For climate skeptics, it's hard to compete with the youthful appeal of global phenomenon Greta Thunberg. But one U.S. think tank hopes it's found an answer: the anti-Greta.
Naomi Seibt is a 19-year-old German who, like Greta, is blond, eloquent and European. But Seibt denounces "climate alarmism," calls climate consciousness "a despicably anti-human ideology," and has even deployed Greta's now famous "How dare you?" line to take on the mainstream German media.
"She's a fantastic voice for free markets and for climate realism," said James Taylor, director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center for Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute, an influential libertarian think tank in suburban Chicago that has the ear of the Trump administration.
In December, Heartland headlined Seibt at its forum at the U.N. climate conference in Madrid, where Taylor described her as "the star" of the show. Last month, Heartland hired Seibt as the young face of its campaign to question the scientific consensus that human activity is causing dangerous global warming.
"Naomi Seibt vs. Greta Thunberg: whom should we trust?" asked Heartland in a digital video. This week, Seibt is set to make her American debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, a high-profile annual gathering just outside Washington of right-leaning activists.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Heartland's tactics amount to an acknowledgment that Greta has touched a nerve, especially among teens and young adults. Since launching her protest two years ago outside the Swedish parliament at age 15, Greta has sparked youth protests across the globe and in 2019 was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year," the youngest to ever win the honor.
The teenager has called on the nations of the world to cut their total carbon output by at least half over the next decade, suggesting that if they don't, "then there will be horrible consequences."
"I want you to panic," she told attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last year. "I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act."
Seibt argues that these predictions of dire consequences are exaggerated. In a video posted on Heartland's website, she gazes into the camera and says, "I don't want you to panic. I want you to think."
Seibt says her political activism was sparked a few years ago when she began asking questions in school about Germany's liberal immigration policies. She says the backlash from teachers and other students hardened her skepticism about mainstream German thinking. More recently, she said that watching young people joining weekly "Fridays For Future" protests inspired by Greta helped spur her opposition to climate change activism.
"I get chills when I see those young people, especially at Fridays for Future. They are screaming and shouting and they're generally terrified," she said in an interview. "They don't want the world to end."
Seibt said she does not dispute that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, but she argues that many scientists and activists have overstated their impact.
"I don't want to get people to stop believing in man-made climate change, not at all," she said. "Are man-made CO2 emissions having that much impact on the climate? I think that's ridiculous to believe."
Seibt argues that other factors, such as solar energy, play a role - though the amount of solar energy reaching Earth has declined since the 1970s, according to federal measurements. A slew of peer-reviewed reports, from scientific bodies in the U.S. and elsewhere, have concluded that greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant cause of warming since the mid-20th century, producing a range of devastating effects from massive marine die-offs in South America to severe wildfires in Australia and sinking ground in the Arctic.
In addition to climate change, Seibt echoes far-right skepticism about feminism and immigration. The German media have described her as sympathetic to the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), the biggest opposition party in parliament, whose leaders have spoken of fighting "an invasion of foreigners." Seibt says she is not a member of AfD - she describes herself as libertarian - but acknowledges speaking at a recent AfD event.
Her path to Heartland began in November with a speech at EIKE, a Munich think tank whose vice president is a prominent AfD politician. By then, Seibt was already active on YouTube, producing videos on topics ranging from migration to feminism to climate change. In the audience was Heartland's Taylor. He said he immediately recognized her potential and approached her about working with Heartland.
Founded in 1984 and funded largely by anonymous donors, Heartland has increasingly focused on climate change over the past decade. Its staff and researchers have ready access to the Trump administration, and one of the institute's senior fellows, William Happer, served as a senior director on the White House National Security Council between September 2018 and 2019.
An emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University, Happer has repeatedly argued that carbon emissions should be viewed as beneficial to society - not a pollutant that drives global warming. During his time with the Trump administration, he sought to enlist Heartland's help in promoting his ideas and objected to a U.S. intelligence official's finding that climate impacts could be "possibly catastrophic," according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Why would an American think tank want to get involved in German politics? Because it worries that Berlin's strong stance on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions could be contagious, according to a recent investigation aired on German television.
For two decades, Germany has been a leader in pressing other nations to curb carbon output and shift to renewable energy. Though it is falling short of its ambitious goals, Germany has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions this year by 40% compared with 1990 - and by up to 95% by mid-century.
In December, during the Madrid climate conference, two undercover staffers from the nonprofit investigative newsroom CORRECTIV approached Taylor and claimed to work for a wealthy donor from the auto industry who wanted to give Heartland a half-million euros. Taylor took the bait and followed up with a three-page proposal outlining a campaign to push back against German efforts to regulate emissions.
"These restrictive environmental programs are largely unnecessary," says the document, a copy of which was obtained by The Post. "Worse, other nations - including the United States and European Union nations - are increasingly being influenced by unwise German policy."
The proposal described Seibt as "the star" of a "Climate Reality Forum" organized by Heartland during the Madrid talks. With "over 100,000 people viewing her talk on climate realism," the proposal said, Seibt was well-positioned to fight German climate policies.
"Funding for our Germany Environmental Issues project will enable Heartland to provide Naomi with the equipment and the sources she needs to present a series of effective videos calling attention to the negative impacts of overreaching environmental regulations," the proposal says.
CORRECTIV aired its report on Heartland earlier this month on German TV. Taylor dismissed the report, saying, "Heck, I would have spoken with them if they told us who they were, and the answers would have been pretty much the same."
The report included secretly filmed footage of Seibt, who struck back with her own video response. Invoking Greta, she said, "To the media, I have a few last words: How dare you?"
Despite echoes of Greta's style, Seibt has objected to the comparison.
"The reason I don't like the term anti-Greta is that it suggests I myself am an indoctrinated puppet, I guess, for the other side," she says in one video. Asked whether she meant that as a criticism of Greta, Seibt says: "That sounds kind of mean, actually." She added: "I don't want to shame her in any way."
Taylor said the tendency to associate Seibt with Greta is "kind of natural" - and benefits Heartland's message.
"To the extent that Naomi is pretty much the same, just with a different perspective, yeah, I think that it's good that people will look at the two as similar in many ways," he said.
Still, Seibt has a long climb to reach the level of global attention lavished on Greta. While Greta measures her social media following in the millions, Seibt counts slightly under 50,000 YouTube subscribers.
Through her representatives, Greta declined to comment.
- - -
Video embed code
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/HxX-1cWSvVc" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Video Embed Code
Video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/video/national/activist-greta-thunberg-on-how-to-make-sure-the-world-does-not-give-up-the-climate-fight/2019/09/13/562421d5-d1f3-4335-ac87-f9b7eae62545_video.html(REF:elkerj/The Washington Post)
Embed code: <iframe src="https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/562421d5-d1f3-4335-ac87-f9b7eae62545?ptvads=block&playthrough=false" width="480" height="290" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>
RICHMOND, Va. - An unlikely alliance between a black Democrat and white Republicans from the opposite end of the state has Virginia poised to pull the lever on casino gambling after decades of resisting its lure.
The Senate and House of Delegates have approved versions of a complicated bill that would permit casinos in five cities - and potentially a casino-like slot machine palace in Prince William County.
The effort has drawn criticism for not requiring competition for lucrative licenses, defying the recommendation of a state commission that studied the issue. Instead, the legislation largely would reward a small group of investors and interests who already had relationships with many of the cities involved.
The web of compromises, if it lasts, was born out of economic desperation. It emerged as a byproduct of the state's effort to revive horse racing, and took root amid the distractions of unrelated scandals that engulfed the executive branch last year. Now big-monied gambling outfits are descending on Richmond to help push the legislation through.
