Inside the dark Heartland of climate denialism

James Brown put it best in a song: “Don’t tell a lie about me and I won’t tell the truth about you”.

A terrible crime has been committed against the libertarian US Heartland Institute. Someone has nefariously gotten hold of emails of a bunch of its internal documents and, I’m shocked to report, passed this confidential, sensitive information on to bad-minded journalists who specialise in reporting on climate change denialism.

The Heartland Institute is very, very upset (click here for the full teeth-gnashing statement). So much so that it is urging reporters and bloggers to remove the documents from their websites and stop quoting from them, since they “have not been authenticated”. So, dear readers, I guess I should stop writing now, since it would be grossly unfair to report on something that came into the public domain by underhand means, irrespective of its truthfulness or accuracy. When that same something allows us to finally shine a light right into the black heart of corporate-funded dirty denialism, I have two words for those who say I should stop now. Yeah, right.

“Disagreement over the causes, consequences, and best policy responses to climate change runs deep. We understand that,” Heartland wrote. “But honest disagreement should never be used to justify the criminal acts and fraud that occurred in the past 24 hours. As a matter of common decency and journalistic ethics, we ask everyone in the climate change debate to sit back and think about what just happened.” Common decency; did someone just put ‘Heartland Institute’ and ‘common decency’ in the same paragraph?

Oddly enough, its interest in due process, legality and, well, common decency, does not seem to stretch back as far as December 2009. At the time of the Climategate controversy, Heartland commented that the theft of those personal emails created “an opportunity for reporters, academics, politicians” to revise their belief in climate change.

Even better: “Those persons who posted these documents and wrote about them before we had a chance to comment on their authenticity should be ashamed of their deeds, and their bad behaviour should be taken into account when judging their credibility now and in the future”. Hmmm. Shame. Bad behaviour. Credibility. Just three terms the Institute wouldn’t recognise if they bit them on the ass.

So, what exactly have we learned today from the Institute’s little leak? (no illegal hacking and deliberate misrepresentation of a couple of phrases selectively culled from thousands of the stolen private emails of individuals, mind you, just a simple “could you email us those files to this address. Thanks, suckers!“). First, we got lots and lots of names of sponsoring individuals and companies who are quietly chipping in millions annually to keep this propaganda factory running.

Some of the names are surprising, even shocking. Microsoft and General Motors both make great play of greening their business, yet here they are, along with banks and pharma companies funding professional deniers to pass off their lies in the guise of official-looking ‘reports’ and ‘position papers’. The Heartland Institute (HI) was set up in Reagan-era 1984, and has been an enthusiastic defender of the freedom of polluters to pollute, the rich to crush the poor and the wholesale capture of America’s political classes by its plutocratic elite.

Among the phony wars waged by the HI includes a smear campaign attacking controls on the indiscriminate use of the potent insecticide DDT in treating malaria. HI took large gobs of cash from the tobacco industry to gallantly lobby against regulations on second hand tobacco smoke, sponsoring its own ‘experts’ to rubbish the overwhelming medical evidence.

The Institute has been most vigorous in promoting hostility to climate science and scientists, pushing instead its own handful of media trained semi-retired semi-scientists to flood the airwaves and newspaper op-ed pages with serious-sounding sophistry which, when examined closely, turns out to be some variation of the industry-sponsored talking points churned out by the HI and similar neoliberal ‘fact factories’ (“we make our own reality”!).

The modus operandi of HI, the Cato and Marshall Institutes were laid bare in the superb book ‘Merchants of Doubt‘. They wrote: “they realised that if you could convince people that science in general was unreliable, then you didn’t have to argue the merits of any particular case – particularly those that did not have any scientific merit”.

More recently, the HI set up a unit which it funds to the tune of $388,000 a year to fund a network of anonymous ‘friendly’ scientists to comb through the vast output of the UN climate body, the IPCC, in an effort to undermine or discredit its findings. Called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC – geddit?), it makes no effort in funding actual original research, since it knows this would yield only more unhelpful ‘facts’. It is far better value to pour scorn and spread doubt, confusion and disinformation on the efforts, output and personal integrity of thousands of actual climate scientists working every day in the field.

Not content to simply distort and misrepresent facts, the HI has altogether more ambitious plans, as today’s leaks reveal. They are pouring funding into lobbying to have their propagandist version of climate science taught alongside “actual” science. “Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective”, they point out helpfully. And who better than shadowy fossil fuel industry lobbyists and career liars to entrust our children’s science education to?

