The Self-Inflicted Downfall Of The Heartland Institute

A protester outside Heartland's climate denier conference. Photo: Kelly Mitchell

“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 Unibomber. “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 me and Lakely.

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 3rd and ended with 11 companies pulling support for the organization — stripping 35% 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.

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 ICCC,” 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, called the International Conference on Climate Change, 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% 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.”

Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, 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 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, Congressman 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.


According to PolluterWatch, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Verizon, Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, and the Credit Union National Association, are responding to the petition from Forecast the Facts and have announced that they will not fund the Heartland Institute. This brings the total number of defecting companies to 15 and could potentially mean the loss of an additional $130,000.

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22 Responses to The Self-Inflicted Downfall Of The Heartland Institute

  1. Makan says:

    Heartland … happy to flaunt their hypocrisy. I expect that the right wing players will continue in many guises. Nevertheless, it’s good to see Heartland eating failure.

  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    At last year’s 2011 SICCC – the unfortunately acronymed (much like CREEP…oops I digress, but why don’t they anticipate it?) – Sixth International Climate Change Conference, which was in Washington, DC, the writing was already on the wall.

    Both Naomi Klein and I attended more or less incognito (not that I place myself anywhere near her exalted status, it was a thrill to see her there).

    Our conclusions were similar though, if I can glean that from her subsequent writings. If so, it is a bit of a warning. The conclusion is that if humanity (let alone myriad other species) is to evade an uninhabitable climate, then industrial civilization and it’s favorite system, capitalism (the profit motive) is NOT compatible and must be destroyed.

    Just because the Heartland’s silly, ineffectual group of sad-sack, inept pawns has failed, it doesn’t really amount to enough of a victory for us all to rejoice (fun though that may be!). The points that I noted last year are still extant, and since then still no more addressed by the community of climate scientists and activists.

    1. What frightens the deniers isn’t CO2. It’s the lack of fresh water, and ocean acidification, and pollution. Since then, the lion’s share of attention has remained on CO2.

    2. The reason denialism resonates – and worse, controls the debate over POLICY – is that they ask the question to which there is no popular answer: how are you going to replace the concentrated energy of fossil fuels with renewables?

    The over-optimistic (to put it politely) of the “green” community undermines any real action, because the truth is, there IS no way to continue industrial, capitalistic society and be “sustainable”.

    True sustainability, to the extent it is even possible, requires enormous, drastic, radical conservation, and a reduction of family size, and probably rationing of resources (to make it all fair).

    Until the so-called green and climate activists openly acknowledge those daunting challenges, everybody else on earth is going to scoff at windmills and solar panels.

    Especially when an embarrassing number of activists and green organization employees fly around to eco-conferences and afterparties at places like net-roots nation (check it out), tonight.

    vicarious pictures from last year here:

  3. Barry Saxifrage says:

    As Hansen points out, global warming is so strong now that the climate signal is starting to emerge clearly from the weather noise. In other words it is become obvious that something is wrong with the weather.

    The Heartland debacle shows how clearly this is starting to change the discussion. It just isn’t funny anymore to insult people for thinking the climate is changing.

    That denial game is over. Now it moves from “denier” to “delayer”…and the argument that the cost benefit balance is towards not acting strongly yet. Or more bluntly…I don’t want to pay more for energy.

  4. IANVS says:

    Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys.

  5. Leif says:

    Well stated Gail. I have tended to attempt to bring the discussion more into the ethical sphere and the economic inequities of the current capitalistic system which is clearly not working for humanity. The bridge from fossil to renewable is daunting and obviously cannot sustain the present economy. However, if one looks at the problem honestly one must admit that the status quo cannot as well. The rewards will however be great if humanity makes the commitment. Survival of the species and those we all depend upon for starters.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Gail, I agree with your point about the unsustainability of our current social, political and economic systems and know many others who also agree.

    It may be true in the US that people are scoffing at wind and solar but it is simply not true in those parts of the world I know about. Many people are doing everything they can to modify their lifestyles, introduce efficiencies and use whatever green technologies they can afford, ME

  7. Raul M. says:

    Hi Gail saw your feature on radio ecoshock blogs.
    Some people already know the admiration they find by taking the step to utilizing solar panels and the daily charge from the sun. It docent solve everything and won’t necessarily power all one wants through the night but it does what it should and what it is sold to do.

  8. Florifulgurator says:

    You hit the nail, Gail. To make any difference, billions would have to relinquish industrial civilization and try a life in what most would disdain as poverty and dirt: Carbon negative small-scale farming/gardening, creating carbon rich soil using biochar and their excrements. And of course, no procreation. But I think simple life can be fun: Forget the SUV, make friends with a horse. According to the plan, half of mankind will end up in megalopolis, the other half out in the semi-wilderness of a garden planet. Both halves of this future civilization need an mutually sustain each other: one producing internets and dentist drills, the other producing food and stabilizing the biosphere.

