"Cooler Heads Coalition" pushed Trump's exit from Paris climate agreement
A two-decade crusade by conservative charities fueled Trump’s exit from Paris climate accord
The Washington Post, Sept. 5, 2017
Myron Ebell stood in bright sunlight as President Trump stepped into the Rose Garden and spoke.
“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens,” Trump said to rowdy applause, “the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”
Ebell was hot, sunburned and very pleased. He was witnessing history that he had helped make.
For nearly two decades, Ebell has led the Cooler Heads Coalition, an umbrella group of tax-exempt public charities and other nonprofit organizations in the vanguard of efforts to cast doubt on the gravity of climate change and thwart government efforts to address it.
Coalition members have called climate science a hoax and denounced environmentalists as “global-warming alarmists.” They have written letters, blasted out emails, pressured lawmakers, sponsored seminars, appeared on television and made a documentary movie.
It was all part of a wave that crested with Trump’s rejection on June 1 of the Paris agreement, a landmark accord by nearly 200 countries in 2015 to limit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
“He made the decision. We helped create the circumstances,” Ebell told The Washington Post. “When you are persistent, good things can happen.”
The story behind the coalition illuminates the influential, little-known role that tax-exempt public charities play in modern campaigns to sway lawmakers and shape policy in the nation’s capital, while claiming to be nonpartisan educational organizations.
It also offers insight into the forces behind a Trump decision that infuriated scientists and environmentalists, mystified U.S. allies and went against the advice of some major corporations.
Ebell, a 64-year-old veteran of Washington’s policy wars, is director of energy and environmental policy for a libertarian nonprofit organization called the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which helped start the Cooler Heads Coalition in 1997. The coalition, with a rolling membership of more than three dozen groups over the years, describes itself on its website as “informal and ad-hoc,” and focused on education.
Interviews, tax filings, internal documents and news accounts show that its members are well funded and dedicated to advancing a conservative, free-market agenda.
The Post found that the coalition is part of a far larger network of tax-exempt nonprofit groups, linked by ideology and funding, that supported Trump while disparaging Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential campaign.
The Cooler Heads have received more than $11 million in donations over the years from coal and oil companies. They’ve taken in tens of millions more from nonprofit foundations, such as those controlled by the wealthy Koch brothers, and the Scaife and Mercer families, according to interviews and Internal Revenue Service filings.
Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, said that members of the Cooler Heads Coalition are allied with trade groups, public relations companies and lobbyists working to influence public debate about global warming.
“Public charities serve as so-called independent think tanks, providing analysis to create the appearance they are independent, third-party voices,” Brulle said. “It becomes so complicated and so sophisticated. This is how modern politics operates.”
Long dismissed as cranks by mainstream scientists and politicians in both parties, Ebell and his Cooler Heads colleagues were embraced last year by the Trump campaign. Ebell served as the transition director at the Environmental Protection Agency. This spring, he leveraged those connections to arrange a White House briefing in opposition to the Paris agreement, according to an email from Ebell to participants that was obtained by The Post.
“Thank you for agreeing to be part of the basket of deplorables,” he wrote in an April 18 email. “The purpose of the meeting is to present our views on why President Trump should keep his campaign commitment to withdraw from the Paris Climate Treaty.”
Such advocacy is in effect supported by American taxpayers, because contributors to groups organized under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code can deduct donations from their taxes, which means less revenue for the federal government. Under IRS rules, such organizations may not devote a substantial part of their work to lobbying. But the laws are vague and hard to enforce. And the IRS provides little oversight, because it is financially strapped and has too few auditors. Agency officials are also wary of enforcing prohibitions on political activity, after the conservative backlash triggered by the agency’s focus on tea party groups several years ago, according to knowledgeable officials.
In interviews, Ebell acknowledged that Cooler Heads advocacy “does bleed into political persuasion and lobbying.” But he said such activity is common in Washington and, in the case of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, does not violate IRS or lobbying restrictions, because it does not constitute a substantial portion of its work.
