Global warming: Heated denials

The organized effort to cast doubt on climate change



Stand-up comedian Tim Slagle was on a roll. In a lunchtime routine tailored to 400 conference attendees, Slagle was killing ‘em with jokes about, well, global warming.

“Everything that [environmentalists] say is going to happen is bad. Couldn’t global warming be a good thing?” he asked. “I think New York might be pretty with a palm tree or two. And I guarantee that global warming would be a godsend to the Canadian citrus growers.”

Big laughs.

“Sheryl Crow said that maybe we should be limited to one square of toilet paper a day. That’s not a bad idea for me, because I’m a guy,” Slagle said. “I can sell toilet paper subsidy credits to all the women.”

Even bigger laughs.

It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. The March meeting at Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis hotel had the gravitas of any scientific meeting — papers were presented, experts questioned. But it wasn’t like any scientific meeting, exactly. In fact, the Heartland Institute’s Conference on Climate Change was a get-together for the global warming denial industry, which is engaged in an organized campaign to counter the scientific consensus that global warming is a real and imminent threat to the planet.

The effort isn’t new, but its organization and funding muscle have only recently been understood. And as the politics and substance of the global warming debate changes, the tactics and backers of the denial movement are changing as well.

A history of denial

The roots of organized skepticism about global warming date to the late 1980s, when the issue first began to garner regular headlines. The American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and other energy and automotive companies formed the now defunct industry lobbying group, the Global Climate Coalition, in 1989 to organize contrarian scientists to speak about uncertainty in climate science.

“The scientists who worked for the tobacco companies, who cut their teeth on these secondhand smoke studies, are now working for chemical producers, for the oil companies, [and] the coal companies,” said David Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and author of Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health.

Global warming skeptic Steven J. Milloy, for example, once headed the now-defunct Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, established in 1993 with money from cigarette maker Phillip Morris to help the company fight smoking restrictions. Today, Milloy is the founder of, a website that claims to debunk climate change science, and writes a column for

Fellow skeptic S. Fred Singer was also the principal reviewer of a report by the right-wing think tank The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution that criticized an EPA study on cancer risks and passive smoking. Singer later founded the Science & Environmental Policy Project, which works to dispute the science of climate change.

In 1991, a group of utility and coal companies created the Information Council on the Environment to lead an advertisement and public relations campaign to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact,” as author Ross Gelbspan wrote in his book The Heat is On. The group is now disbanded. In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobil also organized a meeting to propose a $5 million campaign to train contrarian scientists on public outreach.

By the late 1990s, the arguments grew more difficult, as the scientific consensus on human-induced global warming was solidifying. Since the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, hundreds of scientists across the globe have contributed to its reports. The panel’s findings led to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and its reports were instrumental in negotiations for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Under the protocol, signing countries agreed to binding targets to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

But that didn’t stop the deniers. The Global Warming Petition Project, for instance, claims to have gathered signatures from more than 30,000 scientists questioning global warming, and has published books, arranged speaking and debate engagements, worked with local governments, and used blogs and other Internet postings to influence the public. And a report last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists disclosed that ExxonMobil spent more than $16 million from 1998-2005 on groups that criticize the science on global warming.

Changes at ExxonMobil

But more recently, publicity about the workings of the denial movement appears to have resulted in some tactical changes. ExxonMobil announced last year that in 2006 it stopped funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-enterprise policy group, and that it would no longer fund several other groups active in the global warming debate.

“Over the past several years, we have discontinued contributions to several public policy research groups whose position was diverting attention from the issue,” said Alan Jeffers, the spokesman for the ExxonMobil Corporation. “We felt that we would prefer to focus on solutions and how to move forward rather than this distraction.”

To Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace USA, such statements illuminate ExxonMobil’s original intent.

“That’s an admission that the funding they were giving was a diversion,” Davies said. “That it was a tactical delivery of diversion, and now they’ve realized they’ve been caught.”

Not so, says ExxonMobil’s Jeffers. He says the company has never dictated policy positions or findings to sponsored groups, but instead funds a broad range of groups to promote discussion on issues.

“We’re not funding climate denial,” said Jeffers. “We’re not telling organizations what to say. We never have.”

The Competitive Enterprise Institute was not the only group that lost a big chunk of its funding from ExxonMobil. Among the other groups that have lost funding, according to ExxonMobil’s corporate giving reports, are these other groups involved in conservative challenges to climate science:

Federal Focus: A nonprofit research and education foundation that focuses on science policy.

The Advancement of Sound Science Center, The Free Enterprise Education Institute, and the Free Enterprise Action Institute: All were or are run by prominent skeptic Steven Milloy.

The Institute for Study of Earth and Man, at Southern Methodist University, in Texas: The Institute promotes education and research in geology, archeology, anthropology, energy, and environmental sciences.

