An American think tank which disputes climate change is planning to hold an event in Glasgow in the run-up to the United Nations (UN) climate summit in November.
The Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which has been funded by the fossil fuel industry in the past, has disclosed in a blog post that it will host a “Climate Reality Forum” in the city ahead of the UN’s 26th Conference of the Parties, known as COP26.
The news has been met with anger by environmental groups and politicians, who accused Heartland of spreading “dangerous disinformation” designed to “delay policies which can save people’s lives”. The institute has denied that it is a “front group” for the fossil fuel industry.
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COP26 is expected to be the largest international summit ever to be hosted in the UK, with over 200 world leaders descending on Glasgow to discuss responses to climate change.
This year’s COP is particularly significant as it represents the last opportunity for world leaders to finalise the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit average global temperature rises to two degrees centigrade to prevent disruptive climate change.
It is possible that COP26 could be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, though at the moment it is going ahead as planned. “We will keep it under close review,” the UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, told MPs on 19 March. “We would of course want it to go ahead but I can’t give you any guarantee on that.”
According to Heartland’s website, it is a “leading free market think tank…promoting free market solutions to social and economic problems”. It regularly produces media and hosts events which attempt to undermine the scientific consensus about human induced climate change.
Heartland has hosted “climate reality” forums in tandem with the previous two COP summits in Katowice, Poland and Madrid, Spain. Attendees at the Madrid event included the British climate denier Lord Christopher Monckton, a former UKIP leader and candidate in Scotland, who reportedly owned an estate in Perthshire.
William Happer, a former security adviser to President Trump, gave the headline speech in Madrid. He claimed that “human greenhouse gases were not causing a climate crisis” and “that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to a dramatic greening of the earth”.
Happer concluded his speech by stating that Trump “firmly agrees with climate realists that humans are not causing a climate crisis” and that he was confident that the president would “continue to advance a sound science agenda” if elected to a second term.
Heartland event ‘designed to distract’ from real climate summit
These statements contrast with the current scientific consensus on climate change. The United Nations views climate change as the “defining issue of our time”, the impacts of which are “global in scope and unprecedented in scale”.
Its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which brings together scientists from 195 countries, has stated unequivocally that “climate change is real and human activities are the main cause”.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, told The Ferret that the timing of the Heartland event is “designed to confuse” the public and distract from the “actual climate talks” taking place at COP26.
“The Heartland Institute is one of the principal forces for evil in the climate debate, trying to frustrate and delay policies which can save people’s lives and livelihoods, particularly in the world’s poorest countries,” he said.
Dixon pointed out that the institute’s “climate reality” forums sounded very similar to former US Vice-President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, which promotes action to combat climate change.
The co-leader of the Scottish Green Party, Patrick Harvie MSP, condemned the Heartland Institute for spreading “dangerous disinformation which seeks to undermine the overwhelming scientific evidence and protect vested interests.”
He added: “I would urge major hotels and other venues to avoid hosting such a dangerous and provocative event and focus on making COP26 a success.”
An undercover investigation of the 2019 Climate Reality Forum in Madrid by the German not-for-profit investigative newsroom, Correctiv, revealed the tactics used by the institute to undermine climate protection policies. These include producing articles and faux-scientific papers which mimic the style of established newspapers and scientific journals.
The Correctiv investigators were sent a strategy document by the Heartland Institute which showed how “disinformation is professionally scattered around society with the help of supposed experts, corrupt scientists, intentional spin and Youtube”. The aim of this document was to prevent “more prohibitive climate laws” in Germany.
Correctiv also disclosed plans to use the 19 year old You-tuber, Naomi Seibt – viewed as the climate sceptics’ answer to the mass appeal of Greta Thunberg – to attract a younger audience to Heartland’s agenda. Seibt is now employed by Heartland and has been tasked with “communicating climate realism to her generation in Europe and the United States”.
Dr Will Dinan, an expert in political communications at the University of Stirling, has criticised Heartland’s employment of Seibt as an “effort to use social media to distort perceptions and public beliefs about human activities driving climate change.”
He added: “Not only are Heartland using bogus experts to challenge scientific evidence they are now using bogus youth campaigners to undermine the emerging youth movement demanding serious climate action.”
Heartland stopped listing its donors in 2015
The institute has previously been funded by the fossil fuel industry. Research by the climate news site, Desmog, using financial information from Heartland’s 990 tax forms, found that they had received £580,700 ($676,500) from the oil and gas giant, ExxonMobil, since 1998. In the US 990 forms are the equivalent of tax returns for non-profit organisations.
Heartland stopped listing donors on its website in March 2015, citing concerns that it “allowed people who disagree with our views to accuse us of being ‘paid’ by specific donors to take positions in public policy debates”.
It said: “We frequently take positions at odds with those of the individuals and companies who fund us, so it is unfair to them to mention their funding when expressing our point of view.”
Analysis of 990 forms conducted by the Conservative Transparency Project and Desmog found that the majority of Heartland Institute’s funding now comes from Donors Trust and its associate Donors Capital Fund, though some is unverified.
Donors Trust was suggested as a channel for anonymised donations to the Correctiv investigators at the Madrid Climate Reality Forum. Under US law neither the trust, nor the fund, are legally obliged to identify donors.
Donors Trust protects the anonymity of individual donors by allocating funds on their behalf. It has been labelled the “dark money ATM of the Conservative movement” by the US magazine, Mother Jones.
In 2015 the Guardian reported that $125 million had been donated through Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund to “groups spreading disinformation about climate science” in the previous three years.
The Correctiv investigation also showed how Heartland is attempting to expand its network of climate denial into Europe. They have co-hosted events with the German climate denial group, the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE).
According to Der Spiegel, EIKE has close links with the far-right Alternative for Germany in the Bundestag, who have made opposition to climate protection a key part of their policy agenda.
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Asked to comment, the Scottish Government did not address the Heartland Institute event directly. “There is overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is real and requires a coordinated international response to combat it,” said a government spokesperson.
“COP26 is an important opportunity for countries to find consensus on how we all, collectively, tackle the climate crisis.”
Heartland has said that its forum is scheduled for October 2020 in Glasgow, but no details are yet available on the day or venue. The institute has not responded to requests from The Ferret to comment.
In response to earlier criticisms, Heartland has strongly denied that it is a “front group” for the fossil fuel industry. It said it had 5,000 supporters and in 2017 received 70 per cent of its income from individuals, 22 per cent from foundations, and six per cent from corporations.
“Funding from fossil fuel and tobacco companies has never amounted to more than five per cent of Heartland’s annual income,” it said. “The Heartland Institute has not received any funding from ExxonMobil, either the corporation or its foundation, since 2006.”
It added: “In the debate over the causes and consequences of climate change, we defend the scientific method and promote legitimate, peer-reviewed research on the question of whether human activity is causing a crisis…We have policies that strictly forbid undue influence by donors on our research and educational efforts.
“The Heartland Institute often is the target of misinformation and even outright lies about its mission, funding and donors, and members and staff. These attacks come overwhelmingly from left-wing advocates who object to our principled stand in defence of individual liberty and limited government.
“The Heartland Institute is a nonprofit organisation entirely devoted to making the world a better place for everyone. Heartland doesn’t adopt positions to raise money. If it did, it would avoid controversial positions on such topics as global warming, the war on drugs, and smoking bans.”
Image thanks to iStock/Ekaterina Simonova. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.