Can the climate-science debate get any more toxic?

The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank that challenges the scientific consensus about climate change, was embarrassed by the release yesterday (Feb. 14) of confidential documents, including the names of corporate donors. They were published by environmental bloggers led by the DeSmog Blog, which describes its purpose as “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science.”

Today, Heartland struck back, saying that a key document was a forgery and that others were stolen “by an unknown person who fraudulently assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and persuaded a staff member here to ‘re-send’ board materials to a new email address.” Heartland said: “We intend to find this person and see him or her put in prison for these crimes.”

Wow. It’s getting nasty out there.

Heartland, the DeSmog blog and others who rushed to report on the purloined documents–one of which may turn out to be a fake–all come out of this tainted, some worse then others.

Here are my reactions to the documents, and the ensuing brouhaha: 

Money corrupts–or does it? Heartland’s critics have long charged that the think thank is funded by the oil, coal and gas industries. Yesterday, after the documents were published, a blogger for Oil Change International, which is critical (to say the least) of the fossil fuel industry, wrote that the leaked documents confirmed

what many people have known for years. That the Heartland Institute is effectively acting as a front group for big oil and energy, raising money from companies which are threatened by climate policies, so that it can essentially do their dirty work in undermining legislation that threatens their corporate bottom line.

Uh, no. If anything, it’s the opposite. Heartland turns out to be a small nonprofit, with a budget of well under $10 million a year. Few of its corporate donors come from the fossil fuel industry. Heartland’s 2011 corporate donors, according to a leaked fundraising plan, include Allied World Assurance Company Holdings ($60,000), Altria Client Services ($50,000), AT&T ($30,000), the Charles Koch Foundation ($25,000),  the General Motors Foundation ($15,000), GlaxoSmithKline ($20,000), Golden Rule Insurance Co. ($250,000), KCI ($115,000) Microsoft ($59,908), Nucor ($100,000), Renaissance Re ($317,000), Reynolds American ($110,000), State Farm ($230,000), State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. ($60,000), Time Warner Cable ($10,000) and XL Group ($35,000). Most of these donations were not climate-related, but intended to support Heartland’s de-regulatory agenda in the health care, insurance and telecom industries.  I emailed Microsoft and learned that its donations represent the fair market value of free software that the company makes available to all 501-C-3 nonprofit groups. [In FY 2011, Microsoft donated $844 million in software to 44,000 nonprofits around the world. The company has adopted a broad policy statement on climate change supporting government action to create market-based mechanisms to address climate change.] GlaxoSmithKline also publicly disassociated itself from Heartland’s climate positions.

This isn’t to say that Heartland won’t raise money from groups with a strong financial interest in its arguments. Here’s an excerpt from the fundraising plan, not about climate, but about fracking:

Fracking became controversial in 2010 and 2011 because environmentalists, hoping to prevent the development of large reserves of oil and natural case in the Marcellus Shale Formation, invented charges that fracking poses environmental and safety risks. The liberal media has uncritically reported these charges as though they were scientifically based, leading to pressure on national and state elected officials to ban or regulate the use of fracking. Heartland has been one of the most outspoken defenders of fracking in the U.S., using Environment & Climate News, its Web sites, and its PR and GR operations to comment repeatedly on the issue and reach large audiences. We have not, however, yet attempted to raise funds from businesses with a financial interest in fracking. In 2012 we intend to correct that oversight and approach dozens of companies and trade associations that are actively seeking allies in this battle.

Aside from the claim that environmentalists “invented” the problems associated with fracking — tell that to people in Pennsylvania and Wyoming who can’t drink their water — the trouble here is that once Heartland raises money from the “dozens of companies and trade associations that are actively seeking allies in this battle,” its position will be fixed. Given that unanswered questions remain about fracking, that’s not a place where a respected think tank would want to be. Its positions should be based on the evidence, not on the financial interests of its donors.

Then there’s the mystery man known in the Heartland documents as….the Anonymous Donor.

Transparency matters: We can’t say for sure whether Heartland is doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry because the identity of the Anonymous Donor remains secret. We do know that Anonymous Donor is interested in climate; he’s pledged $1 million for 2012, more than 30% of which is targeted to climate related projects, including something called the NIPCC Project, which challenges mainstream climate science. (“Learn the benefits of atmospheric CO2! Marvel at the resiliency of the biosphere!) He’s also backing plans by Heartland to create a climate curriculum for schools, arguing, among other things, that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy.” In fact, it’s not, although there’s considerable uncertainty about the degree to which climate will be changed by rising concentrations of anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The Anonymous Donor has given more than $12 million to Heartland since 2007. In 2007 and 2008 he accounted for well over 50% of the organization’s receipts.

It’s not just Heartland , of course, that needs to be transparent about the sources of its money. The Sierra Club shocked many of its own members when it was revealed recently that it took more than $25 million from the natural gas industry to support its campaign against coal. Michael Brune, the group’s executive director since 2010, has since put a stop to the practice.

I have requested a list of the corporate and foundation donors to DeSmog Blog, and will report back if (or if not) they are shared with me.

Don’t believe everything you read: Heartland says the document with the headline “Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” [PDF, download] is a fake. I’ll take Heartland at its word until the numerous bloggers who quoted from it can show that it’s authentic. But here’s the bigger problem–those bloggers published it without even checking with Heartland.

According to this story in Politico:

DeSmogBlog’s editors told POLITICO that they had received the documents Tuesday from an anonymous tipster who dubbed himself a “Heartland insider.” The blog posted them about an hour later without contacting the Heartland Institute for confirmation.

The purportedly fake document has been quoted on numerous environmental blogs including Joe Romm’s Climate Progress, which reveled in the leaks under the headline Heartland Documents Reveal Fringe Denial Group Plans to Pursue Koch Money, Dupe Children and Ruin Their Future.

So if you can’t trust Heartland to be fair-minded or science-driven, and you can’t trust DeSmog Blog to check its facts,  who can you trust? To find a more measured look at the story, you had to turn to the much-maligned mainstream media like The Guardian (which quoted from the fake document but at least sought comment from Heartland and others) and The New York Times, which published this fair but tough news story. Veteran climate reporter Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for the Times, has a long and insightful look at the Heartland documents and what they say about transparency, financing and climate which includes an enlightening email exchange with Craig Idso, a scientist (and former coal company executive) who is said to be receiving $11,600 a month from Heartland.

In an ugly fight like this one, you need referees.