Losing Heart

“It’s fine that people want to help the planet, but the timeline is too short,” explained John, a tall, slender young man with thick, mussed hair. “If we rush, we’re going to pass drastic solutions.” He looked and sounded like a high school debate captain parsing the pros and cons of Esperanto or free birth control. In reality, he’s a hard-core climate change denier.

If there is a sympathetic side to climate denialism—the willful, persistent belief that human activity is not warming the planet—it looks like John, a suburban homeschooler who presented his doubts about global warming in unusually tactful terms. “There are any number of climate reports to pick from,” he continued. “Who’s to say which one is right?”

I met John in a Chicago hotel ballroom secured by private guards wearing Secret Service-style earpieces. The occasion was the seventh International Conference on Climate Change, an annual barrage of climate disinformation: blogs, “peer-reviewed” reports, line graphs and quips about President’s Obama’s birthplace.

The conference was sponsored by the Heartland Institute, an ideological leader of denialism that, as it happens, has had a wretched 2012. That would seem a victory for environmentalists—a foe vanquished. But is it?

© Heartland Institute

Heartland’s annus horribilis began in February with a leak of classified documents outlining a scheme to teach climate denial in elementary schools, à la intelligent design. Big hue and cry. Under pressure from a little-known progressive group called Forecast the Facts, the institute lost a longtime funder, General Motors.

Then, in May, Heartland put up a billboard along a Chicago highway featuring a mugshot of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The red-lettered caption: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” In a press release, the institute outlined plans for a series of billboards comparing environmentalists to mass murderers; next up, apparently, were Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden. Withering criticism forced Heartland to scuttle the campaign after just 24 hours.

More funders, including State Farm and its pledged $290,000, split. The staff of Heartland’s Washington office resigned en masse.

So the Chicago conference wasn’t exactly the triumphant annihilation of climate science that Heartland executives probably envisioned. More bad signs followed. Speakers cancelled at the last minute. U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), a keynote speaker, addressed a room with numerous empty tables.

© Heartland Institute

Not that anyone at the conference acted remotely contrite. They took turns “debunking” climate science and laughed off demonstrators outside the hotel. “If you’re going to chant, ‘We are the 99%,’” taunted one speaker, “you’ve got to bring more than 30 protestors.” If that sounds haughty, it was quickly surpassed by the tasteless eloquence of Christopher Monckton, a British peer and dean of denialism. “I have concluded,” said Monckton, that “what one needs to have [to win Americans’ support] is a freshly minted Hawaiian birth certificate.” Applause and laughter

Just a few years ago, attendees of the annual Heartland conference could boast a great deal of momentum. In Washington, the Senate never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that would have set binding targets for developed nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill stalled, too. Meanwhile, skepticism of climate change swelled. From 2008 to 2011, the number of Americans concerned about the issue declined by 14%, according to Gallup polls.

In the wake of Heartland’s implosion, climate denialism looks weaker, crippled by extremist rhetoric like Monckton’s. On the conference’s close, the institute announced that it will not hold any more conferences for the foreseeable future due to shrinking funds

In his closing remarks, institute president Joseph Bast implored attendees for help. “If you’ve got a rich uncle, please give them a call and ask whether they’d make a tax-deductable contribution to the Heartland Institute,” he said.

From a certain perspective, however, the environmental movement may need foils like the Heartland Institute. The loss of its kooky conference could even hurt efforts to curb climate change.

A study released in February of this year argues that vicissitudes in politics and the economy—not science—are key factors in how the public perceives climate change. In other words, press coverage of politicians, pundits and celebrities more than drowns out any number of dire warnings from scientists.

As Drexel University sociologist and study author Robert Brulle concluded, “Media coverage of climate change directly affects the level of public concern.”

If the study is right, then perhaps environmentalists need a noisy opposition to help generate a climate debate rowdy enough for Americans to put down their iPads and tune in. Perhaps they need nasty billboards like Heartland’s. They need young conservatives like John to grow up, lose his tact and get offensive.

Without the Heartland conference, there will be even less coverage of climate change and, hence, fewer folks paying attention.

CHRISTOPHER WEBER is an environmental journalist, community gardener and stay-at-home dad based in Chicago. He writes The Built Environment blog for E.