Ebell, who according to tax filings earned $115,000 in 2014, also played down the influence of the group’s funders, saying that CEI and other organizations choose their policy positions before seeking contributions. “Yes, we do talk to industry,” he told The Post. “No, there is no overarching direction from anyone.”
After long questioning global warming, Ebell now acknowledges that “climate change is occurring and human beings have a role in it.” But he said global warming still is not a crisis. He frames climate change as an ideological issue, saying that giving the government more authority to address it would stimulate a “regulatory onslaught,” damage the U.S. economy and subvert human freedom.
Ebell, who is not a scientist, said he and his colleagues respect the scientific process. But he said he thinks many climate researchers endorse prevailing views on global warming only to cash in on government grants.
“They are all in lock-step,” he said. “It has all the appearance of being a scam.”
Climate scientists said there is no doubt about the reality of climate change and its consequences, including melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels and the intensification of storms. Benjamin Santer, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for groundbreaking climate research, told The Post that Ebell and his Cooler Heads colleagues are attempting to turn back the clock on knowledge and science.
“He is not a climate scientist. He will never be a climate scientist. Mr. Ebell seems to believe that it’s possible to magically assimilate scientific understanding from thin air,” said Santer, speaking for himself.
Ebell has long served as a leading voice of global-warming skepticism. He is tall and pale, with receding gray hair. He wears oval wire-rimmed glasses, speaks softly and exudes an air of diffidence that masks a fierce determination.
He was born in the rugged sagebrush country of eastern Oregon, the great-grandson of a homesteader who moved there from Germany in the late 1860s during a gold rush in the state. Growing up on a 3,000-acre cattle ranch, Ebell was steeped in western values that prized property rights and disdained government regulation. He embraced tenets of what a colleague would later call “free-market environmentalism.”
Ebell did not intend to get involved with science. He studied philosophy, history and politics at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, the University of California at San Diego, the London School of Economics and Cambridge University. He came to Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s and took a job with a nonprofit group that focused on property rights.
In 1995, Ebell went to Capitol Hill as a legislative aide to Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), but he moved on quickly. Later that year, he sharpened his advocacy skills with a job at a new tax-exempt group called Frontiers of Freedom started by former senator Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.). “Once upon a time, our government was a bulwark against domestic enemies,” Wallop said in his final floor address, in December 1994. “Now big government has become our chief domestic enemy.”
Frontiers worked to minimize government regulation of the tobacco industry, according to industry documents made public during litigation. In a funding proposal to Philip Morris, Frontiers suggested a complex influence campaign in support of tobacco. The plan foreshadowed some of the tactics that Cooler Heads members would soon employ.
Frontiers could “play a substantial role” in a campaign aimed at making it politically easier for lawmakers to thwart new tobacco taxes, the proposal said. It would “educate and motivate grassroots activists” to change the “political dynamics,” making it “politically possible for key legislators to block any legislative initiative.”
“The campaign proposed is, essentially, an issue-driven political campaign,” the document said.
Ebell told The Post that he did not know about the document at the time and that funding for the campaign never materialized. “I’ve never taken a position on anything to do with tobacco,” he said.
Frontiers would soon receive millions in contributions from other quarters, including the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and ExxonMobil, IRS filings show.
The same array of donors would help finance charities behind the most audacious endeavor of Ebell’s career: the fight against climate science.
Countering ‘myths’about global warming
The Cooler Heads Coalition was formed in the spring of 1997 by a group called Consumer Alert that drew funding from Chevron, Philip Morris and other large corporations. An allied public charity, the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, soon took over management of the coalition, a cross section of nonprofit groups already fighting policies promoted by progressives and a growing number of liberal public charities and nonprofit organizations.
Joining later were groups such as the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group in the Chicago area, and an influential nonprofit organization, Americans for Prosperity, begun by the Koch brothers to “mobilize citizens” to press for economic growth through “government restraint,” tax filings show.
