Thursday, 24 May 2012

Heartland Institute facing uncertain future as staff depart and cash dries up
20 May 2012

Free-market thinktank's conference opens in Chicago with president admitting defections are hurting group's finances.

The first Heartland Institute conference on climate change in 2008 had all the trappings of a major scientific conclave-minus large numbers of real scientists. Hundreds of climate change contrarians, with a few academics among them, descended into the banquet rooms of a lavish Times Square hotel for what was purported to be a reasoned debate about climate change. But as the latest Heartland Institute climate conference opens in a Chicago hotel on Monday, the thinktank's claims to reasoned debate lie in shreds and its financial future remains uncertain.

Heartland Institute's claims to "stay above the fray" of the climate wars was exploded by a billboard campaign earlier this month comparing climate change believers to the Unabomer Ted Kaczynski, and a document sting last February that revealed a plan to spread doubt among kindergarteners on the existence of climate change. Along with the damage to its reputation, Heartland Institute's financial future is also threatened by an exodus of corporate donors as well as key members of staff. In a fiery blogpost on the Heartland Institute website, the organisation's president Joseph Bast admitted Heartland Institute's defectors were "abandoning us in this moment of need".

Over the last few weeks, Heartland Institute has lost at least $825,000 in expected funds for 2012, or more than 35% of the funds its planned to raise from corporate donors, according to the campaign group Forecast the Facts, which is pushing companies to boycott the organisation. The organisation has been forced to make up those funds by taking its first publicly acknowledged donations from the coal industry. The main Illinois coal lobby is a last-minute sponsor of this week's conference, undermining Heartland Institute's claims to operate independently of fossil fuel interests. Its entire Washington DC office, barring one staffer, decamped, taking Heartland Institute's biggest project, involving the insurance industry, with them.

Board directors quit, conference speakers cancelled at short-notice, and associates of long standing demanded Heartland Institute remove their names from its website. The list of conference sponsors shrank by nearly half from 2010, and many of those listed sponsors are just websites operating on the rightwing fringe. "It's haemorrhaging", said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace, who has spent years tracking climate contrarian outfits. "Heartland Institute's true colours finally came through, and now people are jumping ship in quick order". It does not look like Heartland Institute is about to adopt a corrective course of action. In his post, Bast defended the ads, writing: "Our billboard was factual: the Unabomber was motivated by concern over man-made global warming to do the terrible crimes he committed". He went on to describe climate scientist Michael Mann and activist Bill McKibben as "madmen".

The public unravelling of Heartland Institute began last February when the scientist Peter Gleick lied to obtain highly sensitive materials, including a list of donors. The publicity around the donors' list made it difficult for companies with public commitment to sustainability, such as the General Motors Foundation, to continue funding Heartland Institute. The GM Foundation soon announced it was ending its support of $15,000 a year. But what had been a gradual collapse gathered pace when Heartland Institute advertised its climate conference with a billboard on a Chicago expressway comparing believers in climate science to the Unabomber. The slow trickle of departing corporate donors turned into a gusher.

Even Heartland Institute insiders, such as Eli Lehrer, who headed the organisation's Washington group, found the billboard too extreme. Lehrer, who headed the biggest project within Heartland Institute, on insurance, immediately announced his departure along with six other staff. "The ad was ill advised", he said. "I'm a free-market conservative with a long rightwing resume and most, if not all, of my team fits the same description and of us found it very problematic. Staying with Heartland Institute was simply not workable in the wake of this billboard". Heartland Institute took down the billboard within 24 hours, but by then the ad had gone viral. Lehrer, who maintains the split was amicable, said the billboard had undermined Heartland Institute's claims to be a serious conservative thinktank.

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