Heartland Institute billboard feeds critics, drives away allies and donors

Update 5/15/2012: On either May 13th or 14th, The Heartland Institute moved the “Our Billboards” essay and an associated press release from the website associated with Heartland’s seventh International Climate Change Conference to the Press Releases portion of the main Heartland website. The essay was also renamed from “Our Billboards” to “‘Do You Still Believe in Global Warming?’ Billboards hit Chicago.” In addition, both documents have been backdated to May 3rd and 4th, the dates when they were published at their original home. The original link remains in the original post below, but the new links have been added here: “Our Billboards” essay and the billboard take-down press release.. In addition, Heartland president Joseph Bast has been identified as the author of the essay.

Part one of a series

On Thursday, May 3, The Heartland Institute ran a digital billboard advertisement featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski that implied climate realists who accept the reality of human-driven global warming are terrorists. According to their explanation of the billboards, Heartland planned on comparing climate realists to dictator Fidel Castro, lunatic Charles Manson, and possibly Osama bin Laden. But by late Friday, a backlash from Heartland’s critics, allies, and onetime supporters had forced The Heartland Institute to remove the advertisement from the billboard.

“I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?”

Those were the words associated with the mug shot of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unibomber, a terrorist who, over the course of 20 years, injured or killed 26 people around the country with mail bombs. Shortly after the billboard went live, however, media and bloggers caught wind of it and began publishing what would become a flood of blog posts and news articles taking Heartland to task for equating climate realists with mass murderers, terrorists, and lunatics.

Leo Hickman, writer of the Environment Blog at The Guardian, broke the story. He wrote that he was sufficiently shocked by the billboard’s insinuation to ask “What on earth were they [Heartland] thinking?” The Hill’s E2 Wire quoted Sierra Club spokesman Trey Pollard saying “[i]t must be embarrassing for Heartland’s donors like Exxon to have their money used in a way that compares the majority of their customers who believe in climate change to mass murderers.” Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast wrote that the billboard represented a “refusal to acknowledge scientific reality; and a brutalist style of public propaganda that focuses entirely on guilt by the most extreme association.”

In the climate blogosphere, Gareth Renowden at Hot Topic wrote that Heartland had “set new standards for bad taste” and had “resorted to tawdry sensationalism” with the billboard. Joe Romm of Think Progress called for everyone associated with Heartland to “go on record” about the billboard, writing that “[t]hese ads are so extremist that failing to denounce them is an implicit endorsement of the worst kind of hate speech.” Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy initially thought the billboards were a joke, writing “[n]o one would seriously do this, right? Creating an actual billboard like this would be taking Poe’s Law and aiming right between your own eyes!” Meteorology professor Scott Mandia wrote of Heartland’s considering comparing climate realists to Osama bin Laden that “[a]ll Americans, and especially New Yorkers, should be outraged at this comparison!”

At least one blogger, Peter Sinclair of Climate Crocks, responded with some hypothetical billboards of his own (see below [http://climatecrock.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/camelsmall.jpg]). And Heartland’s billboard got the attention of Comedy Central’s Indecision Forever blog, where Dennis DiClaudio wrote

Oh no! But I believe in man-made climate change. Or — more to the point — I believe in science, and all the science points toward man-made climate change. Does that mean that I’m a genocidal serial killer? I mean, I can’t remember where I was last Wednesday night. What if I was out murdering thousands of members of a minority group?!

Satirical response to Heartland Kaczynski/global warming billboard, by Peter Sinclair of Climate Crocks

Some deniers of human-driven climate disruption criticize Heartland

The Heartland Institute probably wouldn’t have removed the billboard if all the pressure had come from climate bloggers and traditional media outlets. After all, Heartland said that they featured Kaczynski, Manson, and Castro on the billboard because the words of “these murderers and madmen” were very similar to what liberal politicians, the “mainstream” media, and the United Nations say about climate disruption. However, there was a significant backlash against the billboards from Heartland’s allies, especially those who were planning on attending Heartland’s seventh International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC). Greg Sargent reported at his Plum Line blog that Wisconsin GOP Congressman James Sensenbrenner “will not participate in the upcoming Climate Change Conference if the Heartland Institute decides to continue this ad campaign.” Anthony Watts, Heartland global warming expert and ICCC speaker, wrote at Wattsupwiththat that “I think Heartland’s billboard campaign is a huge misstep, and does nothing but piss people off and divide the debate further.” Ross McKitrick, another Heartland global warming expert and ICCC speaker, wrote a scathing letter to Heartland President Joseph Bast calling on Bast to take the billboard down because the billboard’s

fallacious, juvenile and inflammatory rhetoric does nothing to enhance your reputation, hands your opponents a huge stick to beat you with, and sullies the reputation of the speakers you had recruited.

