Meet professional climate change denier Lionel De Naille, chief science officer at the De Naille Foundation.I arrive at the Virginia Beach offices of the De Naille Foundation, enter the spacious white lobby and check in with the front desk receptionist, who flashes a dazzling white smile. Asked to wait a moment, I sit in one of four white leather Barcelona chairs arranged on a square white carpet. A low hum emanates from the building’s climate control system.
I’m here to meet Lionel De Naille (pronounced diˈnīəl), president and chief science officer of the De Naille Foundation. Recently, De Naille was accused of fabricating science to help his many fossil fuel clients avoid industry regulation. De Naille says he wants to “clear the air,” and has invited me to shadow him for a day to see the “important work we do here.”
On the lobby table is a copy of GQ magazine with the headline, “The Best Dressed Man in Science” emblazoned above a dashing photo of De Naille, in a tailored blue suit, gleefully firing up a prop bunsen burner.
When De Naille greets me, he looks dapper indeed. His handshake is firm.
“See you’ve been eyeing my GQ,” he says. “I got that suit, and this one, on Savile Row. One-hundred percent Merino wool. Invented by Dan Marino, I believe.”
We enter Dr. De Naille’s corner office. Through the plastic vertical blinds is a stunning view of the Atlantic. Storm clouds loom on the horizon. Earlier today a hurricane warning was issued for the area.
Behind his desk, De Naille leans back in his executive chair and shoots me a smile. “As you know, we publish reports—scientific reports—about climate change.”
His phone rings and he lifts a finger, asking me to hold that thought. He pushes a button. “Speakerphone,” he says “to show you I have nothing to hide.”
A secretary’s voice comes on the line.
“Dr. De Naille, we cleared that check from Southern Coal. So I can buy your ostrich boots.”
“Thanks—good to know!” De Naille hangs up and folds his hands in a thoughtful steeple. Before I can ask my first question, he dives in.
“We’re not denying climate change.” He un-steeples his hands. “I mean we were. But that was only for, what, 30 years—ago. Now we’re making a pivot.”
“What kind of pivot?” I ask.
“It’s no longer whether climate change is, y’know, a thing or not a thing. It’s more like, okay, maybe it is a thing, but even if it is, it’s not because of anything we’re doing. I mean the royal we. Mankind.”
He leans forward. “There’s a scientific term for climate change that isn’t caused by man.” He taps his forehead, a trace of panic in his eyes as if the word has suddenly escaped him. “Anthro—anthropogenic! YES!” He slaps his knee and grins. “That’s the scientific term for it.” He straightens his tie. “It might be happening. Maybe. But not because we’re doing anything. Whatever we’re doing, it has no bearing.”
“Like burning coal?”
“Maybe like that, or something else. Doesn’t matter. It’s not anthropogenic.”
“So a guy doesn’t have to feel guilty about leaving all the lights on at home, driving his SUV to Outback Steakhouse, and ordering the surf and turf?”
“Are you kidding?” De Naille laughs wildly and slaps his knee. “Take the liberty. It’s your birthright like Jefferson said. By the way, I drive a Jeep Liberty, fully loaded. You can probably see it in the parking lot. Yeah. There it is. Charcoal leather interior. Coordinates with my wardrobe.”
On a side table in De Naille’s office are several framed photos of him arm in arm with famous people, luminaries like David Koch, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Clinton.
Next to them are six bottles of cologne. “Is this your cologne?” I touch one of the square frosted-glass bottles.
De Naille’s face brightens. “Ah yes, my new fragrance—De Naille for Men. Give it a whiff.”
It’s overwhelmingly flowery. The pain in my nose reminds of a time in junior high when a friend tricked me into sniffing smelling salts.
“It’s designed to mask any man’s smell. I tested it on my employees. The stinkiest ones!” He chortles and punches me lightly on the shoulder. “It’s just a little sideline I do while I’m here—I mean on my own time, of course.” He shoves the bottles into a desk drawer.
Our next stop is a weekly status update with the foundation’s global account managers. The meeting room is large, and antiseptic in its blankness. In the center is a table of polished faux mahogany, surrounded by a dozen black leather executive chairs. The room is a perfect 70 degrees. No one else is here.
