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Leaked docs offer insight into how climate-skeptic groups operate

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Recently, the DesmogBlog got its hands on a trove of alleged internal fund-raising documents from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that spends a fair bit of time disputing mainstream climate science. Do they actually tell us anything?

Nathan Denette/AP

No money for you, buddy.

First, some important details. At least one of the “strategy” documents (PDF) acquired by DesmogBlog appears to be a forgery — Heartland says that it is a “total fake” — though the forged document is mostly just a more inflammatory version of what’s in the actual fund-raising documents, which are not currently in dispute. (The Heartland Institute confirms that the fund-raising documents were inadvertently sent to an imposter who had set up a counterfeit e-mail address.) And, on the surface, there’s not a lot that’s new here: It’s been well-known for ages that skeptic groups spend a lot of money trying to call into question the scientific consensus on man-made global warming. But the documents do offer some fuller insight into how these organizations operate. For instance:

1) There’s still a lot of money in climate skepticism. The documents show that the Heartland Institute expects to raise $7.7 million this year. Less than one-third this is for climate-related matters — the libertarian group does work on a wide variety of public-policy issues, from health care to state pensions. Still, judging from the documents, the group has spent at least several million dollars attacking climate science over the past few years.

And those broadsides are getting increasingly more sophisticated. For instance, back in 2007, after the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its big report on the state of climate science — a comprehensive summary of what climatologists know about global warming — it took nearly two years for the Heartland Institute to set up its own “alternate” report savaging the consensus. This time around, however, Heartland is trying to raise at least $200,000 to make sure that it has its “Climate Change Reconsidered” report ready as soon as the IPCC releases its next big assessment in 2013. Skeptics are getting better at rapid response.

2) Big oil companies seem to be increasingly minor players in the skeptic arena. Seven years ago, most climate-skeptic groups could be linked to money pouring out of ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute — see Chris Mooney’s old expose from 2005 for details. One notable point about the Heartland documents, however, is that big oil companies don’t seem to be major donors. The Koch Charitable Foundation — a conservative charity linked to one of the country’s largest private oil refineries — chipped in $25,000 in 2011, but that was devoted specifically for a health care research program.* Exxon, for its part, stopped donating back in 2006 after pressure from environmental groups (up to that point, the oil giant had chipped in $675,000).

Indeed, according to the documents, much of the money comes from individual donors, particularly a person referred to as “the Anonymous Donor,” who gave $14.26 million over the past six years (nearly half of the group’s revenue). That’s one possible signal that climate skepticism is no longer the sole concern of self-interested fossil-fuel companies trying to fend off regulations — instead, it’s become a self-sustaining ideological endeavor, with no shortage of committed backers.

3) Many firms don’t like being associated with climate denial. The Heartland documents reveal that the organizations gets money in small doses from hitherto anonymous companies like Microsoft and GlaxoSmithKline, often for reasons not related to climate (Microsoft, for instance, hands out software licenses to certain nonprofits). But when contacted by the New York Times, those firms were quick to distance themselves from Heartland’s stance on global warming. “We absolutely do not endorse or support their views on the environment or climate change,” said a spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical maker.

4) Skeptic money doesn’t necessarily corrupt, but it can amplify marginal viewpoints. It’s sometimes suggested that climate skeptics are somehow corrupted because they take money from fossil-fuel interests and groups like Heartland. But Craig Idso, a skeptical scientist who receives $11,600 a month from the Heartland Institute, according to the documents, offers a more nuanced defense in his interview with Andy Revkin. Idso says that he has long opposed the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change — even before he was getting paid by Heartland.

That sounds plausible. It’s doubtful that many skeptics meaningfully alter their views in order to receive money from groups like Heartland. More likely, the effect of all this money is to increase the visibility and reach of once-marginalized folks who were already inclined to criticize climate science. (And, yes, a person’s funding sources have very little bearing on the actual merits of his or her views.)

5) The climate wars are moving to the classroom. One of Heartland’s fund-raising documents lays out the group’s plans to spend $100,000 per year to develop a curriculum for schools that would call basic climate science into question. (“Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective,” one Heartland document laments.”) A senior fellow at Heartland confirmed these general details to Brad Johnson of ThinkProgress. We’ve already seen battles over the teaching of evolution in public schools around the country. It wouldn’t be surprising to see local fights over climate science next.

*Clarification : The Koch Foundation’s $25,000 contribution in 2011 was for health care research, and not for anything climate-related.

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