Who's the Crazy One Here?

May 4, 2012 | 5:04 pm
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

The Heartland Institute, a leading climate denialist organization, has launched a billboard campaign in its hometown of Chicago  featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, mass murderer Charles Manson, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The message? They “believe” in global warming, and they’re crazy; by implication, so are you if you “believe” in it too.


Put aside for a minute the absurd implication that climate change is a matter of faith, rather than of science. Focus instead on Heartland’s tactics. Do they really think that people driving by their billboards are going to buy their guilt-by-association messaging? Here’s what their own press release says about the rationale for the campaign:

“Why did Heartland choose to feature these people on its billboards? Because what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.”

It’s interesting who they fail to mention:

  • the National Academy of Sciences, whose report “America’s Climate Choices” concluded that Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems.”
  • the defense establishment, which is increasingly concerned about the national security risks posed by climate change; as outlined by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a speech just yesterday in Washington, these range from “rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters.”
  • the City of Chicago, whose climate change action plan notes that climate change impacts on Chicago will likely include “hotter summers and more frequent and intense heat waves,” as well as more intense downpours that “will make travel more dangerous, flood basements, pollute bodies of water, damage crops, stress the city’s infrastructure and disrupt transportation.”

In the face of these and other forceful acknowledgements of the reality and risks of climate change, the denialist movement has grown increasingly desperate, launching information attacks on scientists like Michael Mann, continuing to claim that e-mails messages hacked from a university website in the United Kingdom undercut the scientific case for human-induced climate change (despite the findings of eight independent investigations that they do nothing of the sort),  and running disinformation campaigns that, as Donald Brown of Penn State University recently put it, feature “reckless disregard for the truth, focusing on unknowns while ignoring knowns, and specious claims of ‘bad’ science.”

But this latest effort to change the focus of the debate from scientific reality to liberal conspiracy may be a bridge too far. While Heartland’s press release admits that “not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants,” their intent is clearly to plant that association in people’s minds. The tactic is so over-the-top that it’s likely to backfire, and lead more of its corporate sponsors to join General Motors, whose foundation earlier this year withdrew its support for Heartland. If so, the cost of this escapade could far exceed the rental fee for the billboard space along Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway.

UPDATE: The Heartland Institute has posted a statement by its president, Joe Bast, saying it is ending the billboard campaign, and admitting that “our billboard angered and disappointed many of Heartland’s friends and supporters.” This apparently includes Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, whose spokesperson told the Washington Post that Sensenbrenner “will not participate in the upcoming Climate Change Conference if the Heartland Institute decides to continue this ad campaign.” I guess sometimes even denialists like Bast have to acknowledge reality.

UPDATE #2: The response from Heartland’s corporate sponsors has been swift and furious. Brad Kading, president of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers, sent Heartland president Joe Bast a letter on Friday evening saying the campaign had made their relationship with Heartland “untenable,”  and is terminating its support.  Kading told Climate Wire that the billboard campaign “was disgusting. It was revolting. It was a terrible mistake.”  State Farm, which contributed nearly $350,000 to Heartland over the past two years, also announced it was ending its support of Heartland, as did several other insurers.  It will be interesting to see what some of the other major companies that have provided funding to Heartland, including Altria, AT&T, Comcast, Eli Lilly, Nucor, and Pfizer, decide about continuing their support for various Heartland projects in the wake of the group’s self-initiated crisis.