Billboards Illustrate Heartland's Approach To Science

(UPDATE 4:31PM: The Heartland Institute tells the Washington Post that the billboard will be taken down today. Heartland CEO Joseph Bast said: “The Heartland Institute knew this was a risk when deciding to test it, but decided it was a necessary price to make an emotional appeal to people who otherwise aren't following the climate change debate.”)

As the evidence continues to mount that humans are changing the climate with serious consequences, the libertarian Heartland Institute is becoming increasingly desperate to recast concern about climate change as “radical.” This week the organization, usually so sensitive about logical fallacies, launched a billboard campaign in Chicago associating “belief” in global warming with murderers and tyrants, including Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.

Heartland Unabomber billboard

“The point” of the billboards, according to Heartland, “is that believing in global warming is not 'mainstream,' smart or sophisticated” and “the people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society.”

The message is an uphill climb for Heartland, to say the least. Basic physics indicates that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause warming, confirmed by decades of research. And surveys show that a vast majority of scientists, and particularly those who specialize in fields related to climate, have concluded that human-induced warming is occurring, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other major scientific body.

By Heartland's standard, the “radical fringe of society” also includes the Pope, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, Evangelical Christian leaders and Republican climate scientists.

Heartland is an organization that approaches climate science with a pre-determined policy agenda. The group's president, Joseph Bast, admitted as much last year at his annual climate conference. While Heartland likes to say it is driven by concern for scientific integrity, these billboards communicate otherwise. Needless to say, this is not what skepticism looks like.

The commitment to a “free market” policy agenda means that Heartland will promote any view that downplays urgency about global warming, even if those views contradict each other. In fact, while the billboard suggests it's radical to believe in global warming, Heartland previously acknowledged that the increase in global temperatures over the past century “hasn't been in dispute.” And Heartland has recognized that recent warming was at least in part caused by human activities, asserting that “two-thirds of the warming in the 1990s was due to natural causes.” (A recent study reaffirmed that human causes “dominate the observed warming” of the past 60 years.)

I asked Heartland spokesman Jim Lakely today to clarify which of the following is the position of his organization:

  • The planet hasn't warmed in recent decades
  • The planet has warmed but humans didn't contribute to it
  • Humans contributed to warming but it's not a crisis

His response: “Heartland doesn't take official positions.” Lakely forwarded my question to James Taylor, Heartland's senior fellow for environmental policy, who said “The best way to summarize the issue is that global warming is not a crisis.” (Read NY Times' Justin Gillis on climate risk and insurance.) Taylor wouldn't say manmade global warming doesn't exist, even though the billboards and the accompanying press release make that very claim. It's this cynical equivocation that's at the heart of the climate misinformation campaign.

Heartland is in the business of creating confusion about the science, and that's what news organizations can expect when they broadcast the group's claims. Taylor has a regular column at Forbes, where he has distorted scientific research to such an extent that even a “skeptic” scientist has had to correct him. Heartland also feeds false narratives to Fox News.

And just this week PBS NewsHour aired clips from a misleading Heartland video and let Taylor tell its audience that weather extremes have not worsened and that “across the board, we've seen that warmer climate, warmer temperatures have always benefitted humans and continue to do so.” PBS noted that “these are views challenged by scientific evidence.” If that's the case, why air them?

*Jill Fitzsimmons contributed to this post.