"This is one of the biggest undertakings that we will consider this year," Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, said recently - no small claim as the General Assembly chases history in areas from gun control to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Virginia is one of 10 states that have no casinos. Even as its electorate has become more diverse and socially liberal, lawmakers have clung to a suspicion of gaming that transcends partisanship. They cracked the door for a state lottery, whose proceeds go to schools, and for horse racing, which has a history in Virginia dating to Colonial times.
State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, has been fighting the suspicion for 25 years, convinced that a casino would inject new life into her struggling city.
"This bill passing would be like our Amazon," Lucas recently told a Senate committee, referring to the massive headquarters operation the online retailer is bringing to Northern Virginia. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Last year, she finally connected with people as desperate as she was. Together they had the political clout to move the issue forward, plus one more attribute that didn't hurt: a partner with deep pockets for campaign contributions.
- - -
The cities of Portsmouth and Bristol are nearly 400 miles apart and seem to share little beyond a Virginia address. Portsmouth is a majority-black, urban seaport; Bristol is white and in the rural foothills of the Appalachians. One gave the world Ruth Brown and Missy Elliott, the other the Carter Family and the birth of country music.
"But the similarities . . . are remarkable," said Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, whose district includes Bristol. "We have depressed economies. Our schools are antiquated. . . .We have the exact same needs."
Bristol suffered as the coal industry collapsed in southwestern Virginia. Stumbling from one failed economic development gambit to another, the isolated city - a five-hour drive from Richmond - is mired in debt.
Portsmouth is dominated by Norfolk across the Elizabeth River on one side and the sprawling suburban city of Chesapeake on the other. Much of its prime waterfront real estate is government property - a Navy complex and Virginia port facilities, which don't contribute to the local tax base.
Lucas has long preached that a casino would bring jobs and visitors to break the economic straitjacket. Two years ago, leaders in Bristol reached the same conclusion.
Randall Eads, a lawyer with no background in municipal administration, took over as Bristol city manager with promises to turn the city's vacant shopping mall into a facility for growing medical marijuana. And he talked with the mall's new owners - wealthy coal barons - about opening a casino.
Though Bristol bristles with conservative churches, local residents were willing to support the plan if it meant jobs.
Last year, the area's Republican lawmakers connected with Lucas. Their timing was perfect. The General Assembly had opened what amounted to a back door for casino gaming.
- - -
Eager to revive the horse racing industry, lawmakers had approved a deal to secure a new owner for the shuttered Colonial Downs track in New Kent County. The buyer argued that the venture would be economically viable only if it included off-track betting facilities around the state stocked with "historical horse racing" machines.
Those devices are not technically games of chance. They're based on the outcomes of actual races from years past, anonymized so the player can wager using blind statistics. That comforted a broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats who supported the plan as a way to boost agriculture and bring jobs to low-income areas.
In truth, though, most players skip the stats on those machines and just let colorful symbols spin - exactly like a slot machine. The result is a network of Rosie's Gaming Emporiums - in New Kent, Richmond, Hampton and near Roanoke - that look, sound and operate like slots-only casinos.
That was close enough for Lucas. She trumpeted her alliance with the southwestern Virginia lawmakers as a broad new political base for actual casinos. And others wanted in.
The southern city of Danville, desperate for economic development since textile and furniture industries fled, also asked to roll the casino dice. The Pamunkey Indians, who were planning to seek a casino under federal law, worried they would be left out in Virginia's sudden push. So the tribe lay claim to possible sites in Norfolk and Richmond.
That made five localities - Bristol, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Richmond and Danville - jockeying for position.
And the state Capitol was distracted. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, was under fire for a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook depicting someone in blackface and another person in Klan robes. Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, had admitted to his own youthful blackface incident. And Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, was denying claims that he had sexually assaulted two women in separate incidents in the early 2000s.
Faced with the complicated issue of gambling amid a media circus, the legislature took a cautious route: it commissioned a study.
