Coalition has recently launched an education program, the “CO2 Learning Center,” to provide “books, videos, and importantly, lesson plans, to homeschooling parents.”
During the film, Wrightstone touts his qualifications as an expert reviewer for the IPCC, implying that international climate scientists hold him in high regard. According to the IPCC itself, anyone can register to become an expert reviewer, and they will be accepted, provided that they can demonstrate “any relevant qualification.”
IPCC continues that “because the review is essentially open to all through a self-declaration of expertise, it follows that having been a registered expert reviewer does not by itself serve as a qualification of the expert or support their credibility in a different context.”
A large chunk of the film is dedicated to the CO2 Coalition’s dubious claims on carbon dioxide. Starting from the fact that plants feed on carbon dioxide – something that is widely known to be scientifically accurate – Wrightstone goes on to claim that increased levels of carbon dioxide, and the resultant increase in global temperature, will lead to increased plant growth and greater global prosperity.
“We should celebrate the warming, celebrate the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Wrightstone says.
While plants do feed on carbon dioxide, equating more CO2 to more gains for plants oversimplifies the issue. According to research from the journal Nature Climate Change, “plants acclimatize, or adjust, to rising carbon dioxide concentration and the fertilization effect diminishes over time.”
To illustrate its point, the film references the Medieval Warm Period, a range of time from roughly 800 to 1400 AD during which the global climate warmed (scientists disagree on exactly how much, but it is generally agreed to have been no more than 1ºC). Wrightstone makes the point that in many parts of Europe, crops flourished during the Medieval Warm Period, including vineyards in England, which could not have grown at lower temperatures.
The film implies that this fertilization effect will be beneficial for all parts of the world. It does not mention that during the Medieval Warm Period, civilizations in the American Southwest and Central America experienced significant droughts due to raised global temperatures, which some scholars believe may have contributed to the collapse of those civilizations.
Additionally, Earth’s current warming trends have already surpassed the likely peak temperature increases of the Medieval Warm Period, within a shorter period of time to boot. According to IPCC, a 1.5ºC increase is the best case scenario if world governments take decisive action to reach net zero. Failing that, further increases are still possible.
“Well, sure, more CO2, in theory, is a benefit to plants, but they can’t tolerate the sort of temperature extremes and drought extremes of flooding event extremes that the climate crisis is having,” Parkin said in an interview. “It’s not just a case of loading the atmosphere with more CO2 that has no other impact on the plants than just the CO2. It has all of the other climate impacts of changing ecosystems, changing the precipitation. Plants are like any other living thing. They can only tolerate certain boundaries and, you know, bandwidths of temperatures and cannot adapt in the timeframes we’re talking about.”
One might note that the greenhouse effect is also responsible for an increase in extreme weather events around the globe, including the aforementioned droughts, but “A Climate Conversation” attempts to rebut that, focusing solely on data around hurricanes and wildfires, while not addressing other types of weather, such as the record-breaking cold snap that hit Denver last December.
The film focuses on the number and frequency of hurricanes to hit the U.S. in recent years, arguing that despite climate advocates’ claims, there has been no notable increase in those metrics. The Heartland Institute has put out numerous articles pushing this talking point in recent years. The claim is broadly true, but ignores the intensity of said hurricanes – with more intense hurricanes coming more frequently than in previous years.
The film then shows an upward trend in U.S. wildfires from the 1980s onwards, but then pulls back to reveal that levels had been dramatically higher over a century ago, before dropping starkly in the 1920s. The timeline the film gives its viewers is this: in the 1920s, the U.S. began to devote more time and resources to managing wildfires, causing the sharp decrease. It goes on to attribute the current rise from the 1980s onward to environmental regulations, which it claims inhibited the work of logging companies and made it more difficult for fire trucks to reach densely forested areas.
This is another favorite of the Heartland Institute. PolitiFact rated these claims ‘mostly false’ in a 2021 fact check, noting that the 1920s data is inflated by double and triple counts, and also includes many intentional burns by local farmers. Most wildfire data starts in the 1980s because the U.S. government did not begin using the current best-practices reporting processes until 1983.
These are just a few examples of the film’s talking points. Most of the other issues raised by the film continue in much the same way, cherry-picking and obfuscating data to prove a point, just like its creators accuse environmentalists of doing.
This is a common tactic for climate deniers of all stripes; in a 2011 editorial, the scientific journal Nature wrote that “Many climate sceptics seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, magnifying doubts and treating incomplete explanations as falsehoods rather than signs of progress towards the truth … Scientists can only carry on with their work, addressing legitimate questions as they arise and challenging misinformation.”
The Colorado Times Recorder could spend the time and effort to exhaustively fact-check each point in the film, but feels that time would be better spent elsewhere.
Lithium and Exploitation
“A Climate Conversation” does raise a few genuinely worthwhile points. Later on, the documentary puts a spotlight on lithium – the key component in batteries, including those used for electric vehicles – and the environmental consequences of mining it.
Lithium production has faced a great deal of scrutiny over its environmental impacts: extraction uses large amounts of water, and further pollutes surrounding water sources. Large amounts of lithium are mined in disadvantaged countries, typically at the expense of local communities and ecosystems.
“We’re exploiting people to let us go green,” Stein says in the film.
