Explainer: What is the Heartland Institute?

Leaked documents from the Heartland Institute, which seeks to promote global warming skepticism, show an array of unlikely donors.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Microsoft founder Bill Gates speaks in London last month. Leaked documents reveal that the computer company donated some $60,000 to the Heartland Institute, a think tank that promotes climate change skepticism. Microsoft says that the donation was unrelated to climate change policy.

The climate change debate just got noisier. Leaked internal documents from the Heartland Institute have revealed the Chicago-based think tank's strategies for promulgating skepticism of the belief that humans are warming the planet.

The documents were acquired through email by an outside source pretending to be a part of the Institute. They were then posted on the DeSmogBlog, a blog that seeks to discredit industry-funded climate skepticism, and their contents have been widely dissected in news reports. But few media outlets go into detail about exactly what the Heartland Institute is.

Founded in 1984 by Chicago investor David H. Padden, the Heartland Institute initially focused on government policies that affected the American Midwest. Now it seeks to influence policies that have an impact on the entire planet.

According to its website the Heartland Institute promotes laissez-faire economics, stating that its mission is to "discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems."

Heartland's current CEO is Joseph L. Blast. Its staff of 40 works mostly in its Chicago offices, but the Institute also has 10 employees in Washington, D.C. Its panel of policy advisors, who provide what the Institute calls "Intellectual Ammunition", includes 130 members, most of whom are economics and law professors. Despite its conservative philosophy, the Heartland Institute says that it "is not affiliated with any political party, business, or foundation."

In reality, the Heartland Institute is an amorphous nexus of different groups and interests with just enough overlap in their ideologies to gather under the banner of a mission statement, but not enough to make the Institute a cohesive special-interest group. At the surface, the institute is composed of economists, businesspeople, politicians, and contrarian scientists.

But Heartland has deeper, less-apparent connections with a number of politically conservative groups, including the Cooler Heads Coalition, the Heritage Foundation and, notably, the influential American Legislative Exchange Council, along with many others. The web of institutional, individual, and corporate ties is endless, which may be why Heartland is so hard to define, and to criticize, compared to, for example, a registered lobbying group.

The Institute boasts what it calls 'a diverse funding base,' which includes roughly 1,600 individuals, foundations, and corporations. Heartland expects to raise $7.7 million this year. In 2006, the Institute stated that only a quarter of its income came from corporate sponsors. That same year, however, the organization said that it would stop publicly declaring its funding sources.

The leaked documents revealed current donors, some of whom are surprising. According to the documents, Microsoft donated about $60,000, and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKlein gave about $50,000. Both of these companies told the New York Times that their contributions were billed for projects unrelated to climate-change policy. 

Curiously, there was a notable absence of funding from publicly traded oil companies, although the privately owned Koch Industries – a major oil refiner – was indirectly represented by its co-owner's contribution of $25,000, through his own charity foundation. Perhaps most interesting is the revelation that an anonymous donor gave the institute $4.6 million in 2008, $1.6 million in 2010 and nearly $1 million in 2011. This donor's contributions bring into question Heartland's purported 'diverse funding base.' According to the documents, the donor has promised to give even more in 2012.

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