The cynicism here is breathtaking: on climate change (“whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy”), climate models (“models are used to explore various hypotheses about how climate works. Their reliability is controversial”), and air pollution (“whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial. It is the global food supply and natural emissions are 20 times higher than human emissions”). A tissue, in other words, of deliberate lies and distortion wrapped up in the weasel words of “teach the controversy” so beloved of their Creationism fellow-travellers.

Interesting, the HI is concerned that the fracking industry hasn’t been chipping in its fair due towards funding pseudo-science and snake-tongued ‘experts’ and they are high up the target list for potential sponsors in 2012.

One sinister figure known only as Anonymous Donor, has personally chipped in a mid-sized fortune (nearly $9 million) to the HI fact factory since 2007.  Much of this loot is specifically earmarked for anti climate science agitprop. What a freedom-loving (shy) patriot he must truly be!

All in all, it’s been a bad start to 2012 for the climate deniers. Last month, the once-respected Wall Street Journal plumbed new depths with a shabby pieced entitled ‘No need to panic about global warming’, signed by 16 scientists of various hues. Common denominator? Murdoch-owned rag giving space to ‘lunatic fringe’ outlier opinions from scientists who are (a) not actively writing in the peer-reviewed press and (b) six of the 16 take a lot of cash from Big Energy.

As this soggy effort was systematically thrashed by real scientists, it quickly emerged that the WSJ had flat refused to run an op ed on climate change signed by no fewer than 255 of the most prominent practising experts in the field. All 255 are members of the National Academy of Sciences, the US’s most prestigious scientific body. Impressive, perhaps, but not apparently when set against a rag tag of non-specialists which include a retired astronaut, former Republican politician and a retired electrical engineer.

In reality, what was shocking about the WSJ piece was just how limp and leaden an effort it was, cobbled together will little skill and less finesse. 2011 has been a disastrous year for freak weather in the continental US. So too was 2010, come to mention it. The sneering from the neoliberal media is beginning to sound increasingly less cocky and just a bit more desperate as it realises that JFK’s old saw about the hazards of fooling all the people, all the time, is starting to catch up with them.

In this context, the HI leaks are another kick in the solar plexus of denialism. Will it go away then? Hell no. You will always find nihilistic old emeritus has-beens who are quite happy to keep taking the money, and equally cynical bloggers like WattsUp are also happy to have their palms crossed with the tainted cash they so love to accuse scientists of craving.

As the BBC’s Richard Black pointed out earlier, “Heartland is not unique. We still have no idea, two years after its formation, of who funds the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) in the UK, nor what the funders’ motives are”. We do know that Richard Tol, the recently departed ESRI economist with a special axe to grind on climate change, is still listed on the GWPF’s ‘Academic Advisory Council’, in the august company of the usual mixum-gatherum of neocon economists, retired engineers and Heartland-funded scientists, like Australian Bob Carter and the ever-dependable energy industry stooge, Prof Ian Plimer.

The Heartland Institute is very werry cwoss about “criminal acts and fraud” in the last 24 hours. The rest of us should be a lot more concerned about 27 straight years of “criminal acts and fraud” foisted on the unwary world by the Heartland’s libertarian wise guys.

I conclude with a line that became ironically associated with our own late, great kleptocrat, Charles J. Haughey. I offer it here in sincere tribute to the unknown person, (Update: the person who engineered the leak was Peter Gleick, a bona fide climate scientist who, frustrated at the constant attacks emanating from the Heartland Institute, spoofed them into emailing internal documents to his email address. He has paid a high personal and professional price for his actions – the mark of a man of genuine courage who found desperate circumstances pushing him into highly risky action) a real American hero, who managed to coax out into the light of public scrutiny some of the cloak-and-dagger methods being used to silently garrote honest public discourse on climate change, what it means and what response it demands from us:

“I have done the state some service, and they know’t. No more of that.”
- Othello, Act V, Scene II

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • EWI

    It’s very curious how Mr. Tol always seems to turn up on these denier lists of supposed ‘scientists’ who think that AGW isn’t real. Take for example:

    “Some of the world’s most prominent physicists and atmospheric scientists are on record saying popular fears of global warming are “preposterous” (Dr. Richard Tol), “incoherent” (Dr. Antonino Zichichi), “grossly exaggerated” (Dr. Freeman Dyson), and “embarrassing” (Dr. Richard Lindzen).”

