Few entities have worked harder to instill doubt in American minds about the science of climate change than the Heartland Institute.
The self-styled “action tank” has published dozens of books and other media amplifying the voices of those who reject the scientific consensus on climate change. Last year, the libertarian organization mailed instructional materials questioning whether global warming is real to science teachers across the nation.
Now, the group is declaring itself victorious in its crusade to convince Americans that climate science is debatable – despite the broad scientific agreement that it is not – and says it is instead pursuing economic and moral arguments to advance policies that bolster domestic fossil fuel production.
“It took a while, but we think we’ve won the battle — Al Gore was wrong,” said Heartland president and CEO Tim Huelskamp, a former Republican congressman. “Now we’re focusing on implementation.”
The pivot comes at a paradoxical moment: There has never been more evidence that humans are altering the climate; nor has Heartland’s message to the contrary ever enjoyed a more sympathetic ear in the White House. President Donald Trump has in the past described climate change as a “hoax;” last month, days after the United Nations released a report warning that climate change may have catastrophic impact as soon as 2030, Trump said he wasn’t convinced “that it’s man-made.” Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency was led by a close Heartland associate. Emails obtained by Freedom of Information Act lawsuits revealed that under Trump, EPA officials have corresponded with Heartland leaders, in some cases to drum up support for policies and events. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, his proposal to roll back car fuel economy standards and his plan to support old coal-powered plants are all policies that Heartland has advocated.
Heartland anticipated this bonanza. At the climate conference the organization hosted in Washington, D.C. just weeks after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the mood was jubilant: “This is a wonderful time to be a global warming realist,” said Heartland’s then-President Joseph Bast as he kicked off the meeting, using the term the organization uses to describe the movement.
In that same speech, Bast – who has since semi-retired – hinted at a change in strategy: “The scientific debate is essentially over,” he said. “What remains to be done is the political battle.”
Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University professor who examined Heartland and its allies in her book Merchants of Doubt, said there may be another reason for the pivot: They may have calculated that the science argument is not as effective as it used to be. “Organizations like Heartland are very effective at shifting tactics in response to whatever is happening in that moment,” she said. “If we were to have an unusually cold spell for three years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pick up the science again.”
Since its founding in 1984, Chicago-based Heartland has worked on an array of free market causes. But the organization, historically backed by the fossil fuel industry, is best known for nurturing the idea that climate science is up for debate.
In 2008, Heartland began hosting what it called “International Conferences on Climate Change,” which gathered the world’s most prominent climate contrarians under one roof. The arguments made there against prevailing climate science were diverse and often conflicting: Some speakers denied the Earth’s atmosphere was changing; others said the Earth was actually cooling; others said it was warming for entirely natural reasons; still others accepted that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was causing the planet to warm, but argued the ensuing changes were good for life on Earth.
Heartland hosted 12 such conferences in 10 years, even as the organization faced setbacks: As its leaders decried global warming a “hoax,” the planet endured year after year of record-breaking global temperatures, and most climate scientists became unwilling to debate with Heartland and its allies, worrying that doing so legitimized their message. Heartland faced widespread criticism in 2012, when it sponsored a billboard showing the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski along with the words, “I still believe in global warming. Do you?”
But the message Heartland has promoted reflects the view of many people in America: In 2008, just 47 percent of Americans agreed there was solid evidence that the Earth was warming due to human causes, according to a Pew study; as of 2016, that percentage had not much budged.
Heartland has not hosted a climate change conference since the weeks after Trump’s election. Instead, in November 2017, the organization held an “America First Energy Conference,” named after and championing the president’s energy policy, and coinciding with the U.N’s annual climate talks. It opened with a video message from then-administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, and featured two mid-level Trump administration officials.
In August, it held a second of these conferences in New Orleans. The conference website stated that 300 to 400 people were expected to attend, but most of the day it had an audience of 100 or fewer. Despite the modest attendance, the conference featured three Trump political appointees: Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management at Department of Interior; Jason Funes, special assistant in DOI’s Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs; and Brooke Rollins, who serves as the assistant to the president for strategic innovations and leads the White House Office of American Innovation.
“Despite what the anti-fossil fuel hypocrites say, the everyday American in this country loves fossil fuels,” Funes told conference attendees. “Under President Trump and Secretary [Ryan] Zinke, the literal war on American fossil fuels is now over and becoming energy dominant is a true reality.”
Many other panelists were regulars from Heartland’s climate conferences. One of the day’s panels took direct aim at climate science; others were framed around policy, legal challenges, economic arguments, or moral ones.