It’s worth noting that the demand for lithium does not begin or end with electric vehicles or solar panels. Lithium batteries are used in a wide array of products, including the laptops and mobile phones many people will use to read this article. However, the push towards net zero is one factor that has caused demand for lithium to skyrocket worldwide, causing massive growth in the industry which produces it.
Environmental activists have not turned a blind eye to this issue, as “A Climate Conversation” implies. Exactly how to address the problems with lithium has been a point of contention among scientists and advocates, but research on finding a less damaging alternative to lithium batteries, as well as finding more efficient ways to recycle the lithium already in use, is ongoing. Advocates have also called for stricter environmental regulations around lithium mining.
All of this is to say that green energy presents challenging questions that environmentalists will continue to reckon with for decades to come. The film’s solution, however, is to simply throw the baby out with the bathwater and continue using oil and gas – ignoring its own comparable environmental impacts, such as groundwater pollution and increased rates of asthma and cancer in communities near refineries.
“Getting rid of crude oil could be the greatest threat to civilization,” Stein says.
A Climate… Conspiracy?
“You’re right about this. It’s not really anti-fossil fuels, it’s an anti-human agenda.”Gregory Wrightstone, Executive Director of the CO2 Coalition
The other interviewees seemed to broadly agree with the idea that the push against climate change threatens civilization. The film itself largely steered away from conspiracy theories; Moyer said his methodology for directing and co-writing the film was to avoid fringe theories and focus on the science.
“What gets misrepresented the most is that people who don’t go with the mainstream opinion on climate change, that they’re anti-science, that it’s just conspiracy theories, that it’s based on nothing but the tinfoil hat club,” Moyer told the Colorado Times Recorder. “And that’s not true. All of the experts who are presenting tonight have their studies backed in science. A huge part of my job was just going through their footnotes and looking up these studies and pulling data.”
However, that did not stop the scientists profiled in “A Climate Conversation” from indulging in conspiracy theories outside the film itself – particularly during the audience Q&A.
The first audience member to pose a question to the panel brought up accusations of a massive conspiracy by global elites to kill off large swaths of the human population. This is a common baseline for conspiracy theories about environmental regulations, vaccines, and the COVID-19 pandemic, among many others.
“AOC recently and Senator Markey commented on that and said that if you really wanted to fight the environmental degradation that we’re seeing, you have to reduce the population of the world,” the audience member said. “… So do you think it would be good to include that fact in your discussion of this whole issue?”
Answering first, Wrightstone affirmed this idea: “What we’re seeing, it’s not just anti-fuel. It’s an anti-human agenda, is what it is.” The audience interjected with a round of applause as he continued, “What we’re seeing is crop growth is outpacing population growth tremendously, it’s because of nitrogen fertilizer. It’s because of more CO2, it’s because of the sunshine that they now want to block. So this is really, you’re right about this. It’s not really anti-fossil fuels, it’s an anti-human agenda.” [CTR emphasis]
Stein would later support the idea of a depopulation plot.
“How is wind and solar going to support eight billion people, because your iPhone, electricity can charge but it can’t make your iPhone,” Stein told the audience. “A defibrillator works on electricity, that can’t make the defibrillator. So how is wind and solar going to produce the products like this to support eight billion? That’ll bring out the answer. They really do want to depopulate the earth.”
Heartland Institute President James Taylor would later affirm this too, saying, “The people who are propagating climate alarmism, they’re not motivated by reducing carbon dioxide. They’re not motivated by fighting climate change, or they’d be embracing hydropower and nuclear power. They’re motivated basically by being anti-human and anti-energy in general.”
Parkin told the Colorado Times Recorder that she was familiar with such conspiratorial lines of thinking in opposition to environmental reform.
“There are always conspiracy theories that people want to pull out, and especially if it benefits them because they don’t want to trust the truth,” Parkin said. “But I mean, the scientific reality of the situation has been abundantly clear for decades. This isn’t some new made up idea around the climate crisis. This is very clearly articulated by thousands of scientists around the world and has been so for decades now. … So it’s a matter of political will at this point.”
But for even the film’s experts, some conspiracy theories go too far. At one point, an audience member took the microphone to express concerns about “toxic chemicals” being pumped into the atmosphere in order to “control the supposed warming that isn’t happening.” Wrightstone attempted to be measured and careful with his response.
“In all due respect we see, I see no scientific evidence to support that at all. Zero,” he said, despite the audience member’s protestations. “It would have to be one of the greatest conspiracies. There are some things you may claim, but I’ve not seen any signs to back that up. I’m sorry.”
As the event closed out, O’Rourke emphasized the strength and reach of the environmental movement in a final call for donations.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done,” said O’Rourke. “This is just the introduction. This is the foreword to the conversation that needs to be had … What happens if the six children in Europe win their case against 32 nations in Europe? I don’t know if you saw that on CNN. But the International Human Rights court or some certain court has decided to hear a case against basically all the countries of Western Europe for stealing the futures and lives of six children in Portugal. My guess is they’re probably going to win the case.”
The case from Portugal is only one of several similar cases to go to court in the past year. In Montana, multiple young climate activists were recently victorious in a lawsuit against the state, which ruled that Montana’s promotion of fossil fuels had violated their constitutional rights.
“A Climate Conversation” will have its public debut on Newsmax this Saturday, October 14.