Diminished Climate Alarmism: Lessons from L’Affair Heartland
“Without being a trained climate scientist, I can read the various blogs and try to parse the academic papers, but ultimately I have to rely a lot on the good faith and judgment of the scientists themselves. The Heartland affair has reassured my earlier conviction that the case for climate alarmism is far weaker than the alarmists have been telling us.”
As an economist who has done some research on climate change policies, I am often asked questions along the lines of, “Is the science right or is it really a hoax like Rush Limbaugh says?” My standard reply is to acknowledge first of all that I’m not trained in the field, but to say that from my outsider perspective, it seems that the people warning of imminent catastrophe are vastly overrating the likelihood of their dire forecasts.
The behavior of Joe Romm and other famous climate-change alarmists during the recent Heartland Institute affair beautifully illustrates my position.
The Heartland Affair: A Quick Recap
I am assuming most readers are familiar with the basics of the Heartland Institute affair, but for those who aren’t, I highly recommend Megan McArdle’s blog posts on the issue (1, 2, 3, and 4). Not only did McArdle keep up with each new development in the saga practically in real-time, but she herself was one of the active participants in unraveling the mystery of the initially anonymous leaker, who turned out to be climate scientist (and advocate of rapid government intervention) Peter Gleick.
I recognize that some readers may be too busy to go back over four blog posts, so let me give the essentials of the story that are necessary to understand my own reaction: Back in February, an anonymous person calling him- or herself “Heartland Insider” emailed a cache of documents to various bloggers who promote government policies to combat climate change.
The Heartland Institute is one of the leading think tanks that oppose such policies, and the sensitive nature of the documents (including funding sources and strategies for the future) made the cache seem analogous to the infamous Climategate emails.
(Full disclosure: I was paid to give a talk at a Heartland conference a few years ago, summarizing my research on the poor case for instituting a carbon tax as a solution to climate change.)
For a typical example, here is the February 14 reaction of Richard Littlemore at DeSmogBlog to the receipt of the documents:
An anonymous donor calling him (or her)self “Heartland Insider” has released the Heartland Institute’s budget, fundraising plan, its Climate Strategy for 2012 and sundry other documents (all attached) that prove all of the worst allegations that have been leveled against the organization.
It is clear from the documents that Heartland advocates against responsible climate mitigation and then uses that advocacy to raise money from oil companies and “other corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies.” Heartland particularly celebrates the funding that it receives from the fossil fuel fortune being the Charles G. Koch Foundation.
Heartland also continues to collect money from Philip Morris parent company Altria as well as from the tobacco giant Reynolds American, while maintaining ongoing advocacy against policies related to smoking and health.
Heartland’s policy positions, strategies and budget distinguish it clear as a lobby firm that is misrepresenting itself as a “think tank” – it budgets $4.1 million of its $6.4 million in projected expenditures for Editorial, Government Relations, Communications, Fundraising, and Publications, and the only activity it plans that could vaguely be considered policy development is the writing of a curriculum package for use in confusing high schoolers about climate change.
There will be more comment and analysis to follow on DeSmogBlog and elsewhere, but we wanted to make this information available so that others can also scrutinize the documents and bring their expertise to the task.
The Littlemore post then has downloadable links to the documents contained in the initial leak. By far, the most damning document was the “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” memo [.pdf]. It was exactly what the alarmist bloggers wanted to find, and it was upon this document that they based their claims of Heartland’s foul play.
The only problem is, the document is clearly a fabrication, and any reasonable person could have identified it as such within minutes of inspection. Heartland itself almost immediately said that this particular strategy memo was bogus, while (eventually) acknowledging that the other documents were legitimate. If the reader follows the Megan McArdle links above, the numerous problems with this particular document are outlined.
Yet as of this writing—a month after all reasonable people following the case would know the situation—the DeSmogBlog post doesn’t even have an update, warning readers that there is, to say the least, some dispute as to the authenticity of the document. (To its credit, ThinkProgress took down the strategy memo after its numerous problems came to light.)
Climate Strategy Memo Legit? No Way!
The single most amazing aspect in this affair is the sheer implausibility of the alleged Climate Strategy memo. As McArdle observed, “it reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.” I mean really, just look at this absurdity:
Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective. To counter this we are considering launching an effort to develop alternative materials for K-12 classrooms. We are pursuing a proposal from Dr. David Wojick to produce a global warming curriculum for K-12 schools. Dr. Wojick is a consultant with the Office of Scientific and Technical Information at the U.S. Department of Energy in the area of information and communication science. His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain–two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science. We tentatively plan to pay Dr. Wojick $100,000 for 20 modules in 2012, with funding pledged by the Anonymous Donor. [Bold added.]
When reading the passage in bold, the climate bloggers who received the anonymous email should have had alarms going off. “Danger, danger, Will Robinson! This is obviously a hoax.”
First of all, the academics associated with Heartland think the science is on their side. They would never in a million years describe what they are doing as “dissuading teachers from teaching science.” Second of all, even if they did think that’s what they were ultimately doing, would Heartland phrase it like that in a memo for its top supporters?
Just think about that for a moment. In a mob movie, does the boss typically say to his underlings, “OK guys, tomorrow we are going to commit some serious violations of morality”? Of course not. Instead he’ll say, “We’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” or maybe, “Tomorrow we settle the score” or “We’re going to protect our family once and for all.”
