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Controversy at the Heartland Institute

by Kaitlin Alexander | University in Canada

F Posted in: News and Politics P Posted on: February 24, 2012
pollution Image courtesy of Flickr, pirr

This Valentine’s Day, one of the most vocal lobby groups attacking the science of climate change had its internal documents leaked to the public – exposing its sources of funding, secret projects, strategies, and goals for the world to see.

Manufacturing Doubt

You’re probably aware of the influences of corporate-funded lobby groups on social issues. They seek to bring down public health insurance, lower taxes for the wealthy, and prevent environmental regulation. They publish advertisements, print op-eds, and meet with politicians, all in an attempt to advance a free-market agenda. More often than not, they’re backed by corporate interests – pharmaceutical companies, tobacco firms, and the oil industry, to name a few.

You might question the fairness of allowing certain people to amplify their voices simply because they have more money, but at least these lobby groups are spreading around legitimate ideas. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion on matters of public policy, and nobody can be “right” or “wrong”. However, on matters of science, there is a physical reality out there, so people can be wrong. Try arguing that your incorrect answer on a physics assignment deserves full marks, because it represents your personal opinion on the photoelectric effect. You probably won’t get very far.

Unfortunately, certain lobby groups have a long history of promoting blatant falsehoods about areas of science that threaten their free-market fundamentalism. Everything from the harmful health effects of smoking to the causes of acid rain to the consequences of the pesticide DDT has been attacked by these groups. The strategy has been the same every time: repeat long-debunked myths ad nauseum, overemphasize uncertainty, and question the integrity of scientists studying the issue.

Human-caused climate change is currently the most fashionable scientific phenomenon to deny. Although 97-98% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm, public acceptance lags far behind, and is heavily split along political lines. Scientists have investigated and ruled out every conceivable alternative hypothesis for global warming – so why aren’t their conclusions reaching the public? The answer is that other influences are getting in the way, muddying the message for their own financial and ideological benefit.

The Front-Runner

In recent years, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute has led the way in this crusade against climate science. Their communication style seems to be “quantity, not quality”: whatever rumour currently claims to disprove global warming will be picked up and amplified by the Heartland Institute, whether or not it contradicts previous statements from the organization. For example, they will frequently claim in the same document that 1) the world is cooling and 2) global warming is caused by the sun. Logically, you can’t have it both ways. However, doubt, not logic, is the goal here – if a message casts doubt on the scientific consensus, it qualifies for the Heartland newsletter.

This lobby group’s extreme conservative agenda is apparent in paranoid overtones about socialist conspiracies and bigger government. “If AGW [anthropogenic global warming] is true,” they write, “then stopping or preventing it requires higher taxes, more income redistribution, more wilderness preservation, more regulations on corporations, ‘smart growth,’ subsidies for renewable energy, and on and on…[we] ‘looked under the hood’ and concluded concern over the possibility of catastrophic global warming was being manufactured to advance a political agenda.”

Heartland has accepted thousands of dollars in funding from oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, and industrial giants, such as the Koch brothers. However, most of the funding for their climate change projects now comes from a single individual, who is obviously extremely wealthy, and currently anonymous.

A Scientist Steps In

Enter Dr. Peter Gleick, a prominent climate scientist and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. He has had run-ins with the Heartland Institute before, and – like many scientists in the field – is deeply disturbed by their disinformation campaigns. So when he received an anonymous package in the mail in 2012, containing a confidential memo that appeared to be from the Heartland Institute, he was intrigued.

The memo, entitled “Heartland Climate Strategy”, contained many phrases that would later raise eyebrows. Perhaps most distressingly, Heartland was planning to bring denial into the classroom, by developing a school curriculum “that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science”. They were also hoping to pursue funding from “corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies” – presumably the fossil fuel industry – and to continue sponsoring the NIPCC reports, whose purpose was “to undermine the official United Nation’s IPCC reports” (widely considered to be the most authoritative reviews of climate science in existence).

Finally, Heartland discussed its “funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message”, and more general coordination with “groups capable of rapidly mobilizing responses to new scientific findings, news stories, or unfavorable blog posts”. To those familiar with who’s who in the world of climate denial, the list of people and groups Heartland mentioned supporting were extremely enlightening. At the end of the document, Dr. Gleick discovered why the memo had been sent to him in particular – Heartland was bemoaning the fact that Gleick had published articles in Forbes magazine. “This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out,” wrote Heartland – a rather hypocritical statement from an organization that regularly accuses the mainstream media of censoring their views.

This memo was certainly very interesting, but was it authentic? It could have been faked by someone seeking to discredit Heartland. Gleick wasn’t willing to spread around the document unless and until he thought it was legitimate. And out of frustration, he went one step too far: in what he now describes as “a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics”, he pretended to be a Heartland board member, and requested that Heartland send several other documents to his “new email address”, which they did.

These actions were unethical, and possibly illegal, but they raise some interesting moral questions. Is it acceptable to lie in order to expose a bigger lie? Where does investigative journalism end and unjustified dishonesty begin? Since Gleick identified himself and apologized for his actions, he has been demonized by Heartland and its allies, but others have described him as a “whistleblower” who put his reputation on the line in order to uncover the truth. We must also consider whether scientists are being judged more harshly than lobby groups. As activist Naomi Klein tweeted, “What about the fact the Heartland Institute impersonates a scientific organization every day?”

Release and Reactions

The documents that Dr. Gleick obtained by email, including a budget, a fundraising plan, and minutes from board meetings, confirmed many of the contents of the Climate Strategy memo. Names, monetary figures, and project descriptions all matched up perfectly. Satisfied that the Climate Strategy memo was legitimate, he scanned it, and sent all the documents anonymously to DeSmogBlog, a Vancouver-based website composed of journalists that seek to expose the financial and ideological motivations behind the climate change denial movement. DeSmogBlog published the documents on Valentine’s Day, and they went viral within hours.

The Heartland Institute was outraged. They insisted that the Climate Strategy document was fake, a claim for which they provided no evidence and which has since been contested. They threatened legal action against anyone who dared report, link to, or comment on the leaked documents – an obvious scare tactic to prevent the story spreading. (Such threats have no legal basis, otherwise the media would not have been able to write about governmental memos from Wikileaks, which were illegally obtained.)

It’s interesting to note Heartland’s hypocrisy in this situation. Several years ago, when emails from climate scientists were stolen and published online, the Heartland Institute was of the first and loudest voices to report, link to, and comment on the emails (in this case, completely out of context), in a blatant attempt to discredit climate science right before the Copenhagen Summit. Where is that attitude of freedom of speech and information now?

The Fallout

Whether or not the Climate Strategy memo was faked, the contents of the other documents have spurred a public pushback against Heartland. There have been calls for federal hearings regarding the flow of money in the organization, and complaints to the IRS to revoke Heartland’s tax-free status as a charitable foundation.

Does this incident matter, in the grand scheme of things? Not really. Climate science will continue to show that the Earth is warming, humans are the cause, and the consequences will be severe. Lobby groups will continue to attack these conclusions. However, it’s high time that we looked at these lobby groups a little more closely.

Kaitlin Alexander Kaitlin Alexander Kaitlin Alexander is a B.Sc. student and aspiring climatologist from Canada. She serves as NextGen Journal's Climate Correspondent and blogs at http://climatesight.org.

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