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Heartland Institute conference attendees try for a subtler skepticism, but group's leader sometimes strays off message

CHICAGO -- Climate change contrarians are trying to craft a softer, more nuanced message about global warming -- that it is real but insignificant. This follows a seismic reply to a surprise public relations stunt that shook loose many of the Heartland Institute's funders.

People attending the group's conference here, eager to raise uncertainties about climate change, suggested the focus should be on subtle messages that do not refute the greenhouse gas effect, but rather downplay its impacts.

Outright denial can cloud the movement's effort to portray itself as a credible underdog in a scientific debate, some attendees said. And while many people here declined to criticize Heartland's decision to buy a billboard that compared climate advocates to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, they also emphasized that their ideas have little chance of being advanced through outrageous attacks.

"It certainly is not in line with what one would call reasoned debate," Kenneth Haapala, executive vice president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project, said of Heartland's short-lived marketing campaign. "I'd much prefer to stick to reasoned argument. But Heartland is doing a good job. Whether this was the best thing to do, I can't assess that."

Reverberations of the ad campaign are evident in the three-day conference, which lost a small number of speakers after the billboard launched for 24 hours earlier this month. Joe Bast, Heartland's president, gave a fleeting reference to a larger group of retreating Heartland donors by emphasizing that "real friends" remain committed to the libertarian organization.

"We've been under a lot of pressure over the course of the last four months," Bast told the audience, which numbered about 300 by Heartland's count, Monday night. "And I think we've discovered who our real friends are."

Leading up to the conference, some Heartland supporters openly wondered whether the billboard was a sign of frustration that first began in February, when the group accidently released to climate scientist Peter Gleick sensitive documents containing the identities of secret donors.

Whatever prompted the marketing campaign, it threatened to undercut the messaging pursued by the skeptical climate community and the main theme of the conference, which was: "Real Science, Real Choices."

Congressman points to 'unsavory tactics'

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who threatened to cancel his speech before Heartland abruptly ended its billboard campaign, warned the group yesterday to stay on message.

"We can continue to win these debates out of the strength of our arguments, without recourse to unsavory tactics that only serve to detract from our message," he told the audience, without mentioning the billboard.

"The message is: It's bad economics, it's unsure science and it will slow economic growth and slow our job creation," Sensenbrenner added. "We got a good message. Let's stick to the message. Let's not get off message."

Unlike at some of Heartland's past conferences, there has been no real debate about climate change this year. No mainstream scientists, who agree with a large majority of climate researchers that emissions from human activity are substantially contributing to rising temperatures, accepted an invitation to attend the conference.

Still, the attendees reflect a range of skepticism that can differ by degrees.

James Taylor, a lawyer and a Heartland senior fellow, said it is unclear if the sun, clouds or carbon dioxide is having a primary effect on atmospheric changes, but added, "Just because temperatures are rising, doesn't mean it's bad."

William Gray, an emeritus professor of meteorology at Colorado State University, said he believes carbon dioxide emissions could increase global temperatures by 0.3 degree Celsius over the next century or so, which he says is about one-tenth of the increase projected by mainstream scientists.

"Humans aren't doing it. It's the most ridiculous thing," Gray said. "This is not going to cause any problems for the world -- slightly more warming. Now, if it went up 3 degrees, yes, I would be worried. Perhaps a lot of things would change."

Bast says Heartland's position is this: Human emissions have an impact on the atmosphere, but it is so small that people and the economy won't be affected. Yet Bast seems to sometimes stray into tougher language that exposes him to criticism that he is rejecting climate change altogether.

Heartland, for example, explained its use of the billboard this way: "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."

And in an interview with ClimateWire in February, Bast called climate change a "scientific myth."

'You have no right to ask me anything'

The billboard illustrated that not all of Heartland's supporters consider themselves as maverick on climate as the libertarian group based in Chicago. As a result, Heartland saw many of its corporate sponsors for non-climate programs abandon it, as did its Washington-based staff.

When ClimateWire, which reported those stories earlier this month, approached Bast during the conference, he declined to offer his insights about the future of Heartland's funding and whether he envisions a change to its strategy on climate.

"You're not a journalist at all. You are not a journalist. You are not a journalist," Bast said. "Get a different job. Get a different job. You have no right to ask me anything."

S. Fred Singer, a physicist and prominent skeptic, said the billboard did not offend him, but he also indicated that it deviated from what he believes is the best way to advance the skeptical argument: by highlighting scientific uncertainties in mainstream research.

"I can't speak for these people," Singer said of Heartland in an interview. "I don't know who they employ for the PR business. But that's not my business. I'm satisfied that we can reply to the alarmists on a purely scientific basis and tell people that they've not made their case."

As for people who deny that greenhouse gases are having a small effect on the atmosphere, Singer said they are detracting from the skeptical movement's ability to challenge the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other scientific bodies.

"Denialists are people who are people I don't really go for," Singer said. "They aren't my friends."

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