The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Chicago, has never been afraid of controversy. It was founded in 1984, originally to push free-market and libertarian causes. Heartland spent its early years as an apologist for the tobacco industry, fighting to deny or obscure the scientific evidence for the dangers of smoking and of second-hand smoke, and derail public health policies to protect people from smoking and smokers. In recent years, it has become more famous for being a hotbed of global-warming denialism, sponsoring conferences where all the “big names” of denialism get together and preach to the choir. They are also famous for their anti-environmental efforts across the board, especially with the debate over fracking, the safety of coal mining, and other controversial practices. In this regard, they are not too different from some of the other “think-tanks” that push free market and libertarian policies, heavily supported by private industry and right-wing foundations.
But the business of pushing unpopular agendas like smoking is all about credibility and PR, and making your institute appear to be a serious defender of some worthy cause, not a hotbed of crazies. Thus, perception is everything. And it’s clear that in recent months, Heartland has “jumped the shark” and is now on a downward death spiral, as funding dries up and even their former supporters refuse to have their names associated with it. The problem started with their almost yearly conferences on climate change, which became more and more extreme so that even many mainstream climate-change deniers refused to participate. By 2006, ExxonMobil stopped funding them, and tried to distance themselves from the Heartland reputation as a bastion of loonies. Still, Heartland kept promoting their causes, and kept their climate-change conferences going nearly every year.
However, the past 4 months have not been kind to Heartland. In February, a series of emails were leaked revealing some of the internal communications of Heartland. The most damaging was the revelation (confirmed by multiple sources, including David Wojick, who was to have run the program) that they were planning a propaganda campaign for the public schools to expose kids to the AGW denial point of view. This is something that states like Louisiana and Tennessee could conceivably use with their new laws opening the doors to creationism in public schools. The leaks themselves proved to be a great embarrassment to Heartland and their financial backers, and caused many of their staunchest funders to pull out when their names were publicized. The list of who had been funding them was revealing: right-wing foundations like the Scaife Foundation, Castle Rock, the Olin Foundation, and the Bradley Foundation; energy giants like ExxonMobil (over $800,000 until 2006, when they withdrew funding), the Koch Foundation, Murray Energy, Illinois Coal Association, and the American Petroleum Institute; tobacco interests like Phillip Morris; and a number of private anonymous donors, one of whom gave as much as 25% to 38% of their annual budget. If there ever were any doubt about who was calling the shots at Heartland, clearly their agenda was driven by the big donations from energy and tobacco and right-wing funders.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a billboard campaign that debuted on May 4, comparing climate scientists and those who agreed with them to Unabomber Ted Kaczynkski, Charles Manson, Fidel Castro, and Osama bin Laden. Only the Unabomber billboard went up, then was promptly taken down again in less than 24 hours after a storm of angry controversy lashed Heartland. Such a ham-handed and stupid ad campaign attempting “guilt by association” made you scratch your head and wonder who the heck authorized this almost suicidally bad PR decision. It outraged not only the environmental and scientific community to be compared to various mass murderers, but even the mainstream media and many of Heartland’s erstwhile supporters. As blogger Mike Lemonick pointed out:
Tough stuff, but you’ve got to love the reasoning, which Heartland explains on its website. “…what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.” It’s a breathtaking tour de force in logic: if a murderous lunatic believes something—anything at all—then everyone else who believes it is a murderous lunatic. By this impeccable reasoning, you’d better not be against smoking, because…so was Adolf Hitler (believe it or not, this gambit has actually been played). Hitler was also a vegetarian, at least some of the time, so if you subscribe to both of these beliefs, you’re doubly despicable. Or maybe you’re a devout Catholic. So was the Spanish Inquisition’s chief torturer and burner-at-the-stake Torquemada. I even heard once, though I can’t confirm it, that former Ugandan strongman Idi Amin loved little kittens, and I have it on good authority that Genghis Khan was good to his horses.
The Unabomber billboard was withdrawn, but Heartland was unapologetic about their actions, and their website full of even more outrageous assertions was still up. But the damage had already been done. Many of their former allies withdrew from the upcoming climate conference late last month in Chicago, including prominent denier Donna Laframboise who blogged:
Instead, those of us who had accepted Heartland’s invitation to take part in its conference found ourselves blindsided—a mere two weeks before the conference is set to begin—by a torrent of negative press. Suddenly, we were all publicly linked to an organization that thinks it’s OK to equate people concerned about climate change with psychopaths.
As economist Ross McKitrick said in an a strongly-worded letter to Heartland yesterday: You cannot simultaneously say that you want to promote a debate while equating the other side to terrorists and mass murderers.
Well here’s the problem. My name—and the name of my book—is currently on the same page of the Heartland website where the above quote appears. Without prior knowledge or informed consent, my work has been aggressively associated with this odious ad campaign. Forget disappointment. In my view, my reputation has been harmed. And the Heartland thinks it has nothing to apologize for.
But the real problems came when corporate sponsors began to pull out, one after another, including liquor giant Diageo (maker of Smirnoff, Guinness, Moet & Chandon, and Johnny Walker), General Motors, AT&T, several large insurance companies (including State Farm and many re-insurers), and many others. No large corporation wanted to be associated with the crazies who compared climate scientists to mass murderers. Meanwhile the protesters outside the Chicago conference put pressure on Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and some of the remaining big-name contributors to renounce Heartland. (The tally is laid out here). Heartland itself admitted that they were in a financial crisis, and had just lost at least $825,000 in funding, and it is unknown how big their losses are now. Their DC office has been closed, and most staffers have been let go.
By the time the Chicago conference rolled around on May 21-23, 2012, many speakers had pulled out like rats fleeing a sinking ship, and it was a pathetic shell of its former self. An undercover video showed a conference of nearly empty rooms (fewer than 170 showed up at an event that usually draws 800 or more), with just a few of the diehards (Anthony Watts, Harrison Schmitt, Lord Christopher Monckton, and their ilk) remaining on their program. Apparently, the speakers spent significant time making “birther” jokes and ranting that environmentalism was a “communist conspiracy”, a testament to how far they had gone off the deep end. At the end of the video there is a desperate plea by outgoing Heartland CEO Joe Bast (famous for defending the “Joe Camel” ads), asking for people to come up with money any way they could, and underlining their perilous financial situation. Shortly thereafter, Heartland announced that the 2012 climate conference would be their last.
In Hollywood, they joke that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But in the world of non-profit think tanks and organizations whose main job is PR, bad publicity can kill your reputation in a matter of hours. It’s even worse when it’s self-inflicted, as the idiotic decision about the billboards shows. One serious blunder and no one wants to have their name associated with you, and no corporation wants their name revealed. I’m counting the days now until we hear the news that Heartland is closing its doors and going under. I, for one, will not shed a tear….