You might think the most important thing happening in Chicago this week is the NATO summit. Well, think again! The Heartland Institute’s 7th International Conference on Climate Change is taking place this week at the Hilton Chicago Hotel. To be fair, it’s not that easy for an event with “some 300 people who share an interest in debating the causes and consequences of climate change” to compete with a gathering of the world leaders. Nevertheless, the Heartland Institute is doing its best to make sure its conference won’t stay unnoticed – from its Unabomber billboard ad to alerting the media that the conference (just like the NATO summit) is targeted by radical groups trying to “stifle academic freedom and free speech.”
Heartland is fighting not just the a greater attention given to an event with more famous participants, but also the notion that climate denial is somewhat passé in 2012. It’s true that Mitt Romney might be on their side (at least the primaries Romney who said “my view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet”), but all-in-all it looks like the public doesn’t buy climate denial or skepticism anymore.
A recent poll found that 63 percent of the Americans say the U.S. should act on its own to reduce greenhouse gases, regardless of what other nations do. Also, more Americans link extreme weather events to climate change. Add to that a growing number of countries/states implementing carbon reduction policies and you can see why Heartland’s fight is actually not on the media attention, but about staying relevant.
I bet this notion of drastic times call for drastic measures was the one leading impetuses of the billboard campaign earlier this month with the unshaved face of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski next to the text “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” Of course after few hours this digital billboard, which was placed in Chicago’s inbound Eisenhower Expressway, was gone. Even Heartland understood (although they won’t admit it) that associating the belief in climate change with a notorious murderer might not be the best idea ever.
Still, the damage was already done and as a result, Heartland lost some staffers, experts associated with Heartland and some major corporate donors. According to the campaign group Forecast the Facts, which is pushing companies to boycott Heartland, the latest donors to move away from Heartland include Eli Lilly, BB&T Bank, and PepsiCo. The campaign began in February after Heartland’s Fakegate scandal, which included the leak of documents detailing Heartland’s funders. In total 11 companies have stopped supporting Heartland so far, costing Heartland more than $800,000.
This vacuum was filled quickly by the Illinois Coal Association and Heritage that stepped in to fund this week’s conference, joining a long list of co-sponsors from all over the world. In fact, this event sponsor list is like the Who’s Who of climate change deniers worldwide, making the summit as global as NATO’s. The summit even has a head of a country to show off with – Czech President Václav Klaus, who told the audience that climate activists are “exactly like communists” in their efforts to arrange society according to their desires. I have a feeling his peers in the NATO summit would beg to differ, but at Heartland’s conference it probably worked well with the audience.
Even with passionate participants like meteorologist Joe Bastardi or Peter Ferrara, author of “America’s Ticking Bankruptcy Bomb,” it seems that what happens outside the conference is more interesting than what’s going on inside it. After all, you can probably figure out what answer you will get if you ask “is man-made global warming a fact, or a failed hypothesis?” However, outside the conference there are a few interesting contra-Heartland campaigns going on.
The first is run by Forecast the Facts, SumOfUs.org and 350.org. They have organized their members to ride their bicycles through downtown Chicago with billboards that parody the Heartland Institute’s Unabomber ads, featuring Heartland corporate supporters Pfizer, Comcast, and Microsoft. These ads were actually meant to be presented on billboards but were rejected by the billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor who claimed they violate fair use and trademark law.
The second campaign is sponsored by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. It includes billboard ads asking in an Al Gorish informative yet humorless tone: “Who to believe on climate? Heartland … or EVERY National Scientific Academy in the world?” As you can guess, these ads weren’t rejected.
You can only wonder if the good people of Chicago have any idea what the fuss is all about. Basically this is a question that can summarize the whole conference. No matter how much support Heartland gets at the conference, they’re fighting a battle they already lost. It’s just a matter of time until the news will also reach the Hilton. Maybe in time for the next conference.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.