The International Republican Institute: Seeks to advances freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance, and rule of law. IRI is affiliated with the Republican Party and is chaired by its presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. It and a Democratic counterpart receive most of their funding from the U.S. government.

The Media Institute: Describes itself as “a nonprofit research foundation specializing in communications policy and the First Amendment.”

The Reason Foundation and the Reason Public Policy Institute: The foundation seeks to promote “libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law.”

The Heartland Institute: A libertarian think tank that sponsored the conference on global warming in March.

A few months ago, ExxonMobil also announced it would de-fund the Capital Research Center, which advocates private alternatives to government regulation; The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which works on food, water, environmental, and energy policy; The Frontiers of Freedom Institute, founded by former Republican Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, whose mission is to promote conservative public policy based on free enterprise principles; The George C. Marshall Institute, which conducts technical assessments of scientific issues with an impact on public policy; and The Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit that conducts intensive research on government regulation of global energy markets.

While ExxonMobil’s Jeffers would not say that the new funding decisions were rooted in shifting policies at ExxonMobil, he stressed that there is now solid evidence of climate change.

“We had scientists on the IPCC; we know what the IPCC report says,” Jeffers said. “There is no disputing that good evidence shows that the climate has warmed. Our position is that the risk of man being involved in it warrants action in terms of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Everybody has learned more. The thinking has evolved.”

What’s a skeptic to do?

Still, said Sam Kazman, the general counsel to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, it was a surprise to be on the losing end of ExxonMobil’s shift in funding; the institute had received $270,000 or more a year from ExxonMobil.

Kazman believes ExxonMobil’s decision to de-fund his organization was a result of a 2006 television ad campaign the group created that included a little girl blowing away seeds from a dead dandelion with a final tagline that said: “Carbon Dioxide: They call it pollution, we call it life.”

After the ad aired, politicians sent letters to ExxonMobil demanding that they stop funding CEI. Shortly after that, the group learned it would no longer be funded, Kazman said. “We didn’t expect it. We didn’t expect the firestorm that our ads kicked off as well,” said Kazman who blames ExxonMobil’s decision on environmental groups and politicians.

“We certainly wish that [ExxonMobil] had stuck to their guns in terms of their views of global warming and what groups they’re funding,” Kazman added. “I think they were sort of the poster child for the intimidation campaign on who was supporting global warming skeptics.”

While the financial loss was a setback, Kazman said that CEI has recovered. Currently, corporate, individual, and foundation donors each represent a third of its funders, he said.

Faced with burgeoning funding challenges and the looming realization that it’s likely neither a President Obama nor a President McCain will maintain President Bush’s hands-off stance on climate change, many of the skeptic groups are now looking to new leadership, seeking other funders, and working on new tactics to shape the global warming debate.

New leadership

Over the past few years, the Heartland Institute of Chicago has emerged as the lead organizer of global warming skepticism. Indeed, it was Heartland that organized the gathering of hundreds of skeptics in New York in March that featured comedian Slagle as well as scientists, lobbyists, and nonprofit groups.

A think tank devoted to reducing the size of government, Heartland received more than $670,000 from ExxonMobil from 1998-2006, before the company stopped funding it in 2007. But Dan Miller, executive vice president of the Heartland Institute, called its funding from ExxonMobil “pocket change.”

“We can live without Exxon’s contribution just fine,” Miller said.

At its March conference, Heartland organizers made a point to say that no corporate funding financed the event. Prominent speakers at the conference included the libertarian Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, Willie Soon of the Marshall Institute, and Václav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic.

The event’s closing speech was given by ABC News reporter John Stossel, who gave the audience pointers on how to better sell their arguments to the media. (See our blog post in July about Stossel’s speech at the conference.) Stossel said he wasn’t paid for his speech, though the Heartland Institute did make a $4,750 donation to the Wellfleet Conservation Trust on his behalf.

Presiding over the conference was Heartland Institute president Joseph Bast. A former socialist turned conservative-libertarian, Bast once wrote a piece for the American Conservative Union Foundation titled “Why I am a Conservative,” in which he described being hired in 1984 at the age of 26 by David Padden, owner of an investment securities firm in Chicago, to start Heartland.

David Padden, a Chicago bond trader, is listed as a founding director in Heartland’s Articles of Incorporation. He has also been a director of libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, the anti-regulation Citizens for a Sound Economy (now known as FreedomWorks), and the Acton Institute, which “integrates Judeo-Christian truths with free market principles.”

Bast’s article on conservatism went on to reminisce about his time as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where he majored in economics and joined the libertarian movement.

