Heartland’s Mad Billboard Stunt

The folks at the Heartland Institute are mad, and that seems to have driven them a little mad. For years environmental activists have compared climate skeptics and those who raise questions about the likelihood of a warming-induced apocalypse to Holocaust deniers and worse. In 1989, then-Senator Al Gore famously compared those who downplayed the climate threat to those who ignored Hitler’s rise and NASA’s James Hansen compared coal-bearing trains to the rail cars headed to Nazi crematoria, drawing a moral equivalence between the use of coal and the Holocaust. Think Progress also trumpeted the “climate denial” views of Norwegian terrorist Andrew Breivik and claimed he was “inspired” by mainstream climate skeptics.

Then, earlier this year, Heartland was the target of directed smear campaign after the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick surreptitiously obtained internal Heartland documents by impersonating a board member. Gleick anonymously distributed the purloined documents together with a forged memorandum purporting to provide further evidence of Heartland’s internal dealings. Progressive bloggers trumpeted the materials, and the forged memo in particular, as evidence of Heartland’s sinister machinations. While it seems likely that Gleick himself forged the memo (or knows who did) Heartland may have difficulty seeking legal redress for his actions. I posted on what some call “Fakegate” here and here.

Instead of trying to retain the moral high ground by defending the substance of its views, Heartland adopted the tactics of its most unhinged critics, purchasing a billboard comparing those who believe in global warming to the Unabomber. According to Heartland, this was to be the first in a series featuring famous “global warming alarmists,” including Osama Bin Laden, Fidel Castro and other “rogues and villians.” Heartland explained the campaign this way:

what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming. They are so similar, in fact, that a Web site has a quiz that asks if you can tell the difference between what Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, wrote in his “Manifesto” and what Al Gore wrote in his book, Earth in the Balance.

The point is that believing in global warming is not “mainstream,” smart, or sophisticated. In fact, it is just the opposite of those things. Still believing in man-made global warming – after all the scientific discoveries and revelations that point against this theory – is more than a little nutty. In fact, some really crazy people use it to justify immoral and frightening behavior.

The response to this ad was quite negative from friend and foe alike, prompting Heartland to pull the ad within 24 hours. Heartland now claims the billboard was an “experiment.”

“This provocative billboard was always intended to be an experiment. And after just 24 hours the results are in: It got people’s attention.

“This billboard was deliberately provocative, an attempt to turn the tables on the climate alarmists by using their own tactics but with the opposite message. We found it interesting that the ad seemed to evoke reactions more passionate than when leading alarmists compare climate realists to Nazis or declare they are imposing on our children a mass death sentence. We leave it to others to determine why that is so.

Well lots of folks didn’t get the joke, including many of Heartlands friends and funders. Several speakers have withdrawn from Heartland’s annual climate conference, including Rep. James Sensenbrenner and IPCC critic Donna Laframboise. (More reactions here and here.) E&E News also reports the publicity stunt is costing Heartland financial support, and could prompt staff departures too.

Even if the billboard was initially designed as an “experiment,” it was a stupid idea. The implicit argument of the billboards is completely unjustifiable. So what if some tyrants and whackjobs believe in global warming. This is like arguing someone should eat meat because Hitler was a vegetarian. Lots of evil, crazy, and stupid people believe plenty of sensible things (and lots of brilliant people have embraced nutty ideas). Heartland’s justifiable anger at the vitriol spewed by its most extreme or unhinged opponents does not justify sinking to their level. If the folks at Heartland believe there is a double-standard — and I believe there is, even though I also believe anthropogenic global warming is a real problem — then they should explain why. There’s no need to provoke and offend countless commuters and others by suggesting that a believing in global warming makes one like the Unabomber. It was a know-nothing message, and not just because most so-called “skeptics” actually believe in global warming too, and only reject apocalyptic climate projections. I expect this sort of stunt from extreme animal rights groups, not those who purport to want an open and honest scientific debate. However angry the Heartland folks may be with some of those on the other side, this stunt was unjustified and unwise — and by all accounts it looks like it will cost Heartland dearly.