Living in a Glass House in the Heartland

, former president | February 16, 2012, 9:28 pm EDT
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The Heartland Institute, the libertarian organization that has rarely discovered a peer-reviewed climate change science study that it finds credible, has become a victim of a possible crime.

By its telling, someone “fraudulently” assumed the identity of a Heartland Board member and fooled a staff member into “re-sending” a number of internal documents about their climate change projects.  These projects are designed to undermine public confidence in the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is driving disruptive changes in our climate.  The alleged con-man or woman then launched the documents into the blogosphere.

The Institute’s angry response has been to note that identify theft and computer fraud are criminal offenses subject to imprisonment, and to say, “We intend to find this person and see him or her put in prison for these crimes.”

I find myself agreeing with their conclusion: if a crime has been committed, it should be investigated and prosecuted within the full scope of the law.

The contradiction here is that Heartland had the opportunity to take a similar position of integrity when unknown individuals hacked into the hard drives of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in England in 2009 and released scores of email exchanges between scientists in the U.S. and England.

As UCS’s Michael Halpern observed in a blog last December 19, shortly after the same hacker (or hackers) released a second batch of emails stolen from those climate scientists, “the immediate question that sprang to my mind was, ‘Why haven’t we found them yet?’.”

Certainly the Heartland Institute was silent about the inaction of British investigative authorities and the U.S. Department of Justice.  Worse, Heartland was extremely active in exploiting the stolen emails to argue that climate scientists were playing fast and loose with climate science.  Heartland and other climate deniers took the scientists’ emails out of context, a fact validated by five independent investigations that have since found no wrong-doing by those scientists.

The bigger crime

It’s all well and good for me to take the easy shot that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.  Or in this case, one shouldn’t gladly throw rocks and then angrily lash out when rocks come crashing through your window in return.

The far more disturbing story here is in what the content says in the internal Heartland documents.

Even if one dismisses the one strategy document that Heartland says is a fake, the other documents are rich in offensive, well-funded projects aimed at sowing doubt about the truth.

A project called “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Schools,” for example, laments “the absence of educational material suitable for K-12 students on global warming that isn’t alarmist or overtly political.”  The memo candidly conveys that “Heartland has tried to make material available to teachers, but has had only limited success.  Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective.”

Or, it may be that principals and teachers know a strong scientific consensus when they see one and object to being manipulated by a secretly-funded and waged campaign to infiltrate science classrooms in our public schools.

This project would start by producing modules for grades 10 to 12 that presses the fiction that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy,” that models used to explore how climate works are unreliable and “whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial.”  More modules would target grades 6, 7, and 9.  To this, today’s New York Times story on this matter said bluntly: “It is in fact not a controversy.  The vast majority of climate scientists say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain about the exact magnitude of that risk.”

(The memo, candid to a fault, made two observations that many of us can agree with: “(M)aterial for classroom use must be carefully written to meet curriculum guidelines, and the amount of time teachers have for supplemental material is steadily shrinking due to the spread of standardized tests in K-12 education.)

This case has magnified one of the primary reasons for the poisoning of our national discourse and the near-paralysis of our national government in addressing life-threatening crises like climate disruption.

The late, great New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions.  They’re just not entitled to their own facts.”  Heartland and other entities funded by fossil fuel interests have aggressively been trying to buy their own facts, when the facts based on the rigorous and expansive body of climate science conclude that we are changing the ability of our planet to sustain life as we know it.

A different set of technical facts—produced by the engineers, designers, and manufacturers who are advancing technology to make our homes, businesses, factories, and transportation options far more efficient and less polluting—reveal that we can respond to the urgency to act on climate change in a way that modernizes our economy and gives us a fighting chance to lessen the harshest impacts of global warming.

The deep anger that pervades Heartland’s public statement yesterday seems to indicate embarrassment at being caught doing something that isn’t honorable, of which they are not proud.  Why else would they threaten to pursue civil and criminal charges and seek damages from individuals who wrote about the stolen documents?  Why else would their donors insist on anonymity?

Heartland called for “common decency and journalistic ethics.”  I couldn’t agree more.  But an even-handed application of either or both would never lead an organization to dream up a middle- and secondary-school curriculum that deceptively undermines the truth.

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  • Mary

    I’m so happy that another voice – and a truly credible UCS voice – has been added to the outraged throng. Heartland’s effort to infiltrate grade school curricula is not only unacceptable; it signals a terrible desire to use children to advance their agenda. Can’t we at least agree that we should protect children from ideological – and false – agenda? Thank you, Kevin Knobloch, for pointing out the flaws and problems with Hearland’s approach.

  • Thank you, Kevin for a superb post. Some are focused on whether or not the memo is real or fake. It matters not because the information in that memo is corroborated in the other docs and Heartland has a very long history of supporting flat earth science and Big Tobacco – both of which targeted our children.

    The blogger community along with mainstream media has been spanking Heartland Institute for the past week – and deservedly so. Heartland broke a sacred rule:


  • The causal link between CO2 and warming is fundamental physics, known for over a century. If you want a reference I highly recommend Spencer Weart’s history available online free at

    As the NY Times reported, there is indeed no controversy on that part – and a number of others – of the science. Any educational program claiming otherwise is teaching our children lies. If that’s really what Heartland was working on, and this blog post indicates it was along those lines based not on the supposedly “fake” memo but on the other documents, then that is truly despicable,

  • Andrew Dessler

    I’d like to congratulate the UCS on keeping the light shining on this important story. Regardless of whether one of the documents is fake or not, the fundamental facts are clear: Heartland has engaged in a systematic effort to distort the science of climate change in order to push an ideological agenda. Everyone needs to know about this.

  • Peter D. Tillman


    “Megan McArdle, a senior editor for The Atlantic and no FAN of Heartland. ”

    — if you could please fix the typo. Thanks!

  • Peter D. Tillman

    Readers should be aware that the “Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” appears to be a forgery, and has been specifically disowned by Heartland. Please see “Leaked Docs From Heartland Institute Cause a Stir—but Is One a Fake?”

    and “Heartland Memo Looking Faker by the Minute”,

    — both by Megan McArdle, a senior editor for The Atlantic, and no fn of Heartland. The apparently-faked memo has been widely quoted in the press and online, with the most widely quoted line about “dissuading teachers from teaching science.” McCardle documents other errors and distortions in the apparently-forged memo, including crediting the Koch Foundation with a $200,000 donation to Heartland for global warming work. Koch actually donated $25,000 for health-care research. McCardle notes that the memo appeared to be “written by someone who doesn’t know anything about facts of the donation, but does know that the Kochs make great copy.”

  • PlainBill

    Just two questions: who is Aaron Huertas, and why did he write the memo?

    • Aaron Huertas

      Hey, Plain Bill,

      I think you might be asking about an open letter seven scientists sent to the Heartland Institute last week. My name has come up because I sent the letter to a media outlet that published it. (Part of my job here at UCS is helping scientists reach out to journalists and the public.) After one of the scientists sent me a Word document version of their final letter, I converted it to a PDF on my computer so it couldn’t be accidentally changed or edited. Unbeknownst to me, that caused my name to appear as the “author” of the PDF file. Hope that clears up any confusion. Gavin Schmidt, one of the letter signers, answered a related question here on RealClimate:

      Aaron Huertas