  9. Tom King says:

    Peter Gleick should be recognized for this victory. Having received a large dose of criticism for the ethics of his actions he deserves a large dose of congratulations for the effectiveness of his actions.

  10. Richard Whiteford says:

    It couldn’t have happened to a more worthy “think tank”. Now let get the rest of them. All we have to do is follow the money.

  11. SecularAnimist says:

    Gail Zawacki wrote: “there IS no way to continue industrial, capitalistic society and be ‘sustainable’.”

    With all due respect, that’s nonsense. It’s little more than an echo of the denialist nonsense that portrays those who demand action on global warming as a conspiracy to destroy modern civilization.

    Gail Zawacki wrote: “… everybody else on earth is going to scoff at windmills and solar panels …”

    Um, “windmills” are antique devices, once used for grinding grain. Wind TURBINES, on the other hand, are high-tech 21st century machines used for generating electricity.

    And the only ones “scoffing” at wind turbines, solar photovoltaics and solar thermal power plants are fossil fuel propagandists who disparage and denigrate them to discourage them from competing with coal and natural gas.

    Meanwhile “everybody else on Earth” is building them like crazy, which is why solar energy is the fastest growing source of new electricity generation in the world, and wind power is the second fastest growing, and both are growing at record-breaking double-digit rates year after year.

    The commercially exploitable wind energy resources of just four midwestern states are sufficient to produce more electricity than the USA currently consumes.

    Likewise, solar thermal power plants on five percent of the USA’s desert lands could produce more electricity than the entire country consumes.

    And that doesn’t even count the onshore wind energy of the rest of the country, or the huge offshore wind energy resources, or the electricity that could be generated from rooftop PV (which could easily be more than produced by all US nuclear power plants today).

    And of course it doesn’t count energy efficiency improvements either — which could easily cut US electricity consumption in half very quickly, while producing the same goods and services.

    The USA has truly vast wind and solar energy resources, and the mature, powerful technologies needed to harvest those resources NOW. We could easily replace ALL fossil-fueled electricity generation with wind and solar in 10 years, if we choose to do so.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Just wait awhile before you count your chickens. The Heartburn Asylum’s target audience are the Mad Hatters of the Tea Party and their ilk. How do we know how the demented hate campaign (in our eyes) went down with that turgid target demographic? And if it further ‘incentivises’ them to vote in November, the Heartburn bedlam get to laugh loudest.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Capitalism never worked for humanity and never will. It works for capital and the rich, parasitic, elite who control it. Even in the brief periods of capitalist ‘success’, wealth and a decent living were unequally distributed in a small number of privileged countries. Even there the poor and destitute remained. In the rest of the world capitalism meant genocide of the indigenous, the slave trade that destroyed tens of millions of lives, colonialism, imperialism, great famines in India and massive, forced, drug trafficking in China, wars of aggression, apartheid, IMF and World Bank depredations, and ‘humanitarian intervention’ only to the West’s advantage. Now, even in the capitalist ‘heartlands’ of Europe and the Anglosphere colonial states, mass poverty is back, inequality grows apace and elite arrogance and contempt are unbridled. To which you can add species suicide, coming soon and driven by capitalist greed, excess and lust to dominate. The only possible way to avert species extinction rests on increasing equality and destroying the genocidal money power of the elites, and that means killing capitalism before it kills us all.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    He was abused for his entirely fictional ethical failures by creatures with the ethics of semi-housetrained polecats.

  15. Peter Bradshaw says:

    I totally agree with “SecularAnalyst. I have installed about 220 sq ft of PV panels on the best (though not optimum) part of the roof of a house with a ground area of about 1900 sq ft. The cost was under 2% of the value of the house, and this was before the recent drop in PV panel prices. They have generated 70% of our electricity usage over the last three years. With California planning to provide 25% renewable energy within a few years, and even a small addition to our equipment, we can be coal-free very soon. With geothermal energy, from surface hot-spots, and maybe soon deep geothermal wells, and conversion of some hydro-electric plants to enhance the pumped-storage facilities often added to nuclear power plants around the world, total renewable energy is within our grasp within a few years, if we just get moving on it.

    A few years ago, I went trekking in Nepal. Lots of the remote places we stayed had hydro-electric plants, and Kathmandu and Pokhara were full of buildings with solar water heaters on the roof. We should be ashamed we are not ahead of them!