According to Oreskes, the economic argument — that climate change is too expensive to fix — have been part of Heartland’s arsenal for years. But the moral argument — the idea that regulating fossil fuels will create “energy poverty” by increasing energy prices so much that people with low incomes can’t afford it — is newer. Oreskes said it’s “one of the most pernicious arguments they’ve ever made.”
“A central truth about climate change is that those of us who have benefited the most from using fossil fuels will suffer the least, while poor people, who have hardly benefited, will bear the brunt of climate change,” she said.
In December, Heartland plans to be in Katowice, Poland during the U.N.’s next major climate conference, where it will release its book “Climate Change Reconsidered II: Fossil Fuels.” The book is the fifth volume Heartland has edited and published by the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change” (NIPCC) – a moniker derived from the name of the U.N.’s scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The previous four volumes, published between 2009 and 2014, were all attempts to contradict the climate science reported by the U.N. However, according to talking points that Heartland released earlier this month and distributed to state and federal policymakers, this fifth volume barely touches on climate science. Instead, it focuses on a cost-benefit analysis reducing fossil fuel usage. The summary concludes that “nearly all the impacts of fossil fuel use on human well-being are net positive.”
Heartland’s support for the fossil fuel industry has not been reciprocated, of late. Heartland once received financial support from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and General Motors,Alpha Natural Resources, among others, but those and other those donations from the industry have largely dried up; Heartland’s website says most of its funding today comes from individual donors and foundations. In August’s conference on the energy sector, just one person employed by that sector spoke: Joe Leimkuhler, vice president of drilling of Louisiana-based deepwater exploration company LLOG Exploration.
Heartland’s president Huelskamp blamed the lack of participation on companies not wanting to jeopardize government contracts, or backtrack on their efforts to promote an environmentally friendly image.
“All these folks continue to think Hillary Clinton still runs things,” Huelskamp said. “So we’re not here promoting individual companies, we’re promoting free markets.”
Heartland has also lost organizational allies: The program from its March 2008 climate conference boasted 52 co-sponsors from more than 20 countries, nearly all organizations promoting free-market initiatives. That number dwindled over the years, and the program from its 2017 conference listed only 10 co-sponsors, two of which were international. Heartland spokesman Jim Lakely said the decline was due to a policy that co-sponsors must financially support the conference to be listed. “It is no reflection at all on the view of our allies or friends,” he said.
Heartland’s strident policies on climate change may have strained a relationship with one of its most powerful remaining allies: the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential organization that unites private interests and conservative politicians to craft legislative proposals. Heartland has long been an instrumental member of ALEC, helping draft model legislation on climate change. But its proposals have alienated some of ALEC’s large corporate members. In 2014, eBay, Facebook, Yelp, Microsoft and Google all left the organization; then-Google chairman Eric Schmidt said the company was leaving because ALEC was “just literally lying” about climate change. The exodus has continued: This December, ExxonMobil took issue with a climate resolution that Heartland had backed in an ALEC meeting. The company chose to step away from ALEC in June.
Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Wisc.), who attends the ALEC meetings and then writes about them, said that at a meeting in August, an ALEC task force only barely passed a Heartland-backed proposal to rewrite fuel economy standards. “It almost went down, because there were 10 or 11 private industry people voting against it,” she said. “I’d never seen that before.”
“Heartland is being rebuffed again and again and again,” says Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigations Center, which monitors organizations that delay action on climate change. “A lot of companies cannot be caught dead supporting the extremist climate denial rhetoric that Heartland proffers.”
Heartland’s James Taylor dismissed rumors of tension between the two libertarian institutions.
“We have the warmest of relationships with ALEC,” he said. “A rift between us is wishful thinking on behalf of the environmental left.”
When asked about tensions between the organizations, ALEC’s chief marketing officer and executive vice president of external relations and strategic partnerships Bill Meierling said in a statement that “differing perspectives generate substantive debate that results in stronger, better policy models.”
Heartland’s leaders say its new strategy has nothing to do with making itself more palatable to funders or allies, and that they are not abandoning their efforts on science — for example, they are working to publish a new book on climate change aimed at science teachers and their students.
“We’ve convinced the people who matter that there’s profound uncertainty in the science,” said Bast. “So the next step is energy policy.”
—Nicole Einbinder contributed reporting.
Katie Worth is a GroundTruth Fellow and a 2018 O’Brien Fellow in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.
This story was produced as part of a collaboration between FRONTLINE and The GroundTruth Project examining climate change and its impact on women and children.