After decades of intense public debate and misinformation campaigns, nearly three-quarters of Americans now accept that climate change is happening; not only that, more than half understand it is caused by human activity. This shift has forced fossil fuel companies — and the organizations they fund — to alter their tactics to avoid regulation. Where they once denied climate science outright, companies now engage in “discourses of delay,” publicly accepting the science but working to stall climate policy by redirecting blame, pushing non-transformative solutions, and emphasizing the downsides of taking action.
But the Heartland Institute, the infamous, free-market think tank that has operated at the center of climate misinformation for decades, is still hanging onto the old ways as it pushes on with its attempt to discredit established climate science.
This week, the organization sent copies of its book “Climate at a Glance” to 8,000 middle and high school teachers across the country, in order to provide them, it says, with “the data to show the earth is not experiencing a climate crisis.”
H. Sterling Burnett, who directs Climate and Environmental Policy for the Heartland Institute and edited “Climate at a Glance,” said he hoped the book would reach educators who are teaching climate change, “not to replace the material they have, but to supplement it.”
But science education advocates aren’t too worried about the impact of the materials.
“This is not Heartland’s first rodeo,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the non-profit National Center for Science Education, which promotes and defends accurate science education. “In previous campaigns, the bulk of teachers and students who received the materials threw them out or put them in the recycling bin.”
The institute’s last big mailout was in 2017 when it sent out 350,000 copies of its “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.” According to Branch, while only a few picked up the information and taught from it, a number of educators used the materials in their classrooms to teach about propaganda techniques. Branch also thinks the fact that this year’s campaign is so scaled back from the 2017 mailout means even Heartland itself recognizes this as a failing strategy.
The new 80-page document, presented in the style of a slick and authoritative textbook, covers 30 climate topics often discussed in science classes. Many of the sections acknowledge modest planetary warming, but assert that it is either good for species and ecosystems, or doesn’t really have the impacts on extreme weather events that climate scientists say it does.
“They typically give a straightforward observation or statistic that’s not in dispute and add some commentary that’s wildly exaggerated or a completely false interpretation,” said Branch. A section on crop production, for example, notes how a longer growing season improves yields; it does not acknowledge the net-negative impact of a hotter, drier climate and extreme precipitation on agriculture in the long term. A page on sea-level rise says “levels have been rising at a fairly steady pace since at least the mid-1800s,” but the rate has actually more than doubled in the 2000s when compared to most of the 20th century.
“It’s a misleading interpretation of scientific facts and questionable inferences drawn from cherry picked data from unreliable sources,” said Robert Brulle, a visiting professor of sociology at Brown University who has researched the public relations strategies of the fossil fuel industry. “It almost seems quaint that they’re still running with this. It’s like ‘The 1990s called. They want their scientific misinformation back.’”
Burnett defends the institute’s new booklet. “People say ‘oh, you don’t have the proper context’,” he said, “but that’s their opinion on what the proper context should be.”
Founded in Chicago in 1984, the Heartland Institute received hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies and industrial billionaires the Koch brothers until association with outright science denial started to become more of a liability for the industry. The last of the big oil companies mostly gave up on funding extreme climate denial groups like Heartland around 2007, said Brulle. Any direct links that might still exist would be hard to find; climate misinformation has historically been funded and spread through a network of front groups, and Heartland no longer discloses its major supporters. While its revenue has declined over the years, it still receives millions from conservative foundations and philanthropies.
“What Heartland is hoping for is to catch those who haven’t been equipped to understand climate science well enough to realize the highly misleading nature of the materials,” said Branch. A survey from 2015 found that about 57 percent of high school and middle school science educators have not formally studied climate change. As states increasingly add climate change to their science standards, Branch hopes to see more states follow in the path of Washington, California, Maine, and New Jersey in appropriating funds for teacher professional development on the issue, which would equip them with the tools to identify misinformation.
Even if teachers today are unlikely to fall for Heartland’s claims, the organization’s messaging could still help the fossil fuel industry in a roundabout way. In social science there’s a theory called the radical flank effect, explained Brulle, where a position that is perceived as extreme can be made to look more moderate by a position that is even more extreme.
“If Exxon Mobil is saying ‘climate change is probably real and it can cause harm, but we can adapt,’ without Heartland, they’re the extremists,” said Brulle. “But if Heartland is out there saying ‘climate change is going to be good for us,’ it makes the major oil companies look moderate and reasonable.”