The Cooler Heads members made common cause at a challenging time for conservatives and the energy industry. Evidence of climate change had been mounting rapidly in the decade since a NASA scientist named James Hansen rocked the world in 1988 with congressional testimony that the “greenhouse effect,” driven by human activity, was almost certainly warming the Earth’s atmosphere.
The phrase “global warming” was beginning to permeate the public consciousness. Most important, President Bill Clinton supported an international agreement called the Kyoto Protocol, which was aimed at reducing greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
The energy industry went on a spending spree to thwart Kyoto, devoting at least $13 million to public relations and information campaigns in 1997, according to a study by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute received a $95,000 donation from ExxonMobil to support a “Global Climate Change Program,” according to internal ExxonMobil documents obtained by the Climate Investigations Center, a nonprofit group that monitors individuals, corporations, political groups and others opposed to global-warming policies.
The Cooler Heads Coalition was in effect a loose confederation of groups with the declared mission of countering “the myths of global warming by exposing flawed economic, scientific, and risk analysis.” Among its first members was Ebell, who served as the representative to the coalition for Frontiers of Freedom. He would become the coalition’s guiding light.
The coalition soon had its own site, GlobalWarming.org, which is hosted by CEI. “Global Warming Is Good,” one of its headlines said.
From the start, the coalition was controversial. At the end of 1997, it was listed by Mother Jones magazine among alleged front “astroturf groups that are lobbying against the Kyoto global warming treaty.”
“Wingnuts in Sheep’s Clothing,” the magazine called them.
A shift in corporate views
In early 1998, Ebell and others associated with Cooler Heads met with energy industry executives and lobbyists in closed-door meetings at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association. Their goal was to convince the American people that climate science was purely speculative and that the scientists were “out of touch with reality,” according to a copy of an internal memo written by an API official who organized the meetings.
In an “action plan” for “Global Climate Science Communications,” the participants suggested creating a nonprofit educational group that could serve as a clearinghouse of information favorable to their cause. It would be headed by scientists and run by executives on loan from energy companies and trade associations.
But before the effort could take flight, an environmental group obtained the internal memo and shared it with the press. “Industrial Group Plans to Battle Climate Treaty,” said the headline of a New York Times story on April 26, 1998.
In 1999, Ebell left Frontiers and joined the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he became the director of energy and environmental policy and assumed leadership of the Cooler Heads Coalition.
Members of the coalition independently raised money from energy companies and conservative nonprofit foundations, and each worked on issues unrelated to global warming, tax filings show.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute received $125,000 that year from the Scaife family foundations, $50,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $55,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation and $50,000 from the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, along with hundreds of thousands more from corporate contributors, according to research by Brulle.
One former Cooler Heads member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of a punitive backlash, said the coalition’s mission under Ebell was to be a “Johnny-on-the-spot for climate denialism” and to simulate a “cacophony of voices” against climate-change science.
“There’s a whole web,” the former member said. “Their job was to make sure the hard right remained animated.”
It worked. Though Ebell was not a boldface name in the capital, he was soon in direct communication with officials in the new Bush administration, pressing the White House to reject Kyoto and other climate-related regulation, according to news reports at the time.
In 2003 and 2004, Ebell turned Cooler Heads’ sights on bipartisan climate legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). In emails and meetings, he urged his allies to pressure certain lawmakers.
“We have all been working against it for months, but I think it’s now time to increase our efforts,” Ebell wrote in a July 7, 2004, “Action Alert” emailed to his allies. “On the other side, the environmentalists are working this vote very hard and spending lots of money that our side doesn’t have.”
The legislation ultimately foundered.
Competitive Enterprise Institute general counsel Sam Kazman said CEI counts the Action Alerts as lobbying. But because lobbying does not make up a significant proportion of the group’s work, it has always been in compliance with IRS rules, Kazman said.
