Stepping into the Heartland Institute’s “2008 International Conference on Climate Change” was like walking into an alternate reality. To the rest of us, climate science is settled, the solutions are sensible, and the time for action is now. But in the Marriott Grand Marquis Times Square, the only science comes from industry-funded think tanks; climate action will destroy humanity; and the underdog in this fight is ExxonMobil.

Perhaps more accurate than alternative reality, the event was about denying reality. Global warming isn’t an abstract possibility. It’s already raised temperatures, stressing species from salmon to moose, triggering more intense storms, and raising sea levels. Congress isn’t debating climate; it’s moved on to finding solutions.

Talking to speakers here as I’ve blogged the event for the National Wildlife Federation, I’ve found they’re loosely sorted into three categories, based on their views:

  1. Those who say global warming is not happening at all
  2. Those who say global warming is happening, but it’s not due to human activity
  3. Those who say global warming is happening and it is due to human activity, but climate action will surely destroy our economy

The one thing everyone here agrees on is that we must not do anything to reduce our carbon-dioxide emissions. Quite convenient for the oil industry, which has provided major funding to the conference’s sponsors.

Where does all the money come from? While the Heartland Institute no longer discloses its funders, ExxonSecrets.org reports data linking $7.5 million in Exxon funding from 1998-2006 to the Heartland Institute and many of the event’s cosponsors. Sourcewatch also reports Heartland receives major funding from the tobacco industry, receiving $240,000 from Philip Morris (a.k.a. Altria) from 1993-1998 alone.

DeSmogBlog reports the global warming denier-tobacco connections don’t stop there. Click through their exhaustive research on the conference’s speakers and you’ll find plenty of tobacco ties. Tobacco campaigns paid off doctors and scientists, successfully confusing the public for decades. Now the energy industry is following in the tobacco industry’s footsteps, trying to muddy the waters on global warming.

But the more I’ve listened to these speakers, the more I’ve realized that for most of them, it’s not about the science. Panels don’t go five minutes without attacking Al Gore or comparing climate activists to socialists who want to destroy capitalism. Deniers are part of a political culture that frames the world in terms of left and right, so they’ve absorbed global warming into that broader paradigm of partisan politics.

As National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger says, “Confronting global warming is not an issue of left and right. It’s a matter of right and wrong.” We have a moral responsibility to confront climate change now to protect our children’s future. And many of the same solutions that will ease our planet’s fever — renewable energy, more efficient vehicles, green homes and offices — will create millions of green collar jobs, make America more energy independent, and clean our air and water.

Fortunately, while muddying the waters may play well on Rush Limbaugh, it’s falling flat in the halls of Congress. Senators like John Warner, Norm Coleman, and Elizabeth Dole recognize that climate action is not a partisan issue. They’re joining a bipartisan coalition supporting the Climate Security Act, a bill that would establish a cap-and-trade system to cut our carbon emissions. It’s a strong bill that the National Wildlife Federation is fighting to strengthen and pass. And while President Bush has stonewalled on climate action, every one of the leading presidential contenders has expressed support for mandatory cuts in carbon emissions.

So maybe the deniers should keep playing to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Pretty soon, those may be the only allies they’ll have left.