  16. Peter Bradshaw says:

    Oops, that should be ‘I totally agree with “SecularAnimist”‘

  17. Raul M. says:

    Isn’t it called acting out or if more professionally studied manic episodes?

  18. Raul M. says:

    Or if split between the speaker and audience manic depressive all in the same room at once?

  19. otter17 says:

    “There’s not a lot of science here.”

    What gets me is that we are dealing with conspiracy theorists in the case of Heartland. How does one rationally engage conspiracy theorists? They generally have no standard of evidence from which they will change their belief (or they shift the goalpost often).

  20. Defeating the Heartland Institute, at this point, amounts to nothing more than swatting a mosquito. It is a victory, of a sort, against an insignificant and easily replicated enemy. For every mosquito swatted there are a million more flying about.

    If I were allowed to make a guess about the future — I must predict that humankind will do nothing whatsoever to limit greenhouse gasses within the next two decades. Global warming will continue to accelerate. If the tipping point has not already been passed it will occur at some point between 400 – 500 ppm.

    Then the party will really get started and all these people who have spent their lifetime bored by life and waiting expectantly for the apocalypse will discover precisely how horrible things can become on a planet with over 7 billion humans in a climate inhospitable to civilization’s survival.

    At that point humankind will cry out in horror, “Why didn’t anyone WARN us?” The scientists will be silent becuase at that point there is nothing more to say and nothing left to do.

    Humankind isn’t going to get the future which our species desires — there is no utopia of any sort waiting for humankind — but it will get the future which our species richly deserves.

    The only tragedy is found in the millions of innocent species which our species will drive extinct as it has destroyed its future and trashed the most beautiful planet in the Universe.


    Central Florida has set two all-time record highs two days in a row, 95 – 96 degrees in May! No, the residents of Florida haven’t taken the hint. Millions of dollars are spent every year restoring the beaches, but the Florida state government is officially a climate change denier organization.

    As for myself, my conversations will people of all sorts can only fill me with despair. Is humankind an intelligent animal? Do humans actually have free will? I must answer “No” to both questions.

    Among the people I meet on a daily basis there is one overriding signal: Modern Americans aren’t merely anti-science they are also anti-knowledge. They’d rather not know and they’d prefer not to think about anything.

    Defeating the Heartland Insitute isn’t going to change this situation in the least. The climate change- and evolution- and geology-deniers that I meet have never heard of the Heartland Institute, haven’t bothered to read a book of any sort related to climate science, and evidently slept through all of their high school science and history classes.

    Nonetheless, a meaningless victory still ranks as a victory …

  21. Mike Roddy says:

    Heartland was always a sideshow, meant to capture the hillbillies and Tea Party types. More dangerous are the behind the scenes pressures on TV networks and schools. Ignroing the scale of the hazards of global warming or casting just a little doubt on the science accomplishes the fossil fuel companies’ goals, too. Revkin and Pielke do more damage than Heartland ever did.

  22. Kent Otho Doering says:

    Thanks to you all at Think Progress Climate and others who exposed the Heartland Institute´s insanity.
    As an ex-pat Nam era vet residing in a city which has an per capita fossil fuel consumption of about 30% of any comparable U.S. region, I am well aware of a broad synergy of existing and emerging renewable energy sources plus plus energy saving measures that are already slashing European fossil fuel consumption at an ever increasing pace. What the “climate change deniers” don´t relize is that “sustainability” is emerging as a major industry in its own right. In Germany, the sustainability sector will already equal the automotive sector – 12% each of the German gross national product this year- namely 12 %. . By 2020, “sustainability” is expected to account for 20% of the German gross national product.
    “Sustainability” is a lot more that just concentrated solar in the desert, photo voltaic installations on buildings off shore, shore line and inland wind.

    Sustainabiity is primarilly about saving energy-

    Buildings account for 40% of our fossil fuel energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and costs. So, Germany has mandated systems with shallow geothermal heat, solar heat, and deep winter “Combined Heat Power” systems- on all new building.
    construction. Add 3 inch facade and roof insulation, and 1 inch wide vacuum. insulation windows.

    Of ocurse, Germany does have programs for subsidizing and stimulating retro-fits to existing buildings with these systems as well

    As I write, I look at the window and see the building across the street covered with scaffolding. It was due for a new facade paint job, but now it will also be getting a three inch facade insulation. (The 1950´s building in which I reside was hooked up to the since upgraded utility long distance- heat hot water system when built) and also
    upgraded with facade, window, and roof insulation.

    It is the sum of all the measures that continues to systematically cut German fossil consumption at rates of over 3% p.a..

    Nuclear will be converted to deep geothermal here. It is the least expensive course of action