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Heartland's president once believed in climate change, but now says it's a 'myth'

For Joe Bast, the public's fascination with climate change is just about over, amounting to a fad perhaps as temporary as a former hippie phase in his life when he experimented with "deep ecology" and lived in a geodesic dome in the woods.

And he anticipates watching it wither and die. As he sees it, it will be just like a long line of environmental sideshows in the past, from the egg-thinning insecticide DDT to dioxin. In the eyes of Bast, climate change could be history in five years.

As president of the Heartland Institute, Bast has established a no-surrender strategy to challenge the scientific accord that humans are causing a rise in temperatures. He is a bearded Midwesterner with strong suspicions that a small group of politically connected climate scientists are influencing their community's behavior. The result, he thinks, is an outsized, but shrinking, agreement that man's activity is altering the climate.

"I'm confident that the scientific basis behind the threat has pretty much melted away. So I talk about the global warming ... delusion and how it's gradually unwinding," Bast said recently in an hourlong interview. "It's like any other apocalyptic movement. These things crest, and then they start to retreat, until the next apocalyptic movement comes along and gives us something to get all worried about."

His bet is that in five or 10 years, climate change will be "old news."

Bast's comments came four days before Heartland was swept into a controversy over its climate programs and the donors that fund them. Some of Heartland's sensitive documents, obtained unethically by climate scientist Peter Gleick, reveal secret contributors and exposed Heartland's plan to develop a school curriculum that casts doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.

Bast's irreverent ideas conflict with a broad stream of scientific studies showing things like glacial melting, species movement and intensifying precipitation patterns. Large scientific bodies, after synthesizing the world's collection of individual research findings into international reports, have concluded that human activities are largely responsible for Earth's warming over the past 50 years.

But Bast is not only unconvinced, he has become an evangelist against this message. With help from Heartland fellows, he bombards local, state and federal officials and others with a key theme: The human impact is so small that it won't cause damage to the health of people, the environment or the economy.

"The theory of man-made catastrophic global warming -- that not only can we discern a human impact on climate, but we also believe that it's a significantly large impact on climate and it's going to have significantly bad effects -- I think that theory has taken a real beating over the last 10 years," Bast said.

'Don't concede the science'

Even as Heartland is focusing on the uncertainties within scientific literature, computer models and other scientific methods are improving. There are still unknowns when trying to pinpoint, for example, geographic locations of more intense rainfall and the amount of precipitation.

But the evidence far outweighs the uncertainties, according to scientists. There's more water vapor in the atmosphere, leading to a 31 percent increase in rain in the very heaviest thunderstorms since 1958.

"The balance of evidence is overwhelming," said Gerald Meehl, a senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "It's not 100 percent unanimous. Of course there's always things that are uncertain, and you raise questions. But on balance, the evidence is overwhelming that climate change is occurring, humans are causing most of it, and the longer we wait to do something about it, the bigger the climate changes we'll have in the future."

Heartland, in some ways, is on its own. Other conservative think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, have scholars who focus on shaping public policy approaches around reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than trying to rebut the vast accumulation of climate-related research.

Bast describes that approach as "pre-emptive surrender." Heartland rejects climate change at its origins -- man's contribution. That makes the debate about how to address global warming unneeded -- because there's nothing to fix.

"I think it's a terrible tactic," Bast said of AEI. "You don't concede the science. You don't argue about the best way to destroy Western civilization [with cap-and-trade policies] in the name of a scientific myth."

Bast suggests that AEI scholars adopted that position to gain entry into the mainstream debate -- and to be quoted in national newspapers. That isn't the way that AEI climate scholar Kenneth Green sees things.

Green calls himself a "modest warmer" -- one who believes that human emissions are changing the climate to a small degree. He said that if Bast "wants to dismiss the idea that one is actually supposed to think scientifically or read the science, that's fine."

A libertarian who once lived off the land

Heartland isn't just the name of Bast's think tank, it's also where he comes from. He was born in 1958 to parents who lived on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The sixth of eight kids, Bast soon moved with his family to Kimberly, Wis., where his father, a teamster, found work in a dairy. The job paid about $12,000 a year, prompting frequent low-cost camping trips in which the kids were "stacked like wood" in the family car, Bast said.

He left home at 18, in 1976, to attend the University of Chicago. It was then that he cast his first -- and last -- vote for a Republican president. It was Gerald Ford.

"I have rued that vote ever since," he said. "When I vote, I vote libertarian as a protest vote. I don't have a lot of love for Republicans."

The draw of the solitary woods remained with him, and a period of experimentation with "deep ecology" led him to embark alone on several long hikes along the Appalachian Trail. When he and his wife, Diane, married in 1981, they spent their honeymoon hiking a come-and-go trail along the terminus of ancient glaciers that once dominated central Wisconsin.

"I'm still an environmentalist," Bast said.

At about that time, Bast decided he wanted to live off the land. He and Diane moved to northern Wisconsin and built an energy-efficient geodesic dome. They planted an apple orchard and practiced raised-bed agriculture. They were vegetarians.

At this point in the interview, James Lakely, Heartland's communication director, offered this insight to his boss: "You're a weirdo."

Before the mid-1990s, Bast says, he believed in climate change. That changed suddenly, he says, when Peter "P.J." Hill, a libertarian professor and a prominent voice in the free-market environmentalism movement, sent him a box of articles and studies in preparation for the book they were co-authoring, "Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism." The uncertainties detailed in the dozen or so climate articles gripped Bast with a skepticism that continues today, he said.

Bast believes scientists are with him

Hill doesn't recall Bast's conversion on climate change. But the economist did indicate that a carbon tax might be useful one day.

"That would certainly be the way to go, if we were convinced that ... [climate change] is an immediate problem to do something about," Hill said. "That's the economist's answer. I'm not convinced that we need to do that right now, but that would certainly be the way to think about it. It would make much more sense than doing things like trying to pick out the right technology like solar or wind and then putting massive subsidies into those."

Bast bases a portion of his argument against climate change on the notion that mainstream climate scientists are gradually leaving the flock who believe humans are causing a disturbing effect.

He points to several surveys of climate scientists conducted by two German researchers with the Institute of Coastal Research, Hans von Storch and Dennis Bray. The Germans, climate scientists themselves, surveyed more than 2,000 colleagues around the world on the strength of their confidence about whether temperatures are rising, if humans are contributing to it, and more.

The surveys ask the scientists to rate their confidence on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being "strongly disagree" and seven being "strongly agree." In Bast's view, the results show that about one-third of scientists are strong believers in man-made climate change. The same amount is in the middle, and the last third are unconvinced, in Bast's interpretation.

"I look at that and I say, 'OK, about a third of climate scientists agree with the alarmist position,'" Bast said. "But that's it. It's only a third. There's extensive disagreement on the basic scientific processes and data that's at the heart of this."

But the authors of the peer-reviewed survey disagree.

"No, this survey we did is not supporting that view," said von Storch, who directs the Institute of Coastal Research.

Scientists' confidence has been on the rise since the first survey was conducted in 1996, he said. At that point, 60 percent of scientists thought the world was warming and 40 percent believed it was because of human emissions.

The last survey, conducted in 2008, shows that 90 percent of scientists see evidence of rising temperatures, while 80 percent say climate change is man-made, said von Storch.

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