De Naille takes a seat at the head of the conference table and gestures for me to sit. He punches a code into the phone system. Some beeping, a bit of static. “Laura, are you on the line?”
Laura comes on, her voice bright and slightly harried. “Hi everybody! Sorry if I sound a little rushed, I’ve been putting out some fires spreading to our building from the inferno consuming the building next to us.”
“Wait, Laura, the building’s on fire?” De Naille brushes a speck of lint from his lapel.
“No fire—just smoke now! Should clear up any minute.”
De Naille sighs and starts drumming his fingers on the table, clearly impatient with to get on with things. “Well, that’s good to hear. Take a moment to gather your, um, self.” He brightens his tone. “Tommy, how are things in India?!”
A salesman’s smooth baritone comes from the speaker. “Excellent! Bhopal is turning the corner.”
“Fantastic! Marisa, can you give us a one-sentence status report preceded by a positive adjective?”
Marisa’s voice is reminiscent of June Cleaver’s. “Wonderful! Our client’s entire fleet of delivery vans is under the floodwaters, and I sent out a press release informing the world that if any of the drivers are found floating face down, their bodies are NOT to be left on our client’s doorstep, as these drivers are subcontractors and we are not responsible for them or their remains.”
“Love it!” De Naille applauds briefly. “Um, unfortunately Joe hasn’t joined us yet, so I’m gonna see if we can’t get him on the line.”
De Naille punches some numbers into his phone. We hear Joe’s voicemail message: “Hi, you’ve reached Joe Regan at the De Naille Foundation. I am currently en route to Chicago, where my grandfather suffered a heat stroke after his air conditioner broke down. If this is a true business emergency, text me at this number; otherwise I will get back to you as soon as humanly possible.”
De Naille clears his throat. “Uh, listen up team, sounds like Joe’s not going to make today’s call.”
Laura asks, “What did he say about his grandfather?”
“Nothing.” De Naille clenches his jaw. “I mean, nothing that should slow us down – the important work we’re all doing. Remember, without us, people would’ve thought climate change was real years ago. Or worse.”
“That it’s anthropo—” Tommy interjects, but stumbles on the word.
“Anthropogenic,” De Naille corrects him. “Exactly. That’s the scientific term for it, and we need to put that word front and center in our reports now. Okay, people?”
A chorus of “okays” rings out from everyone on the call.
After a productive day spent at Foundation headquarters, Dr. De Naille wants to show me his house on Virginia Beach. I demur—it’s been a long day—but he insists I come along, so I can see he’s “really just a regular guy.”
We ride along the shore in his Jeep Liberty. A pine tree-shaped air freshener dangles from the rearview mirror. Outside, massive winds whip the seas. The Liberty is buffeted across the road by a strong gust.
“Whoa, Nellie! Wind’s picking up, ain’t it?” De Naille steers us back into our lane.
We arrive at a large white house, which can best be described as a mini Monticello. We pull into the circular drive, and see that a tall tree has fallen, punching through the façade. De Naille sits next to me, staring at the destruction, seemingly unable to wipe the frozen smile from his face.
“Is that your house?”
He doesn’t answer. He opens the door and climbs out of the Liberty.
Buffeted by angry winds, we approach De Naille’s destroyed house. A call from one of my colleagues confirms: An evacuation order has just been issued for the area. The hurricane’s path has shifted and we’re staring right down the barrel.
I inform De Naille of the news. His expression takes on new resolve. “Can you help me rescue something from inside?”
One wall of the master bedroom has been cleaved away by the tree. Wind and rain rip through the place. Undisturbed on the opposite wall is an antique oak armoire. De Naille flings it open. It’s filled with luxury suits, shirts, and cowboy boots made from exotic animal skins. De Naille calls my attention to two dozen bottles of cologne.
“Help me rescue these bottles of De Naille for Men!” he screams, wind whipping through his hair. I freeze in disbelief, then shake myself free. Numbly, I untuck my shirt and use the tails to gather up the bottles, as De Naille piles them in.
Without another word, we walk away from the shattered house, past the fallen tree, and back to the flooded road, bottles of De Naille rattling the whole way.