How one think tank adapted when the debate moved on from its favorite issue.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 12 2009 5:24 PM

About Climate Change: Never Mind

How one think tank adapted when the debate moved on from its favorite issue.

Competitive Enterprise Institute.

It was a gathering of the anti-Washington elite. On Thursday evening, in a vast hotel ballroom just steps from the Capitol, the Competitive Enterprise Institute celebrated 25 years of existence. The Cato Institute, Reason magazine, and Americans for Prosperity all sent contingents. Master of ceremonies Tucker Carlson cracked jokes about Al Sharpton and Al Gore. The crowd of 500 dined on sea bass and toasted liberty.

But on its signature issue—climate change—at the still-young age of 25, CEI is already going senile.

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Fred L. Smith, once a bureaucrat with the Environmental Protection Agency, started the institute in 1984, and it soon became one of the first conservative think tanks to go on the offensive on the environment. It attacked the Endangered Species Act and wilderness protection laws for trampling private property rights. By the mid-1990s, it refocused on global warming, assembling the contrarian arguments that conservatives would deploy for the next decade. (Take a trip through the Wayback Machine!) Myron Ebell, CEI's director of energy and global-warming policy, still heads the Cooler Heads Coalition, a clearinghouse for ammunition in the fight against global warming "alarmists." "Ebell and his ilk were basically successful in delaying action by 10 years," says Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State.

But more recently, the ground has shifted beneath CEI's feet. Starting in 2006 and continuing through a presidential race in which both candidates were light years away from CEI's position on global warming, the group's salvos frequently missed their mark. A major report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won over many doubters, while CEI itself—constantly criticized by environmental groups cautioning against climate skeptics—was put on the defensive against charges it peddled industry-funded junk science.

Perhaps most important, the longstanding mainstream media practice of quoting climate skeptics to keep up an impression of "balance"—through which CEI got most of its mentions in the press—has gone out of style. "One of the things that has collapsed is this approach that journalists felt they needed to take, with lots of scientific subjects, that every story must have two sides," says Marianne Lavelle, a longtime Washington-based business reporter now with the Center for Public Integrity. "CEI could always reliably give you that other side, especially on deadline."

The media also usually identified CEI's major underwriter: ExxonMobil, which contributed more than $2 million between 1998 and 2005. In 2006, however, the giant oil company yanked its funding from CEI and a number of other climate-skeptic groups, remaking itself with a green patina for lawmakers and the public. That was also the year that CEI put out an ad with the punch line "Carbon Dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life."

CEI was becoming a parody of itself and a liability for Exxon—or a "distraction," as a company executive put it. In some ways, the divorce may have been good for both parties; CEI was suffering as much from being disregarded as an industry front group as Exxon was from being associated with the skeptics.

In truth, CEI's attack dogs are too ideological to be corporate shills and disdain corporations that abandon pure free-market principles, as all corporations do. (Just look at this list of those seeking to benefit from a cap-and-trade system.) Besides, as Ebell says, CEI hasn't budged. "We have never given up on the scientific debate," he says. "That's what the public is really interested in. If the public thinks the science is a problem, then the debate changes dramatically."

But with a climate bill on the floor, the debate is no longer about whether global warming is happening. It's about politics. Said an aide for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming: "His main focus is not really to raise arguments over the science. It's focused exclusively on how this is going to hit people in their pocketbooks."

Even some natural allies of CEI have abandoned its position. Jonathan Adler, who left CEI in 2000 for academia, has come out for a carbon tax—as long as some other tax gets cut to keep it revenue neutral. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain's policy guru on the campaign trail last fall, says CEI missed the boat on climate change. "They're important, I admire their efforts through the years, but I don't think they're at the center anymore," he said.

But while CEI may not have given up on the climate debate, it has taken up the debate on a lot of other topics. CEI scholars still produce papers, are still available for TV interviews, and still churn out op-ed columns on subjects like broadband regulation, ethanol subsidies, smoking bans, and genetically modified crops (in order: bad, bad, bad, good). And CEI's fundraising is healthier than ever. In 2007, after Exxon cut off its funding, the group reported a near-record $3.54 million in revenue. Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Google, and Microsoft topped the list at Thursday's gala.

In the keynote speech, BB&T Bank Chairman John Allison delivered a half-hour account of how the financial collapse was caused by excessive government regulation. Like CEI's position on climate change, the argument is one that runs counter to mainstream analysis. Unlike CEI's position on climate change, it's an argument that CEI's audience supports. Allison's speech brought the crowd to its feet.

Lydia DePillis is a writer living in New York.