The Heartland Institute's failed billboard campaign attacking the existence of climate change is driving a surge of corporate donors to abandon the group and prompting a mutiny among its Washington-based staff, which is decamping for less volatile surroundings, according to sources.
At the center of the retreat is a contingent of insurance companies and trade groups that donated more than $1 million over the last two years to the libertarian group's Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate in Washington, D.C., for programs related to federal insurance reform.
The center's efforts, which are often entwined with environmental policies, were damaged beyond repair by the increasingly strident campaign against climate change science coming from Heartland's Chicago headquarters, according to industry sources.
Growing unease among insurers crystallized late last week when Heartland purchased the first billboard in a campaign that likened climate advocacy to murder, terrorism and despotism. The electronic highway-side ad displayed a picture of Ted Kaczynski, who killed three people, next to the words "I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?"
"It was disgusting. It was revolting," Brad Kading, president of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers, said of the ad in an interview over the weekend. "It was a terrible mistake."
Insurers express 'disgust and shock'
His group, which donated $125,000 to Heartland over the last two years, told the libertarian president of Heartland, Joe Bast, that their relationship is "untenable" in a letter Friday evening.
Other insurers are also cutting ties in a major upheaval that coincides, sources say, with the departure of Eli Lehrer from Heartland's Washington-based center, known by its acronym, FIRE. Lehrer and his staff were shocked by the billboard campaign, which they learned about in an emailed press release from Heartland headquarters Thursday, said Ray Lehmann, deputy director of the center.
"I don't know what the goal was," Lehmann said of the ad, which he called an "ad hominem attack" on climate advocates. "But it certainly was outside our project, and it did reflect badly."
The Bermuda association is the only insurance group to publicly announce its withdrawal from Heartland as of Sunday, but others are already canceling their support as Lehrer completes his separation from the Chicago group, according to a source at one insurance company that is terminating its sponsorship.
"All of the insurers and reinsurers that funded Eli are either in the process of withdrawing funding from Heartland or are considering doing so," said the source, who asked not be identified. "I think everybody's reaction [to the billboard] was one of disgust and shock. It was the last straw for everybody."
Lehrer was largely responsible for raising $1.03 million from insurers over the last two years for programs that seek reduced government subsidies in federal flood insurance, decreased development along coastlines and increased funding for efforts to strengthen homes against natural catastrophes.
An awkward relationship shatters
Those efforts won support from environmentalists who are concerned that the federal government is promoting new development along seashores and in floodplains, even as those areas are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of rising oceans and intensifying downpours.
Many of the insurers sponsoring Lehrer's work also publicly endorse the evidence behind climate change, requiring sometimes awkward explanations to justify their support of Heartland's insurance programs even as the group agitates skepticism about the impacts of greenhouse gases.
They emphasized that their donations were used strictly for insurance-related programs, not the campaigns against climate science emanating from the Chicago headquarters. And having Heartland as a partner in a consortium of insurers and environmentalists also opened doors to conservative lawmakers, insurers said.
But as Heartland's climate positions gained attention and, some say, became more strident following the release of its private budget documents in February, insurers found it harder to avoid being tainted by the group's vociferous antagonism toward evidence of climate change.
"The billboard just crystallized what the divide was," Kading said, referring to the differences between insurers and Heartland. "It just means the brand is tarnished and there really is no way to separate yourself without just leaving."
In the past two years, Heartland has collected about 8 percent of its budget from insurers, including Renaissance Reinsurance, State Farm, Allied World Assurance Co., United Services Automobile Association and the Bermuda trade group.
Washington staff weighs departure
When Lehrer learned of the billboard campaign, he began calling those companies to warn them, according to sources. During some of those conversations, Lehrer said he was seriously considering leaving Heartland.
"He's gone," the industry source said of Lehrer. "They're negotiating out a departure for him and his team."
Lehrer declined to comment.
His departure, combined with the retreat of insurers, would almost certainly mean that Heartland's Washington presence provided by the FIRE center would disappear, the source said.
That could be a financial and reputational blow to Heartland, which anticipates receiving increased revenue this year by expanding the center's number of noninsurance programs.
Lehrer also has helped to moderate Heartland's severe positions on climate change by forging relationships with environmentalists. His current allies include the National Wildlife Federation, American Rivers and Friends of the Earth.
That helped give Heartland some legitimacy as a policy advocate that could work with diverse coalitions. If Lehrer and his team leave, it is unclear if Heartland could fill those vacant seats in groups that work on insurance and environmental issues, like SmarterSafer.org.
Heartland launched the billboard campaign Thursday in preparation for its seventh annual conference on climate change later this month. The event attracts people with varying degrees of skepticism about the impact of greenhouse gases.
'We do not apologize'
The campaign lasted about 24 hours before Heartland abandoned it amid pressure from its supporters.
Donna Laframboise, creator of the blog NOconsensus.org and the author of a book that is critical of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, canceled her speaking engagement at Heartland's conference because she felt "blindsided" by the billboard.
"Suddenly, we were all publicly linked to an organization that thinks it's OK to equate people concerned about climate change with psychopaths," she wrote on her blog. "Forget disappointment. In my view, my reputation has been harmed. And the Heartland thinks it has nothing to apologize for."
Ross McKitrick, an economics professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, threatened late last week to cancel his appearance at the conference if Heartland did not end the campaign, which he said is "truly objectionable."
"You cannot simultaneously say that you want to promote a debate while equating the other side to terrorists and mass murderers," he wrote in a letter to Heartland's president, Joe Bast, according to the blog Climate Audit. "Once you have done such a thing you have lost the moral high ground and you can never again object if someone uses that kind of rhetoric on you."
Heartland appeared unremorseful and questioned why its tactics received so much criticism compared to extreme climate advocates.
"We know that our billboard angered and disappointed many of Heartland's friends and supporters, but we hope they understand what we were trying to do with this experiment," Bast said in a statement Friday evening. "We do not apologize for running the ad, and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the 'realist' message on the climate."