Two weeks ago, Joseph Bast sat in his cluttered office, 27 floors above downtown Chicago, saying he would rather not put on the annual climate skeptics conference that has come to define his organization. But, he insisted, the other side has left him no choice.
Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, the controversial conservative think tank that has become the intellectual nerve center of the climate skeptic movement. Its detractors dismiss it as the laboratory for anti-climate science obscurantism.
Starting Monday, Heartland will host its ninth climate skeptic conference in Las Vegas, which it is projecting to be its best-attended gathering yet. The event, pegged to the 2014 election, auspiciously falls amidst a recent White House effort to put the topic of climate change on the front burner of the nation's political discourse.
While the conference will seek to challenge, among other things, new Environmental Protection Agency proposals to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, a clear secondary purpose is to prove Heartland's influence isn't waning, in spite of recent setbacks.
In 2012, a cache of the group's internal documents were purloined by climate scientist Peter Gleick and leaked online. Among other things, the documents revealed a $25,000 contribution to Heartland from the Koch Brothers, which has since been used by critics of the think tank to dismiss it as a tool of the conservative industrialists. (Gleick declined to comment for this story.)
Bast insists this is the only money Heartland has ever gotten from the Kochs. As for the labels, he says: "What it demonstrates is the credible dishonesty of a lot of people in mainstream media and environmental activists," he says.
Bast argues that his organization has labored under this double-standard since the 1990s, when it used to list its donors online.
"Back then we had the moral high ground—and I think we still do," he said. "And the other side started picking the most unpopular donor off that list—'Oh, look, Philip Morris spent money'. So, regardless of what topic we had to address, regardless how expert our experts were, how careful the reasoning was behind us, they would try to dismiss it by identifying an unpopular donor on the list."
A month after the document leak, an ill-conceived billboard ad campaign sponsored by Heartland, which invoked the likeness of convicted "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, was met with national scorn. In the fallout, a number of the organization's corporate sponsors, including State Farm Insurance, publicly renounced their ties.
When Heartland opted not to host an annual conference last year, it was seen (indeed celebrated, by some) as evidence that the fossil fuel-defending operation had run out of gas. Bast said the real reason for the hiatus was much less dramatic: "More than anything we just wanted to take a break."
Bast, who studied economics at the University of Chicago, was the first person hired by Heartland's founder David Padden to help launch the think tank in 1984. Bast was also instrumental in the creation of the State Policy Network, a network of right-leaning state-based think tanks that came on the scene in the early 1990s. In addition to his work as an administrator, Bast has written or co-authored a number of books, including several that challenge mainstream health claims about cigarette smoking. According to the non-profit's latest 990, for 2012, Bast was paid an annual salary of $157,000.
Bast said he would just as well have not hosted a conference this year, but the other side has simply forced his hand.
At the start of the year, liberal financier Tom Steyer announced he would be putting $100 million into a Super PAC to make climate change a wedge issue leading up to 2016. And recently, President Obama has shown a renewed interest in doing the same.
At a speech last week before the League of Conservation Voters, Obama spiritedly mocked climate skeptics, especially those who serve as elected officials. (A Gallup poll from April found 39 percent of Americans were "concerned believers" about global warming, while 25 percent fell into the camp of "cool skeptics.")
"President Obama has decided to make this a big issue," Bast said. "We really were hoping we wouldn't have to keep pushing this issue, but I think Obama told us that we had to."
Perhaps to the surprise of many, Bast readily concedes that man-made climate change is real—"You cannot put billions of tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and not expect there to be an impact," he says—and argues that the climate change denialism is merely a straw man put forth by the left. (That may come as a surprise to a number of conservative politicians who continue to dispute made-made climate change or, as is more recently the case, play the "I'm-not-a-scientist card.")
Heartland presents a case for what could be termed climate capitalism, arguing that even if carbon emissions are negatively affecting the earth's atmosphere, the frantic call for an immediate course change is unwarranted. "It makes no sense for us to spend money today for a possible benefit 100 years from now," said Bast.
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Instead, he argues, humans can rely on what will almost assuredly be technological advances over the next few decades that will allow us to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This sanguine view completely goes against the latest report by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—still widely considered the gold-standard organization addressing the topic, despite Heartland's efforts to discredit it—which says some of the effects of climate change may already be irreversible.
Added Greenpeace researcher Connor Gibson: "The Heartland Institute and its wacky ideas are irrelevant to the important discussions around addressing climate change that scientists, policymakers, businesses, and communities are engaged in around the world.
"Their absurd refusal to acknowledge the real dangers of climate change is pretty simple—they're paid to protect the profits of coal and oil companies. It's a case study in how corporate money pollutes political discourse, as they systematically misrepresent what scientists know about climate change and protect polluting companies at the expense of everyone else."
Heartland, which celebrates its 30th birthday in September, first touched on the issue in 1994, with the publication of a book, co-authored by Bast, called "Eco-Sanity: A Common Sense Guide to Environmentalism." The climate change section accounted for a mere five pages of the 329-page volume. Heartland held its first conference in 2008, bringing together the disparate factions of climate science agitators from around the globe. Bast describes the first event like a religious revival.
"They were hugging each other, crying at the end of the conference," he said. "It was just the most emotional thing you have ever seen."
One gets the sense that this upcoming conference will be much more businesslike.