- - -
The delay prompted casino interests to start spending. In the 2018-19 election cycle, when every seat in the legislature was on the ballot, casino advocates donated more than $1.7 million to politicians of both major parties, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. That's up from $56,000 four years before.
Most of the increase came from companies or executives affiliated with Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacey, coal barons backing the Bristol casino effort, according to VPAP data.
McGlothlin is no stranger to Richmond - he and his wife, Frances, are major benefactors of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He was briefly caught up in the money-for-access scandal involving then-Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, after questions were raised about a $36,000 payment from McGlothlin's company to McDonnell's wife.
Gambling-related companies also rushed to sign up lobbyists, boosting their total to 53 this year from 23 the year before, according to a VPAP analysis.
The study requested from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission projected that five casinos could generate $260 million yearly in state taxes "and have a positive, but modest impact on local economies." The state lottery and charitable gaming would lose some revenue, while horse racing would take a huge hit.
If the state really wanted to rake in cash, the commission said, it would put a casino in northern Virginia and capture business flowing across the Potomac to the MGM Grand casino at Maryland's National Harbor.
The report urged a competitive bidding process for awarding gaming licenses to maximize value and "minimize risks to the state, localities, and the public."
But that's not what's happening.
The bills advancing this year would let the five cities pick their development partners and then hold a local referendum on whether to allow the project. Only Danville is planning an open competition. Portsmouth, Norfolk and Bristol all have partners in place. Richmond, under the proposed laws, would choose between two favorites.
No other localities are eligible.
That aggravated a nasty spat in Bristol, where another developer has proposed a casino outside city limits. Steve Johnson, who built a successful retail center just across the line in Tennessee, is working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on a possible casino in Virginia's Washington County - but neither the House bill nor the one in the Senate would allow that project.
Johnson has accused Bristol officials of stealing his idea, and he complains that the legislation ignores sound principles advocated by the commission report.
"We are not asking the General Assembly to pick our project," Johnson said via text message. "The General Assembly shouldn't be in the business of picking projects, we just want there to be a competitive process that gives everyone a fair shot."
- - -
Others have rushed to get into the game before it's too late. Alfred Liggins of Maryland's Urban One radio, which has a stake in the MGM Grand, traveled to Richmond to protest that none of the proposed casino projects features African American ownership, even though many would be in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Lawmakers added language to the bills calling for any Richmond casino to give extra weight to a project with minority ownership. But the bills also tell the city to give priority to the casino proposed by the Pamunkey tribe and to any proposal from Colonial Downs, which has protested that its off-track betting parlors could soon be outmoded by casinos.
The racetrack got language inserted in the House bill allowing it to bring up to 2,500 more historical horse racing machines to the state, including 1,800 at a proposed parlor in Dumfries, in Prince William County. The Senate has prohibited such an expansion, though, setting up a behind-the-scenes fight.
The bills are also wildly different on taxation, with the Senate opting for rates of up to 40%, depending on the size of the casino. Supporters of the Pamunkey proposal say such a high rate would squeeze out the tribe and favor only the biggest international gaming interests.
Sorting all that out could take the rest of the legislative session, which ends March 7. Some lawmakers are still opposed to the entire effort, from conservatives who frown on gambling to liberals who worry about preying on low-income consumers. Members of both major parties question the lack of competition.
Northam is "carefully reviewing" the proposed legislation, a spokeswoman said, and "does not have a position on any bill at this point."
But Lucas is confident that her long crusade is about to pay off.
"It's taken 20 years, 30 pounds and gray hair to get here," she said. "What I want to do right now is not do anything to put this bill in jeopardy."
As she hustled through the Capitol one recent afternoon, Lucas spotted Eads, the Bristol city manager, in town to press his case. She swerved over to give her unlikely partner a big hug.
"Thank you so much," Lucas said.
"It wouldn't have happened without you," Eads responded.