Trouble in the Heartland
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.