    http://heartland.org/policy-documents/letter-senators-regarding-climate-change-reconsidered

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Yes, curious and depressing. The anti-climate science circus is a surprisingly small operation, though. Same old emeritus has-beens shilling for a few bucks and probably just basking in the adoration of rednecks. There’s a light sprinkling of neocon economists like Tol, and assorted media savvy smartasses like Lomborg who feed off skewed data served up for them by ideologue researchers. Ultimately, the reason this giant lie is so pervasive is that it’s what people want, perhaps need, to believe. Otherwise, we’d have to call a halt to rampant capitalism, tax pollution so it no longer pays, and all of us would have to kiss our jet-setting lifestyles goodbye. And who exactly is going to sign up for all that? 

  • Geoff Berry

    Thanks for making (more) public this incredible hypocrisy John. Amazing how an act looks so different when it is done to the scammers!

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Cheers Geoff, am happy to spread the word as best I can about the twisted disinformation campaign being waged against the most rudimentary scientific facts by these zealots. Have had limited success in trying to interest the ‘quality’ print media here in Ireland in Deniergate, but will battle on regardless!

  • Toby

    Great to see the denialosphere licking its wounds for a change.

    Hopefully, Heartland will lose some of its funders, and perhaps its tax-exemptions. How can you be “not-for-profit” when you work for people who most assuredly stand to profit? Like tobacco companies, for example.

    Being a “think tank” imples some sort of unbiased research, but Heartland only pays people to thrash research done by others. Its original contribution to scientific knowledge or policy options is zero.

    Heartland is a lobbying and PR operation, pure and simple. Hopefully, the US authorities will now classify it correctly for taxation purposes. Some of the funders may be scared off by public pressure.

    A pity the mainstream media have not run with this story as much as it did with so-called “Climategate”. The dirty underbelly it exposes is far, far more significant.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Well said Toby. The designation of charitable status to shams like Heartland and its UK counterpart, the Global Warming Policy Foundation only adds to the sense of outrage. As you correctly point out, these groups contribute precisely zero in terms of original scientific research or insights. Nit-picking others’ work is easy-peasy compared to doing your own original work. I share your frustration at the mainstream media’s derogation of what you’d imagine its public service obligation, ie. at the very least, to treat these organizations as ‘hostile witnesses’ to science, rather than as objective commentators.

  • Anonymous

    Well, this has been an interesting time since Valentine’s day.  The press got very excited about Heartland;’s education plans, but actually, they’ve been trying, badly for years and not just in US.
    See Fakeducation For Years From Heartland

    Do not miss the 5-minute trailer, and Gareth Renowden’s dive into the lesson plans is fun also.
    Also, people might try reading the first 5 pages of Fake science, fakexperts, funny finances, free of tax.
    The phished documents inter-corroborate well, but there is much more behind that,
    including fun bits like Fred Singer naming Frederick Seitz as SEPP’s Chairman, working an hour a week for no pay … 2 years after his death.

  • Geoff Berry

    Btw, this became big news in Australia, but maybe it didn’t make it to the blogosphere so much here?
    It’s ‘Lord’ Monkton superciliously suggesting that Australia mining companies simply buy a tv station so that they can channel pro-industry propagangda into everyone’s homes, Fox-style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=aX2kMAfJggU#!

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    John
    I read your extensive de-bunking piece on DeSmogBlog around the time Deniergate first broke; well done on excellent, thorough detective work. It’s far easier to contaminate than to decontaminate. The former can be performed by just about any smartass with a grudge; it takes real skill and patience to unpick distortion and misrepresentation. Small wonder that the deniers always seem to be a step ahead, and really great to see them get their collective ass kicked on this one. 

    Too bad that the whistle-blower this time turns out to be a climate scientist. Would have been far better off if this were done by a journalist and presented as a necessary public service in uncovering what these shadowy lobby groups are doing, who’s funding them, and what their real agenda is – especially when it involves attacking and infecting the education system with anti-science propaganda. 

    I should add that while his methods were clumsy, I totally understand what drove Peter Gleick to do what he did, and I respect and admire him for the personal and professional price he has had to pay for his brave actions. In my view, too many scientists are keeping their heads down and their mouths shut,even though they know damn well the system is collapsing around them. While scientists have to be objective about their work, this doesn’t mean they must be blind and mute about its implications. Laying low may be good for tenure, but is it really a morally consistent stance?

    So to you John and all at DeSmogBlog, keep up the great work.