Recent Developments at the Heartland Institute

This Valentine’s Day, one of the most vocal lobby groups attacking the science of climate change had its internal documents leaked to the public – exposing its sources of funding, secret projects, strategies, and goals for the world to see.

Manufacturing Doubt

You’re probably aware of the influences of corporate-funded lobby groups on social issues. They seek to bring down public health insurance, lower taxes for the wealthy, and prevent environmental regulation. They publish advertisements, print op-eds, and meet with politicians, all in an attempt to advance a free-market agenda. More often than not, they’re backed by corporate interests – pharmaceutical companies, tobacco firms, and the oil industry, to name a few.

You might question the fairness of allowing certain people to amplify their voices simply because they have more money, but at least these lobby groups are spreading around legitimate ideas. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion on matters of public policy, and nobody can be “right” or “wrong”. However, on matters of science, there is a physical reality out there, so people can be wrong. Try arguing that your incorrect answer on a physics assignment deserves full marks, because it represents your personal opinion on the photoelectric effect. You probably won’t get very far.

Unfortunately, certain lobby groups have a long history of promoting blatant falsehoods about areas of science that threaten their free-market fundamentalism. Everything from the harmful health effects of smoking to the causes of acid rain to the consequences of the pesticide DDT has been attacked by these groups. The strategy has been the same every time: repeat long-debunked myths ad nauseum, overemphasize uncertainty, and question the integrity of scientists studying the issue.

Human-caused climate change is currently the most fashionable scientific phenomenon to deny. Although 97-98% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm, public acceptance lags far behind, and is heavily split along political lines. Scientists have investigated and ruled out every conceivable alternative hypothesis for global warming – so why aren’t their conclusions reaching the public? The answer is that other influences are getting in the way, muddying the message for their own financial and ideological benefit.

The Front-Runner

In recent years, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute has led the way in this crusade against climate science. Their communication style seems to be “quantity, not quality”: whatever rumour currently claims to disprove global warming will be picked up and amplified by the Heartland Institute, whether or not it contradicts previous statements from the organization. For example, they will frequently claim in the same document that 1) the world is cooling and 2) global warming is caused by the sun. Logically, you can’t have it both ways. However, doubt, not logic, is the goal here – if a message casts doubt on the scientific consensus, it qualifies for the Heartland newsletter.

This lobby group’s extreme conservative agenda is apparent in paranoid overtones about socialist conspiracies and bigger government. “If AGW [anthropogenic global warming] is true,” they write, “then stopping or preventing it requires higher taxes, more income redistribution, more wilderness preservation, more regulations on corporations, ‘smart growth,’ subsidies for renewable energy, and on and on…[we] ‘looked under the hood’ and concluded concern over the possibility of catastrophic global warming was being manufactured to advance a political agenda.”

Heartland has accepted thousands of dollars in funding from oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, and industrial giants, such as the Koch brothers. However, most of the funding for their climate change projects now comes from a single individual, who is obviously extremely wealthy, and currently anonymous.

A Scientist Steps In

Enter Dr. Peter Gleick, a prominent climate scientist and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. He has had run-ins with the Heartland Institute before, and – like many scientists in the field – is deeply disturbed by their disinformation campaigns. So when he received an anonymous package in the mail in 2012, containing a confidential memo that appeared to be from the Heartland Institute, he was intrigued.

The memo, entitled “Heartland Climate Strategy”, contained many phrases that would later raise eyebrows. Perhaps most distressingly, Heartland was planning to bring denial into the classroom, by developing a school curriculum “that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science”. They were also hoping to pursue funding from “corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies” – presumably the fossil fuel industry – and to continue sponsoring the NIPCC reports, whose purpose was “to undermine the official United Nation’s IPCC reports” (widely considered to be the most authoritative reviews of climate science in existence).

Finally, Heartland discussed its “funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message”, and more general coordination with “groups capable of rapidly mobilizing responses to new scientific findings, news stories, or unfavorable blog posts”. To those familiar with who’s who in the world of climate denial, the list of people and groups Heartland mentioned supporting were extremely enlightening. At the end of the document, Dr. Gleick discovered why the memo had been sent to him in particular – Heartland was bemoaning the fact that Gleick had published articles in Forbes magazine. “This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out,” wrote Heartland – a rather hypocritical statement from an organization that regularly accuses the mainstream media of censoring their views.

This memo was certainly very interesting, but was it authentic? It could have been faked by someone seeking to discredit Heartland. Gleick wasn’t willing to spread around the document unless and until he thought it was legitimate. And out of frustration, he went one step too far: in what he now describes as “a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics”, he pretended to be a Heartland board member, and requested that Heartland send several other documents to his “new email address”, which they did.

These actions were unethical, and possibly illegal, but they raise some interesting moral questions. Is it acceptable to lie in order to expose a bigger lie? Where does investigative journalism end and unjustified dishonesty begin? Since Gleick identified himself and apologized for his actions, he has been demonized by Heartland and its allies, but others have described him as a “whistleblower” who put his reputation on the line in order to uncover the truth. We must also consider whether scientists are being judged more harshly than lobby groups. As activist Naomi Klein tweeted, “What about the fact the Heartland Institute impersonates a scientific organization every day?”

