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.