As Ebell and other coalition members worked to debunk global-warming science, a growing number of major corporations began to accept climate change as a reality that needed to be addressed. By the mid-2000s, General Electric, Walmart and other companies were pledging to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, according to Spencer Weart, author of “The Discovery of Global Warming” and former director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.
At the same time, a large and growing proportion of scientists working the field agreed that industrial activity had contributed significantly to rising temperatures.
That was the finding of a landmark survey of climate research in 2004 by Naomi Oreskes, then a professor of history and science at the University of California at San Diego and now at Harvard.
“Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect,” Oreskes wrote in Science magazine.
In an interview with The Post, Oreskes recalled her surprise at being bombarded with criticism from global-warming skeptics. “That was my first clue there was something fishy going on.”
Among the critics was Ebell, a man she had never heard of. She said she was amazed when they appeared together on a radio program. “Ebell was on the radio telling everyone in the world that climate change was good for us,” she said.
By 2005, the campaign against the adoption of global-warming regulations was coming under more scrutiny. Greenpeace, the nonprofit environmental group, assembled a massive database of the millions of dollars in ExxonMobil contributions to nonprofit groups opposed to climate-change policies. An article that spring by Mother Jones reporter Chris Mooney, now at The Post, revealed that ExxonMobil had cultivated an intricate web of nonprofits, news media outlets, columnists and activists who “have sought to undermine mainstream scientific findings on global climate change.”
The ExxonMobil Foundation, which had given millions to Cooler Heads members, began to scale back its donations. The foundation’s contributions to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which had averaged more than $300,000 annually over the previous six years, dropped to nothing, documents show.
Spokesman Alan Jeffers recently told The Post that company officials felt some coalition members were making claims they could not support.
“Some of these groups were advocating on matters of science, not matters of policy. They weren’t qualified to do that,” Jeffers said. “Our position evolved as the science evolved.”
When Barack Obama became president, Ebell and other global-warming skeptics faced their biggest challenge. Addressing climate change through regulations and international diplomacy was one of Obama’s key issues.
But the coalition kept up its fight — along with other nonprofits, trade groups and industry associations.
Supporters included one of the Obama administration’s prime targets: big coal. A 2009 IRS filing for the Competitive Enterprise Institute — inadvertently made public without redactions — disclosed funding from two coal mining companies. Ohio-based Murray Energy donated $90,000, and Richmond-based Massey Energy gave $100,000.
Contributions to CEI overall during the Obama administration rose to $7.6 million in 2014 from $4.1 million in 2009, tax filings show.
In a statement to The Post, a Murray Energy spokesman said the company provided annual support to CEI “in order to advance their principles of ‘limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty.’ ”
“Indeed, for eight years the Obama Administration severely undermined these principles, in its effort to completely destroy the United States coal industry,” the statement said. “The Competitive Enterprise Institute was effective in advocating against this destruction, and in supporting preservation of coal jobs and family livelihoods, and low-cost, reliable electricity for all Americans.”
Massey Energy was bought by another coal company following an explosion at a West Virginia coal mine in 2010 that killed 29 miners, the worst coal mining disaster in four decades.
CEI and the Cooler Heads were just the tip of the spear.
In 2013, Brulle completed a study showing that between 2003 and 2010, energy companies, corporations and conservative foundations contributed hundreds of millions to 91 nonprofit “think tanks,” educational groups and associations involved in the fight against global-warming regulations — more than three quarters of them tax-exempt charities whose donors were largely anonymous.
Brulle titled his study “Institutionalizing Delay.”
“It is not just a couple of rogue individuals doing this,” Brulle told the Guardian newspaper. “This is a large-scale political effort.”
In late November 2015, tens of thousands of negotiators, policy wonks and climate activists descended on Paris. The vast majority were there in the hopes of an international climate agreement to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.
