Why Is Climate Change Denier Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Invited to Speak at Earth Day Texas?

Newly minted Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, conveniently oblivious to the mountains of scientific evidence that people are slowly but surely turning the planet into a scorching greenhouse, isn't sure if he believes in climate change. But he's damn sure about the best way to address it.

"I'll leave it in the hands of God," he told a crowd while campaigning last year. "He's handled our climate pretty well for a long time."

That Patrick would summarily dismiss global warming isn't a surprise. Climate change denial has become part of the Republican gospel in Texas; acknowledge its existence and a politician risks certain blowback. But inviting an avowed climate-change denier like Patrick to be a key speaker at Earth Day Texas, the self-described mission of which is to "elevate environmental awareness and influence the way Texans think, live and work"? When anti-fracking activist Sharon Wilson saw Patrick's name listed on a promotional flier Earth Day Texas provided to her allies at Frack Free Denton, she was perplexed. When she saw the other speakers listed -- Attorney General Ken Paxton, Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, and The Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lumborg, she wondered if she were being trolled.

She wasn't. The list of speakers is on page 2 of this flier, which Earth Day Texas organizers began circulating to potential participants a couple of months ago:

Earth Day Texas 2015 Eco-Conference

Paxton is a bit of a blank slate on environmental issues, in that he doesn't have a documented history of saying stupid things about climate change, but he has consistently aligned himself with the Tea Party, received a 38 percent rating on Environment Texas' most recent legislative scorecard, and has pledged to continue his predecessors practice of taking the federal government to court -- challenges that typically involve an attempt to dismantle environmental regulations. Sitton is a political newcomer but is a member of a governmental body (the Railroad Commission) famous for kowtowing to oil and gas interests and is on record as a climate change denier. In a Dallas Morning News voter questionnaire, he called man-made climate change "unproven" and said that attempts by the federal government to address it "will have grave impacts on all Texans, particularly our poor." Lomborg isn't a Texas politician, and thus he acknowledges the reality of man-made climate change, but he's become semi-famous for opining that fears of environmental catastrophe are overblown and that seriously fighting to keep down global temperatures is folly.

Wilson contends the speakers on the lineup hold views that are anti-scientific and dangerous; certainly they have no place at an environmental conference. "These people are climate deniers," she explains. "The danger here is that you will have the population come [to Earth Day Texas] who might be confused and they will listen to these people and believe there's a debate. [Climate change] is man-made and it's real, and even [Exxon CEO] Rex Tillerson admits that."

The answer for how such a motley crew of Tea Partiers and climate-change deniers came to be guests of honor at an environmental conference lies somewhere in the idiosyncratic mind of Trammell S. Crow.

Crow, the son of the Dallas real estate icon, is a study in contradictions. He has the gray ponytail and easygoing manner of an unreformed hippie but the business chops and economic philosophy of a old-money Republican. On the one hand, he's a generous patron of environmental causes and gay rights; on the other, he is an immigration hawk, personally bankrolling Farmers Branch's ill-fated battle to ban illegal immigrants from renting homes there and heavily financing candidates like Patrick, who has built a political career demagoguing against Mexicans.

A decade ago he helped launch Texas Business for Clean Air, which was instrumental in derailing Governor Rick Perry's attempt to fast-track approval of 11 coal-fired TXU power plants. And there's no telling how much he's pumped into Texas' environmental groups; pretty much any organization that's seriously engaged in shaping environmental policy has been helped by him.

Earth Day Texas is the most prominent manifestation of Crow's environmental commitment. Before Crow took over, it was run by City Hall and it was called EarthFest. "It just riled me that our Earth Day here was four hours long during the week on Main Street." He remembers it as pathetically small and superficial; here was Southwest Airlines handing out green ball-point pins; there was a green fashion show. There were maybe 20 card tables total. "And they said 10,000 people (came) -- 9,000 were walking to lunch."

Now it spans an entire weekend, fills the buildings along the Esplanade at Fair Park with hundreds of exhibitors, and pulls in 60,000-plus visitors. It is, as Crow is fond of pointing out, the largest Earth Day celebration in the country, and only about half of the $1.5 million annual cost is paid for by sponsors and exhibitor fees. The rest comes from Crow's own pocket.

But Earth Day Texas also reflects Crow's unorthodox approach to environmental activism, an approach that sometimes makes his allies in the green movement uncomfortable. The choice of speakers this year is a case in point. On environmental issues, Patrick, Paxton, and Sitton are somewhere on the spectrum between indifference and contempt and thus are anathema to activists. Crow, who donated heavily to the campaigns of all three, views the invitations differently. To him, they are a tool for winning over environmental skeptics and not necessarily an endorsement of their views on climate change, which Crow claims ignorance of.

"It really shows our overall approach, and that is we chose them on who could attract more people to the show. An argument can be made that the more conservative people we can bring to the show as visitors the better, because those are the people that need to be exposed," Crow explained on Thursday. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his living room, sipping a glass of iced orange juice. He wore jeans and a button-down open over a Beatles T-shirt. Occasionally, he'd light a cigarette.

It's the same thinking that's led Earth Day Texas to welcome companies like Exxon, whose environmental initiatives Crow is proud to highlight. "I'm glad that the general public gets to see Exxon and the good they do. And they can say 'I still don't like 'em, but at least I know they're doing a little something good.'" (Crow insists that Earth Day Texas doesn't allow "greenwashing" and that a company's environmental work has to be real and substantive. He says he's turned away hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships from firms that were merely seeking to burnish their reputations). But business guys come to this show because of ExxonMobil, and once we've got 'em, then we try to influence them."

Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment says Crow and his Earth Day event have generally been a force for environmental good but that sometimes his tent can be too big. One year, in the midst of a push by his group to compel a reluctant Walmart to begin recycling electronics, the retailer's sustainability director was invited to speak. He helped organize a small protest. Another year Crow invited the American Petroleum Institute, which has spent years pimping the Keystone Pipeline. Activists ultimately ran the exhibitors off early. (Crow blames API for farming the booth out to an exhibit company, which in his recollection inexplicably staffed the table with young-earth creationists wearing sequined cowboy hats -- not that he regrets the invitation, just the execution. "People came up and said, what is API doing at Earth Day? That's exactly what they want. And they said, did you know the earth was created 20,000 years ago?")

At the very least, Trahan would prefer a more balanced slate of speakers than the veritable Tea Party ballot that was initially presented. Crow and Earth Day Texas CEO Ken Klaveness say they're working on that. Right now, they're hammering down details of a business-vs.-environment debate between Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond and former Houston mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White.

"We want good, responsible point-counterpoint discussion at Earth Day, and we think we're really headed that way," Klaveness says.

But that just leads back to a different variation of the original question: Can any discussion involving Dan Patrick be good or responsible?

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson