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Heartland's leaked documents show how climate skepticism spreads

Leaked internal documents from The Heartland Institute show how one organization is working to promote global warming denial.

By Nora Doyle-BurrContributor / February 16, 2012



Leaked internal documents expose some of the mechanisms a prominent 'free-market' think tank uses to discredit climate science.

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The website DeSmogBlog, which seeks to "clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science on climate change" obtained documents leaked by the Heartland Institute, including the organization's 2012 budget, its fundraising plan, and recent board meeting minutes. The institute, which has offices in Chicago and Washington D.C., has claimed that one of the documents is fake, but admits that others were authentic.  

The documents represent "a rare glimpse behind the wall of a key climate denial organisation," Kert Davies, director of research for Greenpeace, told The Guardian.

Whatever Heartland is doing, it seems to be working. Americans once largely embraced the science behind global warming, but no more. According to Harris interactive, in 2007, 71 percent of Americans believed that human activity was changing the Earth's climate. By July of 2011, that number had fallen to  44 percent.

Climatologists are mostly believers. Another Harris Interactive poll found that 97 percent of climatologists believe that global temperatures have increased in the past century. And 84 percent of these experts credit humans with causing the temperature increase. Scientists are still trying to understand the details of humans' impact on climate, what it means for the future and how to mitigate its effects.

But among most Americans, but belief – or disbelief – in climate science seems to be shallow, and it is largely driven not by science or scientists, but by politicians. A study published online in the journal Climatic Change last year, demonstrated that belief in climate change and its anthropogenic causes peaked in 2006-2007. The study suggests that this belief was due in part to congressional agreement on the issue.

The release of Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth" in 2006 also helped, as did the relatively stable economy.

But in 2008, the economy began to falter the consensus among political leaders dissolved. At the same time, a growing number of Americans began to embrace climate skepticism. 

Ohio State University sociologist J. Craig Jenkins, noted that one thing is clearly not influencing people's beliefs on climate change: science. 

"There is no linear process where people get educated about the threat and then demand action.  People’s views fluctuate quite a bit, and [a] lot has to do with what they hear from their political leaders. It is a political battle," he said in a press release

As for the Heartland Institute, they describe the impact of their work in this way: "A telephone survey of randomly selected state and local elected officials conducted in 2011 found 79% of state legislators and 63% of local elected officials read at least one of our publications. 45% of state legislators say a Heartland publication changed their mind or led to a change in public policy."

The organization influences opinion by providing funding to experts and bloggers, holding an annual climate change conference, and publishing responses to reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) through a group called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC). The Heartland Institute's communication tools emphasize areas of doubt and uncertainty in climate research.

An article published in July in the journal Nature said, "the Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters."

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