Assessing the Heartland Institute
Andrew Revkin, longtime environmental reporter for the New York Times who now writes its Dot.Earth blog, has delivered the unkindest cut of all to the Heartland Institute, the Chicago-based think-tank known for its skepticism of global warming catastrophe scenarios.
In a variant of the claim that an individual is libel-proof because his reputation is already so damaged it cannot be hurt further, Revkin argues that the Heartland Institute is so ineffectual that it could not be harmed by the underhanded actions taken against it by global warming advocate Peter Gleick. Gleick (who headed the Task Force on Scientific Ethics and Integrity of the American Geophysical Union!) had masqueraded as a member of Heartland's board so as to obtain internal documents. Along with a bogus document -- absurd on its face -- in which Heartland allegedly said it was aiming "at dissuading teachers from teaching science," he disseminated them to sympathetic journalists and websites, which had a field day with the material. Greenpeace used the list of donors to lobby each of them to withdraw their financial support.
Despite the obvious harm these actions caused Heartland, Revkin writes: "Any impact on Heartland from his [Gleick's] actions has to be gauged in comparison to any substantive impact you think Heartland had on climate discourse or decisions at levels that matter. Can you list for me the group's real-world accomplishments and then say Peter's actions did anything except hurt himself?" Does this contemptuous dismissal constitute a fair assessment of Heartland's impact, or is it wildly off the mark?
It can be assumed that Revkin did not mean to say Heartland was inactive. The Economist, no friend to critics of global warming, describes Heartland as "the world's most prominent think tank promoting scepticism about man-made climate change." And given Heartland's modest budget of $7 million (compare that to the annual budgets of such climate change advocacy outfits as Greenpeace, $270 million, and the World Wildlife Fund, $487 million), Revkin would have to acknowledge that Heartland's output is impressive, especially so because climate change is only one of a number of areas in which Heartland is active (others include health care, education, fiscal, and legal reform).
On what basis then can Revkin dismiss Heartland as so ineffective and insignificant that Peter Gleick can be guilty not of harming it, but only of foolishly shooting himself in the foot? Revkin defies anyone to come up with an example of a "substantive impact on climate discourse or decisions at levels that matter." There's the key to his contempt: an impact "at levels that matter." And here Revkin has an argument. Among those he sees as significant actors -- the scientists who serve as lead authors in the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, the premiere scientific journals like Science and Nature, the journalistic elite in opinion-setting media, business leaders, leadership of the environmental organizations, the politicians who seek to carry out the prescriptions of the alarmists -- Revkin finds Heartland dismissed with scorn as the heartland of the flat-earthers.
And Revkin is right that Heartland has had no effect in stopping "actions" -- i.e., the global warming movement's forward march on the ground. The renewable mandates (in this country) and feed-in tariffs (more common in Europe) continue. Cap and trade did not make it through Congress, but states have established their own regional cap-and-trade programs, and in Europe it remains the centerpiece of the war against fossil fuels. The EPA has succeeded in making CO2 -- a chemical compound absolutely vital to life on this planet -- a pollutant, giving it the potential ability to regulate emissions in everything from lawnmowers to hospitals. Despite the collapse of Solyndra, the huge "investments" in solar and wind go forward. The flood of government billions into research designed to shore up global warming claims continues. The huge U.N. meetings seeking agreements to ever more costly restrictions on greenhouse gases (and hundreds of billions in compensatory funds to less developed countries for the alleged damage done them by the industrialized West) go on.
Is Revkin on target, then? Despite its dogged efforts, is Heartland nothing more than a futile voice crying in the wilderness? In fact, Revkin's assessment could not be more mistaken. In Heaven on Earth: Varieties of the Millennial Experience, historian Richard Landes describes the course followed by every apocalyptic movement. Global warming, with its prophecy of planetary doom if we do not sacrifice the fossil fuels that underpin our economies, is clearly such a movement. First comes the "waxing wave," when the movement breaks into public awareness; then the "breaking wave," when it dominates public life; followed by the "churning wave," when it loses part of its credibility; and finally the "receding wave," when skeptics regain the ascendancy. All such movements go through these phases; what is not predetermined is when they occur or the damage that has been done before they are fully carried out to sea on the receding wave.
The collapse is a process, not something that happens overnight. In this case, while from a political point of view global warming is still in the breaking wave stage, unremarked by Revkin, the intellectual ground is dissolving beneath its feet. In terms of the power of the idea, global warming is in the churning wave stage, with the receding wave in plain sight. And in this Heartland has clearly played a major role. To be sure, part of the movement's intellectual downfall is its own doing. Climategate undermined public faith as hacked e-mails between some of the top scientific researchers revealed the chicanery that went into the supposedly unimpeachable reports of the IPCC. But Heartland provided the alternative framework for understanding climate change so that Climategate did not become a few-day scandal to be quickly covered up by a supportive media.
