Not Problematic That Climate Change Skeptic Heartland Institute Took Donations From Microsoft and GM

The libertarian Heartland Institute, infamous for their promotion of climate change skepticism, came under fire Wednesday for taking donations from corporations that are pledged to support climate change legislation.

The controversy arose after a popular climate science blog leaked documents from the Heartland Institute which named major donors, including Microsoft and GM, and laid out the institute's climate policy strategy for 2012.

The PR war is already in full swing, with both sides of the climate change debate accusing each other of dishonesty. But as the drama continues to unfold this week, here are a few things to keep in mind before casting judgment. 

One of the documents outlining Heartland's climate change strategy for this year may be fake. According to a press release from the organization, it "... was not written by anyone associated with The Heartland Institute. It does not express Heartland’s goals, plans, or tactics. It contains several obvious and gross misstatements of fact."

Additionally, the information may have been stolen. "The ... documents were obtained 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." Only time will tell if that is true or not, but consider the ramifications if it is. Somebody fabricated documents and lied about it in order to boost a political agenda. That doesn't do anything but fuel efforts to deny climate change.

The urge to attack the companies who have funded the think-tank is certainly strong, even irresistible to some journalists. The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg complained that "Some of the companies included on Heartland's list of donors were surprising. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has vigorously promoted clean energy in a number of speeches, and his charitable foundation works on helping farmers in the developing world, who will be badly affected by climate change." If this all proves true, I have one question for the people who have criticized Microsoft and other donors: What did you expect? Any political effort to address climate change, cap and trade for example, is going to result in higher costs for businesses. It is only reasonable that the affected industries would lobby to fend off climate legislation. If I ran a business and the federal government wanted to restrict my output and charge me for their labor, I'd fight back, too.

Additionally, most media coverage thus far has framed this situation as a nefarious corporate conspiracy. But consider the amount of money that environmental lobbyists have invested in the climate change debate. Greenpeace spends over $300 million on its efforts; the Sierra clubs shells out $100 million a year; and the Natural Resources Defense Council has an annual budget of $95 million. The Heartland Institute's annual budget, at $6.5 million, is paltry in comparison. 

So, if we're going to cast aspersions based on the amount money spent lobbying Washington and on public relations campaigns, we need to go after these environmental groups. The better option, of course, is to give up the conspiracy mongering and argue over the data. Climate change is no less a reality because of anybody's lobbying budget.

Finally, how outrageous is Heartland's view of climate change? Well, it's not at all. The institute argues on its website that, "Probably two-thirds of the warming in the 1990s was due to natural causes; the warming trend already has stopped and forecasts of future warming are unreliable; and the benefits of a moderate warming are likely to outweigh the costs." A little research reveals that every one of those conclusions is supported by the peer-reviewed literature. They may prove incorrect in the coming years. I, for one, am not convinced by the "global warming has stopped" routine. But let's not pretend that this is a corporate Goliath vs the environment and its defenders.

This is a very heated political debate, and both sides are heavily invested.

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