Numerous news articles about Bast have described him as a graduate in economics from the University of Chicago. But in actuality, Bast did not receive a degree from the school. According to degree auditors The Student Clearinghouse, Bast enrolled in the school from 1976 to 1984 but never obtained his bachelor’s degree. Reached by e-mail, Bast said that he left the University of Chicago in 1984, 11 weeks before graduating, to start Heartland.

Finding new funders

Heartland’s Miller said that less than 5 percent of the institute’s $6 million budget comes from energy companies. Its website states that in 2007, it received 71 percent of its income from foundations, 16 percent from corporations, and 11 percent from individuals.

Heartland, like many nonprofits, does not disclose its funders and funding amounts.

Miller said individuals associated with Heartland had been harassed, so the group will no longer disclose individual donors. Older documents from the Institute show that it has received donations from companies including the Philip Morris Management Corp., Chevron USA, the National Coal Association, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco corporation, Ford Motors, and General Motors.

Also touted were conservative family foundations, including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Barre Seid Foundation. The Bradley Foundation has donated at least $500,000 to Heartland from 2003-2007, based on data from the Foundation Center, a nonpartisan group that compiles records of nonprofits. The Walton Family Foundation also donated at least $290,000 from 2003-2006, and the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation donated $176,000 in 2004.

Conservative family foundations have long served as a key source of funding for groups that deny the prevailing global warming science, and they seem to be increasing their largesse as ExxonMobil bows out.

A survey of global warming skeptic groups shows that family foundations have increased their donations steadily from 2004-2006. The Charles G. Koch and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable foundations, run by the Koch Family Foundations, both show increases in donations over the years to global warming skeptics. The foundations are funded through Koch Industries, a $110 billion corporation that works in petroleum, chemicals, fibers and polymers, and commodity and financial trading and services.

In 2004 the Koch Foundation donated about $350,000 to such groups, but in 2006, it donated $5.3 million. Likewise, the Lambe Foundation increased its funding to such groups from $1.4 million in 2004 to $2.6 million in 2006.

The Sarah Scaife Foundation, run by the heirs to the Mellon banking, oil, and industrial fortune, also increased its funding from $3.9 million to skeptic groups in 2004 to $4.3 million in 2006.

The total donations in the three years from 2004-2006 show that the Scaife/Carthage Foundations donated $15.2 million to such groups; the Bradley Foundation has donated $11 million, the Koch Foundation $6.7 million, the Lambe Foundation $6.2 million, and the Templeton Foundation $4.2 million. Together, these amounts from just 2004, 2005, and 2006, far exceed the donations from ExxonMobil over the past decade.

Making denials global

In May, the Competitive Enterprise Institute held its annual fundraising dinner at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. Tickets costed anywhere from $250 to $2,500 a plate, depending on the level of sponsorship. The event raised about $400,000, said CEI’s Kazman. The keynote speaker was none other than Václav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic.

Klaus has been a prominent denier and was also a featured speaker at the Heartland Institute’s conference earlier this year.

A longtime friend of the CEI, Klaus founded his own think tank in 1998, the Center for Economics and Politics, in Prague. His Center has published a book in Czech on global warming featuring the work of prominent deniers, as well as a Czech-language translation of “Global Climate Change: Facts Instead of Myths,” by the National Center for Policy Analysis. The think tank describes itself as pro-market, with a mission of formulating and promoting policies based on “free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, and Trans-Atlantic relationship.”

While the group doesn’t disclose its funding sources, saying that it relies on private support, The Cato Institute and The Foundation for Economic Education are featured partners on their website.

Reaching out to international groups to spread climate change skepticism will only increase, said Davies of Greenpeace. At the Heartland Institute’s conference, a number of the event’s co-sponsors were from abroad, including think tanks in India, China, Australia, Europe, and Canada.

The Civil Society Coalition on Climate Change is composed of many of these international groups. In 2007, it published a 100-page book titled Civil Society Report on Climate Change, written by 46 groups in 36 countries. In April, India’s Liberty Institute, a member of the coalition, launched the report at a press conference in New Delhi.

The U.S. Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), which has received over $542,000 from the ExxonMobil Foundation, has also created a European group of the same name. In January, CFACT-Europe published “The Climate Catastrophe — What Is It All About? — The Nairobi Report on Climate Change, Climate Madness, and Climate Hoax.”

In Canada, the Friends of Science Society and the Natural Resources Stewardship Project have some key members in common, and both groups have been active in the cause of global warming skepticism. Friends of Science made the film Climate Catastrophe Cancelled: What You’re Not Being Told About the Science of Climate Change in 2005, and subsequent reporting has revealed that the group receives about a third of its funding from the petroleum industry.

The Natural Resources Stewardship project keeps its funding footprint hidden.

