Science & Environment

Openness: A Heartland-warming tale

Oil well in US
The institute wants to find new funders for its climate work among US fossil fuel companies

It's been a while, but at last another climate-related "gate" has opened... and this time, it's in the edifice constructed by those who would have you think climate "scepticism" was rooted purely in science, with never a hint of politics involved.

While Europe was asleep, someone mailed a bunch of internal Heartland Institute documents to a number of bloggers including desmogblog and ThinkProgress - these two and others have since posted the documents online.

"Denier-gate" is the label being applied in the blogosphere, in case you're interested.

For anyone who doesn't spend every week up to their waists in the ordure of climate politics, the Heartland Institute is a US-based organisation with an overtly libertarian bent to its work.

To itself, it's a think-tank; to critics, it's a lobby group, paid to oppose regulation on a number of fronts - including climate change.

It's probably most notable (or notorious) for holding an annual "climate-sceptic" conference in Washington DC.

(UPDATE 2145GMT - Heartland has posted a release on its website saying one of the documents is a fake. Elements of the remainder of this post have been re-worked accordingly.)

One thing that's clear from the documents is that the Heartland Institute is largely behind the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a project that purports to mirror the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by producing reports downplaying the extent of global warming as well as the involvement of greenhouse gas emissions in producing it.

Protest against Koch Brothers
The documents celebrate funding from the Koch Brothers, often condemned by climate campaigners

An annual sum of $300,000 is the Heartland Institute's contribution for making that happen.

The institute says it retains the services of several "high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message".

These include the US-based Craig Idso ($11,600 per month) and Fred Singer ($5,000 per month plus expenses), and Australian Bob Carter ($1,667 per month).

The next target appears to be schools. The plan is to fund a consultant, David Wojick, to develop modules for use in classrooms.

Among the statements it might promulgate, according to the "2012 Fundraising Plan" document, are that "whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy" and "natural [CO2] emissions are 20 times higher than human emissions".

Chris Rapley, a climate change scientist at University College London, described the project as "brain-washing".

"This strikes at the very roots of truth and freedom in a democratic society, something I would have felt the American people would find abhorrent," he said.

Further funding will go to climate blogger and former meteorologist Anthony Watts for a web-based project aiming to demonstrate problems in the US network of temperature monitoring stations - an issue whose irrelevance to the big questions of climate change was emphatically demonstrated last year by the Berkeley Earth Project, which found station quality was not a factor in modern measurements of global warming.

Weather station at airport
A project detailing flaws in weather stations would cost $88,000 - half from the Anonymous Donor

Elsewhere, the documents reveal that a huge number of companies, foundations and individuals give money to the Heartland Institute - some as core funding, others to pay for specific programmes.

But their contributions of a few tens of thousands of dollars per year are dwarfed by a single source who is so important as to acquire his own set of capitals - the Anonymous Donor.

This man - the gender is specified - gave just under $1m last year, a little less than a quarter of the institute's income.

But that's small beer compared with his 2008 contribution of $4,610,000 - amounting to 58% of the organisation's entire budget for the year!

The Anonymous Donor appears to be particularly interested in global warming, paying for more than half of the NIPCC project and agreeing to stump up the first $100,000 of David Wojick's curriculum work.

As his funding has fallen in the last couple of years, the institute has accordingly spent less on climate: "We are extinguishing primarily global warming projects in pace with declines in his giving", one of the documents notes.

This appears to add a new ingredient to the debate over what to call organisations like the Heartland Institute. Neither think-tank nor lobby group appears to work when the organisation is changing its output on the basis of what its funders want it to do: perhaps "public relations" would work best?

This has one very practical dimension in that under US law, the amount and type of campaigning that non-profit organisations can do without endangering their tax-free status is constrained; and a number of commentators, including desmogblog itself, are arguing that the Heartland Institute is going beyond what it's permitted to do.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, the big issue is surely this: when the Heartland Institute speaks on climate change, it is speaking with the money, fundamentally, of one major donor.

And we have no idea who he is.

Heartland is not unique. We still have no idea, two years after its formation, of who funds the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) in the UK, nor what the funders' motives are.

Who's raising a flag now for openness in the lobbies of climate change debate?