The Heartland Institute, based in Illinois, USA, has been at the forefront of climate scepticism for many years. On this page we outline its history, its supporters and its basis.
Examining how the Institute has gone about opposing the science of global warming reveals dubious practices and a willingness to put truth aside in favour of spin. The result has been disastrous for the world.
The Heartland Institute
The Heartland Institute describes itself as a “free-market think tank”. Its stated aim is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”
Its website lists a range of issues that it addresses, including economy, environment, government spending, health care, taxes and transportation (to name just a few) – and climate change.
The Institute rejects the scientific consensus on climate change and is considered to be “the primary American organization pushing climate change skepticism.”
Its activities have included:
- Publishing a list of scientists who are said to doubt “Man-Made Global Warming Scares”. (There are some doubts about this list because some scientists named support the scientific consensus, but Heartland claims some aspects of their work can be interpreted negatively.)
- Organising conferences and publishing reports that oppose the established science of global warming.
- Conducting public advertising campaigns in support of its climate aims.
Dubious climate tactics
Heartland’s tactics and actions have included the following.
Exaggerating scientific disagreement
The Institute promotes the minority views of the very small number of “contrarian” climate scientists, and so claims uncertainty when there is actually a strong scientific consensus. (Several studies have shown that more than 95% of climate scientists and 200 scientific organisations accept the scientific consensus on climate change.)
For example, it has set up a Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) to counter the work of the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and tried to present them as two equal scientific bodies. But the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) says the two cannot be compared because:
- IPCC bases its conclusions on a hundred times as many scientific paper as NIPCC uses;
- IPCC scientists are not paid for their contributions (apart from their normal salaries paid by universities and government), whereas NIPCC are paid to write for Heartland; and
- IPCC funding comes from governments and United Nations, whereas NCSE says NIPCC funding comes from the oil industry and wealthy donors.
The Institute also promotes as “experts” people whose credentials do not qualify them to speak authoritatively on climate science. For example, Bjorn Lomborg is currently featured on the Institute’s Climate Change pages, yet his qualifications are in political science, not climate science.
A liberal hoax?
The Institute and others target conservatives with the message that climate change is a liberal hoax. It lobbies the media to present “both sides” evenly. It labels those who accept the science as “alarmists”.
Highlighting occasional errors and anomalies
Science progresses by forming hypotheses and testing them. Wrong or inaccurate ideas are rejected or modified as new information is gathered. The Institute picks up occasional errors and inaccuracies in scientific publications while ignoring the many accurate data, models and reports.
An “assault on science education”
In 2013 the Institute mailed to US science teachers material aimed at discrediting climate science by arguing that “science is never settled“. According to the National Center for Science Education, the mailout was intended to confuse teachers, and lead them to use the NIPCC material in the classroom as if it was good science.
A Heartland billboard campaign in 2012 featured the “unabomber” with the words: “I still believe in global warming, do you?” The campaign was planned to also include Charles Manson, Fidel Castro, and perhaps Osama bin Laden.
The Institute justified this campaign, saying “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” The campaign was quickly cancelled after a public backlash.
This year the Institute hired a young German climate denier who started a climate-sceptical website, in a move apparently aimed at counteracting the influence of Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who Heartland has tried to discredit.
A waning influence?
The Institute has gradually lost support from some major companies because of these tactics, and it is reported that funding is down and significant numbers of staff have been laid off. Meanwhile, most major oil companies know the science and are looking to diversify into renewable energy.
The Heartland Institute was established in 1984.
Working with big tobacco
In the 1980s it worked with tobacco companies, notably Philip Morris, to oppose tobacco regulation and throw doubts on the medical evidence that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer.
Tobacco Explained shows that cigarette companies knew that their product was unhealthy, but chose for several decades to claim the connection between smoking and lung cancer was still uncertain.
Tactics included making misleading statements about the evidence, finding whatever medical “experts” they could find to make a contrary statement, and under-stating the risks of smoking.
In 2006 a federal US judge found that tobacco companies had been part of a decades-long conspiracy to deceive the public about the risks of smoking.
Heartland Institute was part of all this, and has recycled the tactics in addressing climate change.
Opposing science, again and again
The Institute also opposed the scientific consensus on:
- the scientific evidence that emissions from coal-fired power plants were causing acid rain;
- the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
A substantial amount of Heartland’s funding has come from politically conservative foundations, wealthy donors and major companies that benefit from its science denial (e.g. tobacco and oil companies). Some large donations have come though Donors Trust, a foundations that some claim allows large donors to remain anonymous.
Since the billboards incident and especially in the last 6 years, several large corporate donors have withdrawn support. The fossil fuel industry, generally, feels Heartland is too extreme in its opposition to climate change science.
Nevertheless, Heartland remains influential on President Donald Trump.
The big picture
Funded by large donors with vested interests, and aided by conservative media and politicians, the Heartland Institute and others have successfully created enough uncertainty to help stall climate action.
It has used misleading interpretations of the science to create uncertainty and fight full recognition of the scientific consensus on tobacco and climate change. Its extreme approach and questionable ethics was seen in the abortive billboard campaign.
These tactics helped delay regulation of tobacco companies and led to the deaths of millions of people from lung cancer. Using similar tactics to delay effective action on climate change, the Institute will be one contributor towards even greater harm to the earth and its people, while protecting the interests of a few wealthy companies and individuals.
The Heartland Institute has replied to its critics on its website.
Learning from experience
This investigation reinforces the importance of checking sources of information, especially when claims are made contrary to the scientific consensus.
- Heartland Institute. Wikipedia.
- Heartland Institute webpage.
- Climate change denial: sources, actors and strategies. R Dunlap & A McCright. In Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society, 2010.
- How the fossil fuel industry got the media to think climate change was debatable. Washington Post, 2019.
- Debunking the Heartland Institute’s Efforts to Deny Climate Science. National Center for Science Education
- Leak exposes how Heartland Institute works to undermine climate science. Guardian, 2012.
- How Big Oil Lost Control of Its Climate Misinformation Machine. Inside Climate News, 2017.
Photo: Heartland Office (Wikipedia).