The group is led by Tim Ball, a retired climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg, and formerly by Tom Harris, a lobbyist who worked for the Toronto-based High Park Group and has been linked to energy industry lobbying interests. Harris has gone on to be the executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition, which seeks to push “the collapse of climate change alarmism,” according to a speech Harris made at the Heartland Institute’s March conference.

New tactics

Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has said that while the group’s in-your-face television ads might have cost them ExxonMobil’s backing, CEI has continued its work with a video production campaign.

“I think you’ll see from the other work we’ve done that we haven’t stepped back from that,” Kazman said, pointing to its ads last spring focusing on the economic effects of climate change policy on individuals. The ads have all been uploaded to YouTube as well.

The latest CEI campaign is representative of a shift in the skeptic rhetoric, said Greenpeace’s Davies. First, there was complete denial of the science, and then a more nuanced casting of doubt on the science. The current message from skeptics, Davies says, is that human-induced global warming may be a reality, but mitigation strategies are simply not economically viable.

“They’re using more economic arguments. They say it’s about jobs. That it will kill the economy and is not something we should act hastily about,” Davies said. “They’re shifting their words, tactically hitting on what people care about. . . . They are using words like rationing and freedom. That environmental legislation is going to take away people’s freedoms and make their bills go up.”

Davies believes the skeptic groups are also growing more adept at using the blogosphere and other grassroots methods to get their message out. They are also creating controversial ads that generate their own coverage in local media.

CEI’s latest ad campaign attempts to reach the younger generation by using old video footage of a Wendy’s hamburger commercial in which elderly women lament that a burger lacks meat. “Where’s the beef?” they ask. In CEI’s version, three younger women order a burger and a man wearing an Al Gore mask heats the burger in a microwave labeled Al Gore’s Global Warming Machine. He then wraps the burger up with a picture of the earth and hands it to her, saying, “Careful now; this is very hot.” When the young woman opens the package, she says: “This isn’t very warm.” The ad ends with the same young woman asking, “Where’s the warming?” and splices of a song from the Long-Island hip-hop group 857 titled “Where’s the Beef?” (Click here to watch the video.)

Earlier this year, during the primary election season, the coal industry also waged a $35 million public relations campaign in which a van was deployed to drive around the country to broadcast pro-coal messages at the sites of presidential debates. Local residents were also tapped to hold handmade signs and offer literature and materials.

“They’ve got T-shirts and schwag and signups for petitions,” Davies said. “It comes close to direct action, to Greenpeace tactics . . . typically deployed by civil rights, and environment and women’s rights movements.”

How the next generation of the denial machine will look is not yet entirely clear, but Elliott Negin of the Union of Concerned Scientists is certain that there’s more to come. “People are still confused about global warming because of the campaign that the skeptics have been waging,” Negin said. “The battle’s not over. As long as the coal and oil and auto industries and the right-wing foundations keep spending their money on these groups, we’ll still have this problem.”

For some, like Colleen Swan, the rhetorical back-and-forth is just one part of a larger struggle. Swan lives in the Arctic Ocean hamlet of Kivalina in northwest Alaska. Each time a wave over six feet high crashes into the shore of her village, Swan is swept up by intense waves of anger and worry.

For decades, autumn storms in her native Inupiat village have gotten steadily worse, and Swan believes the reason is clear: climate change. Erosion has caused cliffs to break away and melting permafrost has created massive depressions in the ground. Where ice slush along the shore once acted as a buffer from the harsh surf, it’s now seawater most of the year.

Facing the prospect of relocation, and with no way to foot the multimillion-dollar moving bill, the villagers sued the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters in February, claiming that their contribution to global warming has led to rising water levels and the destruction of their village. Part of the lawsuit charges ExxonMobil with leading a civil conspiracy to deny a consensus on global warming. The case is still pending.

ExxonMobil declined to comment on the litigation, but the oil companies’ motion to dismiss the suit argues that there’s no evidence their actions have contributed to Kivalina’s problems. The motion says the courts are the wrong forum for crafting climate change policy, and that such decisions should be the made in the legislative process. As for the conspiracy claim, the motion says the First Amendment protects the energy firms’ actions.

None of that is very comforting to Swan. As she walks the streets of Kivalina — streets that residents must soon abandon — Swan says it’s the denials of global warming, and the funding received by deniers, that upset her most.

“They’re creating doubt when people should be opening their eyes,” Swan said. “Global warming is happening, and people are suffering all over the world because of it.”

Steve Burkholder, Danielle Ivory, and Nikola Horejs contributed to this report.

Clarification: This article states that in 2006, the Koch Foundation gave $5.3 million to “global warming skeptic groups.” In addition to their global warming-related work, these groups, such as the Pacific Research Institute, the Media Research Center, and the Mercatus Center, are concerned with an array of other issues, including free enterprise, personal responsibility, and health care.

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