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.

Uncertainty

Part 5 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

Scientists can never say that something is 100% certain, but they can come pretty close. After a while, a theory becomes so strong that the academic community accepts it and moves on to more interesting problems. Replicating an experiment for the thousandth time just isn’t a good use of scientific resources. For example, conducting a medical trial to confirm that smoking increases one’s risk of cancer is no longer very useful; we covered that decades ago. Instead, a medical trial to test the effectiveness of different strategies to help people quit smoking will lead to much greater scientific and societal benefit.

In the same manner, scientists have known since the 1970s that human emissions of greenhouse gases are exerting a warming force on the climate. More recently, the warming started to show up, in certain patterns that confirm it is caused by our activities. These facts are no longer controversial in the scientific community (the opinion pages of newspapers are another story, though). While they will always have a tiny bit of uncertainty, it’s time to move on to more interesting problems. So where are the real uncertainties? What are the new frontiers of climate science?

First of all, projections of climate change depend on what the world decides to do about climate change – a metric that is more uncertain than any of the physics underlying our understanding of the problem. If we collectively step up and reduce our emissions, both quickly and significantly, the world won’t warm too much. If we ignore the problem and do nothing, it will warm a great deal. At this point, our actions could go either way.

Additionally, even though we know the world is going to warm, we don’t know exactly how much, even given a particular emission scenario. We don’t know exactly how sensitive the climate system is, because it’s quite a complex beast. However, using climate models and historical data, we can get an idea. Here is a probability density function for climate sensitivity: the greater the area under the curve at a specific point on the x-axis, the greater the probability that the climate sensitivity is equal to that value of x (IPCC, 2007):

This curve shows us that climate sensitivity is most likely around 3 degrees Celsius for every doubling of atmospheric carbon dixoide, since that’s where the area peaks. There’s a small chance that it’s less than that, so the world might warm a little less. But there’s a greater chance that climate sensitivity is greater than 3 degrees so the world will warm more. So this graph tells us something kind of scary: if we’re wrong about climate sensitivity being about 3 degrees, we’re probably wrong in the direction we don’t want – that is, the problem being worse than we expect. This metric has a lot to do with positive feedbacks (“vicious cycles” of warming) in the climate system.

Another area of uncertainty is precipitation. Temperature is a lot easier to forecast than precipitation, both regionally and globally. With global warming, the extra thermal energy in the climate system will lead to more water in the air, so there will be more precipitation overall – but the extra energy also drives evaporation of surface water to increase. Some areas will experience flooding, and some will experience drought; many areas will experience some of each, depending on the time of year. In summary, we will have more of each extreme when it comes to precipitation, but the when and where is highly uncertain.

Scientists are also unsure about the rate and extent of future sea level rise. Warming causes the sea to rise for two different reasons:

  1. Water expands as it warms, which is easy to model;
  2. Glaciers and ice sheets melt and fall into the ocean, which is very difficult to model.

If we cause the Earth to warm indefinitely, all the ice in the world will turn into water, but we won’t get that far (hopefully). So how much ice will melt, and how fast will it go? This depends on feedbacks in the climate system, glacial dynamics, and many other phenomena that are quantitatively poorly understood.

These examples of uncertainty in climate science, just a few of many, don’t give us an excuse to do nothing about the problem. As Brian, a Master’s student from Canada, wrote, “You don’t have to have the seventh decimal place filled in to see that the number isn’t looking good.”. We know that there is a problem, and it might be somewhat better or somewhat worse than scientists are currently predicting, but it won’t go away. As we noted above, in many cases it’s more likely to be worse than it is to be better. Even a shallow understanding of the implications of “worse” should be enough for anyone to see the necessity of action.

Merchants of Doubt

I waited a long time to read this book – in retrospect, too long. I have long been a fan of Naomi Oreskes; I believe she is a brilliant and sensible scientist with a compelling way with words. On the other hand, nothing depresses me more quickly than reading about those who deliberately spread confusion on climate change for political reasons. After a particularly battering year for climate science in the public eye, I want to make sure I stay sane.

However, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, was oddly comforting. How could it be so, you might ask, given the subject matter?

It’s a good question. The book traces several key players, such as Frederick Seitz, S. Fred Singer, Bill Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow, in their fight against mainstream science. Many of them were physicists in the era of atomic bomb development, and nearly all had been deeply influenced by the Cold War – they were anti-Communist to the point of extremism.

This extremism soon extended into science: any new discovery that seemed to necessitate government action was vehemently attacked by Seitz et al. Whether it was the harmful health effects of smoking, second-hand smoking, or DDT, and the existence of anthropogenic acid rain, ozone depletion, or climate change, the same people used the same strategies to sow doubt in the public mind, delaying the cry for action. The algorithm was relatively simple:

  • construct arguments against the phenomenon, which scientists had already addressed and ruled out
  • widely publish these arguments in the popular press, rather than scientific journals
  • demand that the mainstream media be neutral and provide “equal time” for their side of the so-called controversy
  • attack the professional integrity of the scientists who discovered and studied the phenomenon; label them as frauds and/or Communists
  • claim that action on this issue would be the beginning of the “slippery slope to socialism”

It’s enough to anger anyone who has the least bit of sympathy for science. The authors say it best:

Why would scientists dedicated to uncovering the truth about the natural world deliberately misrepresent the work of their own colleagues? Why would they spread accusations with no basis? Why would they refuse to correct their arguments once they had been shown to be incorrect? And why did the press continue to quote them, year after year, even as their claims were shown, one after another, to be false?

History repeated itself many times over, within the course of just a few decades. The attack against climate science that we are currently witnessing is just a larger-scale rehash of the pro-industry, anti-Communist fight against epidemiology, environmental chemistry, and so on. Until now, few attempts have been made to connect the dots, but Oreskes and Conway present a watertight and compelling thesis in Merchants of Doubt.

The hopeful part came when I realized this: all of the previous issues that Seitz et al attempted to discredit were eventually addressed, more or less successfully, by the government, even if some of the public is still confused about the science. Restrictions and regulations on smoking, along with education regarding its harms, has made tobacco use a semi-stigmatized practice in my generation, rather than a near-universal activity. The Montreal Protocol was largely a success, and stratospheric ozone is on the rise. The world, at least so far, has managed to avoid nuclear warfare.

Climate change is undoubtedly a more inevitable and wide-ranging problem, as it strikes at the heart of our fossil-fuel based economy, and will probably surpass, both in rate and magnitude, any change our species has seen in the global environment. However, since the attack against climate science has tracked so closely with previous campaigns, I can’t help but hope it will eventually end the same way: with the public and the government realizing the problem and employing effective measures to address it. I know it’s probably not very scientific of me to make this connection, but hope doesn’t have to be rational to be effective.

Ads Past and Present

Check out these unbelievable ads from the Tobacco Institute, which I found from the Tobacco Documents database. Click to enlarge.

And here is the tamest of the Heartland Institute’s full-page ads in the Washington Post (from a year or two ago, exact date unknown):