The self-inflicted downfall of the Heartland Institute
A version of this post originally appeared on Climate Progress.
“I don’t appreciate being called a terrorist,” the woman said firmly.
I was standing outside the Hilton Chicago hotel talking to Jim Lakely, the director of communications for the Heartland Institute, when an elderly woman approached us on the street. Dressed in a business suit, she was loading her luggage into a taxi when she noticed Lakely’s Heartland name badge and interrupted our conversation.
“We can have a civil discussion. But I really don’t like being labeled a terrorist,” she said, referencing a billboard posted by Heartland equating people who believe in global warming to the Unabomber. “That’s all I wanted to say.”
“Well, I appreciate you telling me that,” said Lakely, who was taking a break from managing Heartland’s conference to watch the 60 or so people protesting the event outside the hotel.
The woman, who was wearing a badge for a different conference, got into her taxi and drove away. There was a brief moment of awkward silence between Lakely and me.
The exchange perfectly encapsulated the public-relations disaster the Heartland Institute has created for itself over the last few weeks. The downfall started with an offensive billboard campaign on May 3, and ended with 11 companies pulling support for the organization — stripping 35 percent its of corporate funds overnight and leaving its financial future uncertain.
The dramatic drop in support was facilitated by the advocacy organization Forecast the Facts, which collected more than 150,000 signatures from people calling on corporate donors to end their relationship with Heartland. Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Verizon, Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, and the Credit Union National Association are the latest to announce that they will not fund the Heartland Institute, bringing the total number of defecting companies to 15.
This series of events built on an earlier incident in which Peter Gleick, a scientist with the Pacific Institute, faked his identity to acquire internal documents from the Heartland Institute. Those documents showed that the organization planned to secretly develop school curriculum to spread doubt about the causes of climate change. It also opened up a window to the organization’s donors, which were forced to make a decision about whether or not they wanted to be associated with Heartland’s tactics.
And then yesterday, the other shoe dropped. In his closing speech, Heartland President Joseph Bast announced that the organization does not have the money to continue putting on its hallmark climate conference — an event that had become a rallying point for an insulated group of climate disinformers.
“I hope to see you at a future conference, but at this point we have no plans to do another [International Conference on Climate Change],” said Bast, explaining that Heartland was struggling to meet expenses.
The cancellation marks the end of an era — albeit a short era — for the oddball world of organized climate change denial.
The event was started in 2008 as a way to organize libertarians — many of whom believe that taking action on climate change would create a one-world government dominated by the United Nations.
Heartland tried hard to label the event a “science” conference. But the presentations were almost always political, peppered with anti-government rhetoric and conspiracy theories.
“We’re in a war. We’re in a war against our standard of living,” said Walt Cunningham, a former NASA astronaut, speaking in a morning session on Tuesday.
“There’s not a lot of science here,” said Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist from Colorado State University who attended the event last year to present the so-called “warmist” case. Neither Denning nor any of the other 97 percent of climate scientists who say human activity is warming the planet presented at this year’s conference.
In fact, none of this year’s top speakers had any background in climate science. Instead, they spoke about the issues in highly conspiratorial terms.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus, a former economist who gave the keynote address on Monday, called environmentalism “identical to communism — identical, not similar.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the featured keynote speaker for Tuesday, asked if we “need to put catalytic converters on our noses” by addressing heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
And following Sensenbrenner’s nonsensical remarks, Heartland brought up “special mystery guest” Lord Christopher Monckton, who admitted at the beginning of his speech that he has “no scientific qualification” to challenge climate science. He then performed a comedy routine in which he questioned the legitimacy of President Obama’s citizenship — a joke that brought the room to full applause.
These fringe views made even Heartland senior staffers very nervous. After the billboard debacle, the leader of Heartland’s Washington, D.C., office, Eli Lehrer, left the organization and brought six staff members with him, saying the campaign “didn’t reflect the seriousness which I want to bring to public policy.”
But Heartland’s leadership twisted the knife into their self-inflicted wound with a decision to keep repeating their extreme rhetoric in the lead-up to the conference — later calling Bill McKibben and Michael Mann “Madmen.”
The rapid unraveling of Heartland forced it to scale down the conference, and seemingly kept attendees away. This year, only around 300 people showed up — a decrease from the 500 people at its first conference in 2008.
Despite the subdued mood, Rep. Sensenbrenner tried to rally the remaining troops during his Tuesday speech.
“Things are a lot better now than they were three years ago,” he said, referencing the failure to pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill and potential expiration of the Kyoto Protocol.
Things certainly weren’t better for Heartland. The following afternoon, the organization announced its decision to abandon the entire conference due to lack of funds and a backlash from corporate donors.
But Sensenbrenner was right about one thing: The public dialogue has moved dramatically backward in the last three years, driven largely by the aggressive disinformation tactics of the climate denial community — and enabled by the Obama administration’s decision to stop talking about the issue and the media’s decision to sharply curtail coverage.
While the dissolution of Heartland’s conference may be considered a “win” for those concerned about the spread of junk science and disinformation, there are still plenty of allies in industry and the halls of Congress willing to take up the denial cause.
Get Grist in your inbox