Ebell and several coalition allies were also there, at a day-long “counter conference” held at a Paris hotel on Dec. 7 in opposition to the agreement. Their arguments were familiar: Government regulation, not global warming, was the true threat. They claimed scientific data supported their cause.
Ebell joked about how some Cooler Heads members worked to shape public debate.
“I’d say, Heartland does the science, CFACT [the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow] does the activism, and unfortunately it is left to CEI to do the politics in Washington, D.C.,” Ebell said, according to a video of the event.
Ebell added: “Thank God for Heartland...” Before he could finish, protesters in the audience drowned him out.
“Thank God for Heartland! Thank God for Heartland!” the protesters yelled sarcastically. “Thank God!”
Protesters also pasted “Wanted” posters of Ebell and at least three other Cooler Heads activists on city walls.
On Dec. 12, negotiators from almost 200 countries approved the landmark accord. The goal: to limit the rise of global temperatures to no more than two degrees above preindustrial averages.
“The world has come together behind an agreement that will empower us to chart a new path for our planet: a smart and responsible path, a sustainable path,” then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry said.
By all appearances, the Cooler Heads were irrelevant.
To Trump:‘Keep your promise’
The call to Ebell from the Trump campaign came in late August 2016. Ron Nicol, a business consultant leading the team preparing for a possible transition, left a voice mail saying he wanted Ebell to consider serving as transition chief at the EPA.
Ebell told The Post he was mystified. He had never served in the federal bureaucracy and Trump was not his favored candidate.
“Why do you want me?” he asked when he returned Nicol’s call.
Ebell said the answer was direct. Trump wanted to abolish the EPA, and so did Ebell.
Ebell’s singular focus on the agency and global warming also was in tight alignment with the views of Scott Pruitt, the man who would soon lead the EPA.
Ebell signed on in September. His team included at least two other Cooler Heads members, along with at least one energy industry ally who shared Ebell’s views about the environment, regulation and the Paris accord.
The promotion of Ebell was startling to some. “Myron Ebell, the Climate Contrarian Now Plotting the EPA’s Precarious Future,” said the headline of a Nov. 16 story in InsideClimate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news site.
From September to Jan. 19, 2017, Ebell worked on an “action plan” for the president. It incorporated the promises Trump had made during the campaign, including the rejection of the Paris accord. Ebell also proposed gutting the agency by cutting thousands of EPA employees.
After stepping aside in January, Ebell said he was proud of his EPA work. But he was leaving nothing to chance. He and his coalition allies knew that Trump was receiving pressure from quarters inside the White House, as well as from a host of American corporations, to remain faithful to the Paris agreement.
When Trump delayed acting on his promise about the accord, Ebell went into action. In April, he organized a briefing through one of Trump’s legislative aides to shore up support among White House and Senate staffers for backing out of the climate agreement, according to an internal email.
The White House did not respond to requests for interviews.
In May, Ebell and others drafted a letter to Trump, reminding him of his campaign promise, and then rounded up coalition members and other groups to sign it.
“The undersigned organizations believe that withdrawing completely from Paris is a key part of your plan to protect U.S. energy producers and manufacturers from regulatory warfare not just for the next four years but also for decades to come,” said the May 8 letter, signed by Ebell, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and more than two dozen others.
The next day, ExxonMobil chief executive Darren Woods weighed in, writing a letter directly to Trump urging him to stand by the accord.
“By remaining a party to the Paris agreement, the United States will maintain a seat at the negotiating table to ensure a level playing field,” the letter said.
Days later, CEI aired a TV ad in the Washington area, urging Trump to leave the accord:
“Mr. President, don’t listen to the swamp. Keep your promise.”
On the morning of June 1, Ebell got an email from the White House. He was told that he and all those who signed the May 8 letter were invited to Trump’s Rose Garden announcement.
The speech took longer than Ebell expected, but the waiting was worth it.
“This was a very long fight,” he said. “And we have turned the corner.”