Heartlandgate: when the tables are turned

Published Monday, March 5 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

We live in a world that has no shortage of double standards: where people or organizations may think it’s perfectly legitimate when something is done to someone else, but then express complete outrage when that same thing is done to them.  The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based free-market think tank, provided the world with a classic example of a double standard last month.

A bit about Heartland
According to its website, the mission of the Heartland Institute is “to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”  It’s well known in the US for its views advocating less regulation of virtually everything. 

Heartland has also made climate change denial part of its mission.  Its ‘Center on Climate and Environmental Policy’ (led by a science director with no listed credentials in climatology) advocates ‘free-market environmentalism’ – an ironic stance, given that climate change has been described as the biggest failure of the free market system.  In recent years, Heartland has organized six international climate change conferences focussing on denial of conventional climate science. 

Any remaining doubt about Heartland’s position can be dispelled by this testimonial of a supporter listed on its website: “Heartland is the indispensable component in winning the fight against the extreme environmentalists.”  There’s that e word again.

In November 2009, computers at a major climate research organization in the UK were hacked.  Thousands of illegally obtained private communications and documents were posted online.  A few lines in emails between several scientists immediately caused a stir because, taken out of context, they seemed to imply that those scientists were hiding or manipulating climate data – a notion that has since been soundly rejected by several investigations. 

But no matter: the global denial community immediately dubbed the hacking “Climategate”, and seized upon those few lines like vultures on roadkill.  Leading the flock was the Heartland Institute, expressing absolute outrage about those lines.  However, it apparently had no qualms about the fact that they had been illegally obtained through hacking.

About face
Last month, the tables were turned: some of Heartland’s own secret internal documents were made public.  They contained revealing details of Heartland’s climate change denial strategy – including plans to develop new K-12 science curriculum modules for US schools designed specifically to undermine established climate science by injecting controversy and uncertainty.

Heartland confirmed that the documents are real – and then reacted with outrage, decrying how they were obtained illegally and thundering on about how it would pursue those responsible to the full extent of the law. 

It’s funny how scruples and ethics, so conveniently ignored for the first leak, are now indignantly held aloft when the tables are turned.  We’re all guilty of hypocrisy at some time or other, but it’s rare for hypocrisy to be this pure, this deep and this blatant.  Caught with a soiled diaper, Heartland is shrugging and saying, “What smell?”

Science, not ideology
Viewed from space, Planet Earth looks like a big blue marble.  Borders, politics, economics and ideologies – all human creations – are imperceptible.  Earth just drifts continuously around the sun in accordance with the universal laws of science. 

And just because science is sometimes inconvenient, that doesn’t mean it can be rewritten to match one particular ideology or other.  Science is based on facts, data and evidence, all of which strongly point to a warming planet with emissions from fossil fuel use at the core.

The Heartland Institute and its ideologues may not like scientific facts, data and evidence, but that doesn’t justify their undermining or rewriting science.  It doesn’t justify their use of questionable ethics, claims and experts to sow confusion and create delay. 

It’s long past time for counterproductive chatter to end, so we can begin to get serious about solutions.