Here Heartland's international conferences -- there have been seven of them since 2008, bringing together overall thousands of scientists and supportive laymen -- have played a major role. As Steven Hayward noted in The Weekly Standard, these conferences are "a morale booster for skeptics, who tend to be isolated and relentlessly assailed in their scattered outposts," and by assembling a critical mass of serious dissenting opinion, they dispel "the favorite climate campaign talking point that there's virtually no one of repute, and no arguments of merit, outside the so-called climate consensus of imminent climate catastrophe." (Maintaining the fiction of scientific unanimity is crucial to maintaining public faith in the apocalypse, which is one reason why the mainstream media, which has served as echo chamber for global warming advocates, has maintained a virtual blackout on the conferences -- at the last one, Canadian media finally broke the silence.)
Equally important are the scientific rebuttals to the U.N. IPCC reports which Heartland has published. Climate Change Reconsidered is in effect a Team B, an alternative comprehensive and up-to-date collection of reports that come to very different conclusions -- namely, that the observed increase in temperature since the mid-twentieth century is not primarily man-caused and, far from threatening the world with unimaginable catastrophes, is on balance benign. True, at 800 pages, Climate Change Reconsidered is not widely read, but neither are the huge IPCC volumes, whose size it emulates. Scientist-writer Peter Metzger used to say that in battles of this kind you need a major study, something that gives supporters confidence that you have done the hard work and that the data is on your side. For the average reader, Heartland publishes Environment and Climate News, a public policy newsletter which is distributed free to state legislators. Heartland's director Joe Bast boasts that more legislators -- over half -- say they read Environment and Climate News than the New York Times. Heartland keeps up a steady barrage of reports, speakers, information bulletins, TV and radio appearances, columns, and blog posts.
As the global warming apocalypse completes its intellectual collapse, the Heartland Institute has the potential to assume an even larger role. This is because the end of faith in the idea does not mean an end to its impact on society. Bast reports that when Heartland's science director Jay Lehr goes on speaking trips outside major metropolitan areas and university campuses, nobody believes in global warming anymore. Speaking at Heartland's last conference in Chicago in May, Czech President Vaclav Klaus said that he had recently attended a music festival in Prague and mentioned to a group of people that he would be speaking at the conference. Their reaction was: "Global warming? Isn't it already over?" In the pattern, Leon Festinger documented in When Prophecy Fails that believers believe harder than ever -- witness John Kerry's recent fiery denunciation in the Senate of the "calculated campaign of disinformation" that has stalled action as we get "perilously close to a climate catastrophe" and his call on the public to be "pounding on the doors of Congress to act." But even this effort to galvanize the citizenry is a recognition that public enthusiasm -- and fear -- has worn off.
This loss of faith is double-edged. As Klaus has pointed out, if global warming is no longer a subject for discussion, seems to disappear (morphs into a vague term like sustainability or biodiversity), it's harder to fight.
Heartland has not been alone in the struggle against global warming dogma. A host of lively blogs, defecting scientists, and maverick journalists have also been important. To take just one example, journalist-blogger Donna Laframboise has exposed the full range of deceptive techniques in IPCC reports. All these individual efforts are suited to challenging the ideas, the science, the integrity of the global warming movement.
But it takes an organization to undertake the tough slog of dealing with its aftermath, especially the cap-and-trade programs and renewable mandates. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have such mandates, and nine others have renewable goals. (Not surprisingly, consumers in states with mandates pay electricity bills 31.9% higher than those in states without them.)
An organization is needed to fight for repealing these programs, or they will roll on. Cap and trade becomes a source of tax revenue the government does not want to give up. The reason the program was instituted may be long forgotten, but the tax goes on. Vested interests lobby to maintain the value of their investments, and so renewable mandates are likely to continue under another slogan -- for example, energy independence.
With its existing outreach to state legislators via Environment and Climate News, Heartland is in an ideal position to take on this fight. It also takes an organization to combat the teaching of global warming in the schools as established scientific truth, which will otherwise become more entrenched as it is embedded in curriculum standards from kindergarten on. As the documents purloined by Gleick reveal, Heartland has already embarked on precisely such an effort.
History books will have the final say, and here Heartland is likely to obtain a far kinder assessment than that provided by Andrew Revkin. That is because historians are likely to ask very different questions from those raised by today's journalistic fraternity. Today's journalists ask questions like "What oil and coal money behind the scenes leads to a few scientists denying the overwhelming scientific consensus?" Historians are likely to ask: "How, on such flimsy evidence, could the Western world fall victim to an apocalyptic prophecy and engage in such economically self-destructive behavior on its basis?" Heartland will come into its own as the organization, to paraphrase Kipling's poem, which kept its head as all about were losing theirs.
Rael Jean Isaac's most recent book is Roosters of the Apocalypse: How the Junk Science of Global Warming Almost Bankrupted the Western World, published by the Heartland Institute.