Release and Reactions

The documents that Dr. Gleick obtained by email, including a budget, a fundraising plan, and minutes from board meetings, confirmed many of the contents of the Climate Strategy memo. Names, monetary figures, and project descriptions all matched up – with the exception of one figure that may have been a typo. Satisfied that the Climate Strategy memo was legitimate, he scanned it, and sent all the documents anonymously to DeSmogBlog, a Vancouver-based website composed of journalists that seek to expose the financial and ideological motivations behind the climate change denial movement. DeSmogBlog published the documents on Valentine’s Day, and they went viral within hours.

The Heartland Institute was outraged. They insisted that the Climate Strategy document was fake, a claim for which they provided no evidence and which has since been contested. They threatened legal action against anyone who dared report, link to, or comment on the leaked documents – an obvious scare tactic to prevent the story spreading. (Such threats have no legal basis, otherwise the media would not have been able to write about governmental memos from Wikileaks, which were illegally obtained.)

It’s interesting to note Heartland’s hypocrisy in this situation. Several years ago, when emails from climate scientists were stolen and published online, the Heartland Institute was of the first and loudest voices to report, link to, and comment on the emails (in this case, completely out of context), in a blatant attempt to discredit climate science right before the Copenhagen Summit. Where is that attitude of freedom of speech and information now?

The Fallout

Whether or not the Climate Strategy memo was faked, the contents of the other documents have spurred a public pushback against Heartland. There have been calls for federal hearings regarding the flow of money in the organization, and complaints to the IRS to revoke Heartland’s tax-free status as a charitable foundation.

Does this incident matter, in the grand scheme of things? Not really. Climate science will continue to show that the Earth is warming, humans are the cause, and the consequences will be severe. Lobby groups will continue to attack these conclusions. However, it’s high time that we looked at these lobby groups a little more closely.

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Nuclear Power in Context

Since its birth, nuclear power has been a target of environmental activism. To be fair, when nuclear power goes wrong, it goes wrong in a bad way. Take a look at what’s happening in Japan right now. Friday’s tsumani damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and several of its reactors have experienced partial meltdowns. Radiation from the nuclear reactions has been released into the surrounding environment, and could endanger public health in the immediate area, causing cancer and birth defects.

Nuclear disasters are horrifying, and this is by no means the worst that has happened. However, nuclear isn’t the only form of energy that experiences periodic disasters. In fact, over the past century, hydroelectric disasters have killed more people than all other forms of energy disasters combined.

(Sovacool et al, 2008, Fig. 1).

So why do we worry so much more about nuclear power disasters? Is it because the idea of the resulting radiation is more disturbing than the prospect of a dam breaking, even if it’s far less common?

However, an energy source can kill people without a large-scale disaster occurring. Let’s look at fossil fuels. Think of all the miners killed by coal accidents, all the people killed by smog inhalation or exposure to toxic chemicals (such as heavy metals) that are present in fossil fuels, deaths due to gas leaks, civilians killed by wars over oil, and so on. It’s difficult to quantify these numbers, because fossil fuels have been in use for centuries, but they clearly exceed the 4,000 or so deaths due to nuclear power accidents (as well as any other deaths due to nuclear power, such as uranium mining).

We must also look at the deaths due to climate change, which fossil fuel burning has induced. The World Health Organization estimates that over 150 000 people died as a result of climate change in 2000 alone. This annual rate will increase as the warming progresses. If we don’t step away from fossil fuels in time, they could lead to a devastating amount of death and suffering.

Fossil fuels are silent, passive, indirect killers which end up being far more destructive to human life than nuclear power. However, much of the public remains opposed to nuclear energy, and I believe this is a case of “letting perfect be the enemy of good”. I feel that we hold nuclear power to an impossible standard, that we expect it to be perfect. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s far better than the existing system, which desperately needs to be replaced.

There are also exciting developments in nuclear technology that could make it safer and more efficient. In his recent book, top climatologist James Hansen described “fast reactors“, which are a vast improvement over the previous generations of nuclear reactors. It’s also possible to use uranium-238 as fuel, which makes up 99.3% of all natural uranium, and is usually thrown away as nuclear waste because reactors aren’t equipped to use it. Another alternative is to use thorium, a safer and more common element. If we pursue these technologies, the major downsides of nuclear power – safety and waste concerns – could diminish substantially.

Renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, are safer than nuclear power, and also have a lower carbon footprint per kWh (Sovacool, 2008b, Table 8). They are clearly the ideal choice in the long run, but they can’t solve the problem completely, at least not yet. Cost is a barrier, as is the problem of storing and transporting the electricity they generate. Maybe a few decades down the line smart grids will become a reality, and we will be able to have an energy economy that is fully renewable. If we wait for that perfect situation before doing anything, though, we will overshoot and cause far more climate change than we can deal with.

I don’t know if I would describe myself as “pro-nuclear”, but I am definitely “anti-fossil-fuel”. I am aware of the risks nuclear power poses, and feel that, from a risk management perspective, it is still preferable to coal and oil by a long shot. Solving climate change will require a multi-faceted energy economy, and it would be foolish to rule out one viable option simply because it isn’t perfect.