Sensenbrenner’s and McKitrick’s letters suggest that, now the billboard has been taken down, they may still attend the ICCC as speakers, but at least one speaker has pulled out completely. Donna Laframboise was scheduled to speak, but withdrew because

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.

Not all prominent deniers of climate science were unhappy with the billboard, however. Czech theoretical physicist Lubos Motl wrote that “[t]he billboard is right even when it comes to the statement it is making in between the lines, and I think it does, namely that the global warming alarmists are significantly correlated with dangerous, ideologically driven fanatics.” In support of this, Motl suggests that people search for “greenhouse effect” in the Unabomber’s manifesto. S&R did this exercise and found exactly two examples – one of which is a general statement, the other of which asks (without providing an answer) what the impact of the greenhouse effect will be. There are no uses of “climate change,” “global warming,” or “carbon” either. In fact, the word “climate” is used exactly once, in reference to having the right kind of clothing necessary for a given climate.

In addition, one Heartland global warming expert and ICCC speaker has come out with a statement of public support. According to Australia’s The Age newspaper, Bob Carter “would have cautioned against such a provocative billboard,” but that “[t]he complete failure of the liberal media to apprise their own hypocrisy” had changed his mind. The Age reports that Carter is planning on speaking at the ICCC later this month.

Video of Clear Channel billboard showing the Heartland-Unabomber advertisement

One-time corporate supporters reject Heartland over billboard

This morning, Hickman reported at The Guardian that one-time donor Diageo, a London-based alcoholic beverage maker, would no longer donate to The Heartland Institute. According to a Diageo statement,

Diageo vigorously opposes climate scepticism and our actions are proof of this. Diageo’s only association with the Heartland Institute was limited to a small contribution [$10,000] made two years ago specifically related to an excise tax issue. Diageo has no plans to work with the Heartland Institute in the future. [emphasis added]

According to an article in E&E News by Evan Lehmann, the billboard was “the last straw” that drove the organizer of Heartland’s Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE), which works for federal insurance reform. Lehmann quotes an unidentified insurance industry source as saying

All of the insurers and reinsurers that funded Eli [Lehrer, head of FIRE] are either in the process of withdrawing funding from Heartland or are considering doing so. I think everybody’s reaction [to the billboard] was one of disgust and shock. It was the last straw for everybody.

According to the article, Heartland’s anti-climate position grew more “strident” after the publication of confidential internal documents in February.

Bradley Kading, president of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers (ABIR), wrote a letter to Bast “disavowing” any future contact between ABIR and The Heartland Institute. Kading wrote that “[r]ecent revelations of the Heartland Institute’s radical position on climate change as portrayed on the new billboard featuring Ted Kaczynski made our association with other parts of your organization [FIRE] untenable.”

And in a late-breaking addition to this story, insurance giant State Farm announced on its Facebook page that they were ending their association with Heartland “because of a recent billboard campaign launched by the Institute.”

When The Heartland Institute approved the billboard, they seriously misjudged the reaction of their allies and donors as well as the media and the public. As a result, several of their allies are threatening to or are in the process of abandoning The Heartland Institute, and an entire policy center in Washington DC may shut down as a result. It certainly doesn’t help that Bast, in his press release announcing that Heartland was taking down the billboard, said “[w]e do not apologize for running the ad.” Running the billboard was bad enough, but refusing to apologize for what nearly everyone agrees was a egregious mistake will only make the original misjudgment worse.

Heartland shot its credibility in the foot when it ran the billboard. Bast shot the other foot when he refused to apologize. It remains to be seen whether other donors will follow Diageo, ABIR, and State Farm in a mass exodus away from The Heartland Institute.

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