The Climate Strategy memo also contains this gem:
Heartland plays an important role in climate communications, especially through our in-house experts (e.g., Taylor) through his Forbes blog and related high profile outlets, our conferences, and through coordination with external networks (such as WUWT [Watt’s Up With That] and other groups capable of rapidly mobilizing responses to new scientific findings, news stories, or unfavorable blog posts). Efforts at places such as Forbes are especially important now that they have begun to allow high-profile climate scientists (such as Gleick) to post warmist science essays that counter our own. This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out. [Bold added.]
It should be obvious to any neutral reader that no one associated with Heartland would have written such a thing, because no one at Heartland is consciously “anti-climate.” Whoever fabricated the above—and many people think it was Gleick himself, which would explain the odd attention he receives as opposed to more famous “warmists” such as Al Gore or James Hansen—must imagine all opponents as Montgomery Burns from the Simpsons, chanting “Ehhhhhxcellent” while eating a bald eagle stew.
Finally, for added quantitative evidence that this document was clearly forged, consider the fact that it claims the Koch Foundation gave $200,000 for climate efforts in 2011. In reality, the Koch Foundation only gave $25,000 in 2011, and that was for projects related to health care. Surely the “inner circle” of Heartland wouldn’t commit such a massive error in discussing donations of this magnitude. If the discrepancy had been $200,000 versus $20,000, then we could entertain the theory that it was a typographical error.
But in light of the other oddities (outlined by McArdle and others) of this memo—coupled with the two oozing absurdities I quoted above—this mistake of $25,000 for health care activities, with $200,000 for climate projects, should have been the icing on the cake. This memo is clearly fraudulent, and yet DeSmogBlog to this day leaves up its original post with not even a nod to the controversy.
The Gullible Climate Bloggers
Some defenders of Gleick have asked what would be in it for him? Why would he have the motive to fabricate the Climate Strategy memo, since (by his own confession) he tricked a Heartland staffer into sending him the other, legitimate documents?
The answer is obvious: The legitimate documents weren’t damning enough. So someone (not necessarily Gleick, though he is the obvious suspect) cooked up the fake document that has the juiciest quotes. Steve McIntyre has a great post showing the timeline of the story as it bounced through the blogosphere. Skim through the initial discussion by the pro-intervention climate bloggers, and see how they focus almost exclusively on quotes taken from the bogus memo, not from the legitimate documents that Gleick obtained through his deception.
Now to be sure, climate science isn’t the same thing as politics and the blogosphere. Just because these climate alarmists showed ridiculously bad judgment when it came to the Heartland affair, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong about the trajectory of global temperatures in the absence of mitigation strategies.
However, I do think this episode—and the reaction of the skeptic community during Climategate—are quite illustrative of the two camps’ approaches to the actual science. Back when the Climategate emails were first spreading around the Internet, I distinctly remember many people in the comments at blogs such as ClimateAudit warning their peers by saying things like, “Guys, remember, we’re skeptics. This is too good to be true. Let’s not jump up and down on this, because it might be a trap to make us look gullible.”
In contrast, the major players on the other side—when Heartland was “caught” saying things that were far more absurd than what the Climategate emails revealed—jumped with glee. For example, Leo Hickman at The Guardian‘s climate blog wrote on February 15:
Again, much to digest here, but for me one thing stands out beyond the talk of trying to “cultivate more neutral voices” and “coordination with outside networks”. When you recollect all the hullabaloo expressed by climate sceptics about how climate scientists apparently try to close down debate etc, then this sentence says so much:
This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out.
If you like your hypocrisy sandwiches served with a side order of double standards, then these leaked documents are certainly the place to dine out.
Now Hickman was obviously eager to jump on Heartland, and he did so (in the above fashion) when the story first broke. But now, a month later, surely he has updated the post, to reflect the fact that most of his quotes come from a memo that is clearly fake?
Nope, all we have is this terse update: “UPDATE: 8.47pm The Heartland Institute has now issued a statement claiming one of the documents – “2012 Climate Strategy” – is “fake”.”
And be sure to check out Joe Romm’s reaction to the Gleick confession. Let’s keep in mind the irony here: Gleick was an outspoken champion for scientific integrity and ethics—accusing opponents such as Judith Curry of disappointing him in this regard—and then admitted he had pretended to be a Heartland board member, in order to trick one of their staffers into sending him documents from their last meeting.
This is arguably a crime, let alone an action unbecoming a scientist. Anyway, Romm certainly doesn’t throw Gleick under the bus. Instead, he writes an all’s-fair-when-it-comes-to-saving-the-planet defense, and spends a lot of time talking about what a jerk he thinks Andrew Revkin is.
The Heartland affair has shown not merely that some climate alarmists (namely Gleick) will stoop to outright deception, and most of his peers will close ranks to defend him in a sort of Green Wall of Silence. Perhaps more disturbing, it reveals that these people really have no idea how their opponents on the climate issue actually view the world. So when they dismiss skeptics as having no legitimate arguments, it should make outsiders take pause.
Without being a trained climate scientist, I can read the various blogs and try to parse the academic papers, but ultimately I have to rely a lot on the good faith and judgment of the scientists themselves. The Heartland affair has reassured my earlier conviction that the case for climate alarmism is far weaker than the alarmists have been telling us.