There had been warnings about the possibility of trouble at the Heartland Institute’s Seventh International Conference on Climate Change. In his opening remarks, the president of this think tank of radical free marketeers, Joseph Bast, asked attendees to help security personnel identify anyone who might disrupt the proceedings. And the tote bag stuffed with printed materials contained a sheet with “PLEASE READ” printed in bold red letters at the top. It advised us to avoid engaging protestors; to carry personal identification at all times; and to refrain from wearing our name badges outside the Hilton Chicago, where the conference was held.
The last day of the NATO summit overlapped with the first day of the Heartland conference, so there were plenty of protesters in the vicinity. But the mix of urgency, exasperation and exhilaration went deeper than NATO’s presence. It was like how I imagine the 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy’s true believers knew that the U.S. government was full of Communist subversives, but precious few people had the courage and wisdom to recognize this fact.
McCarthy once said that the nation’s predicament “must be the product of … a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” For the climate-change skeptics gathered here at the Heartland conference for three days in late May, the new grand conspirators are “Warmists” and “Alarmists” — people who believe that human activity drives climate change and that global warming is a threat to human civilization.
I was there to observe the proceedings as an avowed Alarmist. Despite the warnings, the only violence I witnessed was actually self-inflicted — Larry Bell, a popular writer and climate-change skeptic, tripped on a suitcase sitting in the middle of a doorway and went crashing to the ground. He took his walking companion halfway to the floor with him, and a gaggle of staff and security personnel gathered around.
“For a second there,” someone blurted out, “I thought it was an Alarmist attack.”
It wasn’t clear whether he was joking. There’s a war on, after all. There will be casualties.
One interesting question that hovered over this year’s conference is whether Heartland itself will be among the war’s casualties.
Its travails over the past several months have been well-publicized. First, in February, environmental scientist Peter Gleick released documents that revealed some of the Institute’s strategies and funding sources. Most explosively, they described the Institute’s intention to “develop alternative materials for K‑12 classrooms,” materials that “will focus on providing 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.”
But it was a bizarre billboard in early May that inflicted the worst damage. It posed a simple question beside a huge mugshot of Ted Kaczynski: “I still believe in Global Warming,” the text read. “Do you?” Blowback forced the organization to take it down.
On the last day of the conference, the Guardian newspaper reported that Heartland was in “financial crisis,” having lost more than $800,000 in funding as a result of these controversies. General Motors, State Farm Insurance and other donors cut their ties. As a result, the future of the annual conferences is in doubt.
I wanted to ask Bast about these troubles, especially the billboard fiasco. Jim Lakely, Heartland’s director of communications, informed me that Bast would be “indisposed” all morning. He agreed to answer a couple of questions himself.
I asked whether negative publicity from the billboard had influenced attendance at the conference, which was a “drastically shrunken” version of past years, according to the Guardian. Fewer than 200 people attended the opening ceremony, compared with 800 attendees in its heyday.
“We had 50 or 51 cosponsors of this event [before the billboard controversy], and now we have 61,” he said. “I think that gives you an indication of the level of enthusiasm for this conference.”
One of the last-minute cosponsors was the Illinois Coal Association, whose chief lobbyist Phil Gonet explained to the Guardian that, “in general, the message of the Heartland Institute is something the Illinois Coal Association supports.”
As it turned out, arranging an interview with Bast wasn’t all that difficult. I spotted him standing alone behind a table and introduced myself. So I can report that Heartland’s official response to the billboard controversy is that everything has “worked out great.” Bast also said there’s no truth to anything the Guardian publishes about the Heartland Institute.
As Bast left for the next panel, I noted a poster nearby with key “facts” about global warming printed over a lush green landscape. You will be relieved to learn that “past warmings were beneficial,” that “future warming will be modest” and that “warmer is better.”
In a blog post, Bast once wrote, “Almost alone among think tanks, we focus on communicating with people who do not already agree with us. We rely on research and reason, not rhetoric and emotion.”
The notion that Heartland has science on its side, while environmentalism plays to people’s emotions and fears, was a major theme of the conference.
So what was the quality of the science? I’m sure I couldn’t say. Though I attended several panel presentations, each of which was advertised as a devastating blow to the science of climate change, and though I made a good-faith effort to follow the speakers, I have only the vaguest idea of what they were trying to say.
“How much will the average T change for a given change in the energy budget?” one speaker asked during a talk about the role of solar activity in climate change.
It went on like this for hours. A dense graph would appear, followed by a few sentences of jargon, followed shortly by another dense graph and more jargon, interspersed with the occasional joke about Al Gore and his “documendacity,” as one speaker put it.
Part of the problem was that I have no expertise in the relevant science, and neither did the other 75 or so people in the audience at the presentations, I’m certain. Invariably, several of them would be dozing.
In truth, the vast majority of the public is operating on faith when it comes to the science of climate change. It’s also true that both sides have an agenda. For all its talk about doing real science, Heartland is fairly explicit about its agenda, which has nothing to do with science and everything to do with advocating for “free-market solutions” to every conceivable problem.
According to Heartland, climate “alarmism” is just the entering wedge for socialism.
On one side there is Heartland’s promise that future warming will be modest and warmer will be better. On the other side there is a consensus among scientists that the earth is warming, that human activity is the primary cause, and that the results could be catastrophic.
The surreal thing about being at Heartland’s Seventh International Conference on Climate Change was knowing that Heartland has been exposed as an extremist organization, and might be doomed — yet it’s winning. In the United States, at least, Heartland’s free-market fetish has trumped the science.
We’ve heard the warnings of impending catastrophe and have decided, basically, to do nothing. We’ve chosen to believe Heartland’s comforting “research and reason” rather than hard truths.
Our grandchildren will know whether we chose wisely.
Many nonprofits have seen a big dip in support in the first part of 2021, and here at In These Times, donation income has fallen by more than 20% compared to last year. For a lean publication like ours, a drop in support like that is a big deal.
After everything that happened in 2020, we don't blame anyone for wanting to take a break from the news. But the underlying causes of the overlapping crises that occurred last year remain, and we are not out of the woods yet. The good news is that progressive media is now more influential and important than ever—but we have a very small window to make change.
At a moment when so much is at stake, having access to independent, informed political journalism is critical. To help get In These Times back on track, we’ve set a goal to bring in 500 new donors by July 31. Will you be one of them?