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The New House Speaker Once Helped Force the Government to Pay for a Noah’s Ark Theme Park

And other adventures with Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It is perhaps less surprising who the House elected as its new speaker than the fact that they managed to actually elect someone at all. After 22 days, 14 failed candidates, and in mounting desperation and embarrassment, Republicans finally rallied — unanimously! — around Mike Johnson, a northern Louisiana lawmaker who’s been described as “obscure” and “largely unknown” even by his home-state newspaper.

Given that Johnson is the least experienced speaker in 140 years, that obscurity is understandable. With only four terms in the House under his belt, he doesn’t have much of a track record for the media to highlight in their scramble to publish Wednesday afternoon explainers. Generally, the impression has been that he is both “mild-mannered” enough for the moderates put off by the antics of Jim Jordan and far enough to the right to be palatable to the MAGA wing that ousted his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy. Johnson is “known for combining his hard-line views with a gentle style,” says The New York Times, while The Washington Postnotes his opposition to abortion, LGBT rights, aid for Ukraine, and the certification of the 2020 election results.

But go a little further back and things get odder. In 2014, Johnson worked free of charge as a lawyer for Ken Ham — “one of the world’s most notorious purveyors of pseudoscience,” according to Salon:

Ham and his tax-deductible organization Answers in Genesis have earned a fortune peddling new earth creationism, a belief that the entire universe is only 6,000 years old and that all of science — evolution, geology, archeology, physics, astronomy, among others — is informed by a deceptive God, a God who tempted humankind by planting observable, verifiable evidence — things like fossils and distant stars — in order to test our loyalty …

While creationism and climate denialism don’t necessarily overlap, Answers for Genesis extensively addresses climate change as being a “myth,” calling environmentalism a “false religion.” Ham has written, “We don’t need to fear that man will destroy the planet, as God wouldn’t let that happen anyway.”

Ham runs a Creation Museum in Kentucky, and sometime around 2014, he decided he wanted to expand it into “an enormous Noah’s Ark theme park,” Salon goes on:

There was just one problem, though: He couldn’t possibly raise enough money to build his park. So, he turned to the government for incentives … [But] there was this one tiny issue called the Establishment Clause, and believe it or not, it’s still against the law for the government to fork over a bunch of money to pay you to convert people to your religion, even if you’re throwing in a lazy river and a roller coaster at no additional charge.

Johnson, in his position as chief counsel of Freedom Guard, a religious liberty interest group, disagreed with this interpretation of the Establishment Clause, however, going as far as to write op-eds for Answers in Genesis that were published alongside Ham’s waxings on the sins of climate activism. Johnson eventually helped to sue the state of Kentucky for refusing to use government funds to build the Noah’s Ark theme park; Answers in Genesis won, and the park was built partially using tax incentives. Later, Ham would also sue his insurance company over, of all things, rain damage to the park’s replica ark.

Johnson, you’ll be shocked to learn, is also not a believer in the scientific consensus on human-driven climate change. As a lawmaker from an oil state, the fossil fuel industry makes up Johnson’s biggest campaign donors, E&E News points out. Johnson, meanwhile, has voiced standard-issue doubts about the whole climate change thing, musing that “driv[ing] SUVs” isn’t the problem and that statistically impossible weather patterns are due to “natural cycles over the span of the Earth’s history.” He has a 2% lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Still, even within more climate-skeptical circles, Johnson remains a bit of a question mark. When one “long-time [oil] industry official” was asked by Politico for an impression of the would-be speaker ahead of the final vote, the reply came, “Don’t know him too well, but glad they are hopefully getting someone into the job.” Another “long-time energy lobbyist” was similarly strapped when it came to offering any specific impressions, Politico’s Ben Lefebvre reports: At the very least, Johnson is “an [Louisiana State University] alumnus,” the lobbyist figured, “so that has to be good for the energy industry.”


Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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A new report forecasts a future where reefs go over a “tipping point.”

A coral reef in color and black and white.
Heatmap illustration/Getty Images

Coral reefs are a thing of wonder, both organism and underwater infrastructure that houses thousands of species of fish. They are also, as you might already know, in grave danger. Climate change is contributing to massive waves of coral bleaching around the world, from the Great Barrier Reef to the ocean off of Florida, where an extreme oceanic heat wave this year turned mile after mile of reef a ghostly white.

We’ve known about coral bleaching for years, but a new report out Wednesday draws fresh attention to corals’ plight, including reefs — along with ice sheets, rainforests, and ocean currents, among others — on a list of imminent climate “tipping points.” And if they go over the brink, the consequences could reach far beyond the ocean floor.

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