Climate denial group wants to subvert NOAA data with its own

By Scott Waldman | 05/31/2024 06:17 AM EDT

The Heartland Institute seeks to build a nationwide network of temperature-monitoring stations.

A fisherman reels in his catch as the sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean on June 28, 2023, in Bal Harbour, Florida.

A fisherman reels in his catch as the sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean on June 28, 2023, in Bal Harbour, Florida. Wilfredo Lee/AP

A prominent climate disinformation group is building its own network of temperature sensors across the United States in an attempt to disprove that the country and planet are warming at an unprecedented pace due to human-caused climate change.

The Illinois-based Heartland Institute, along with other groups that spread climate falsehoods, has spent years attacking the temperature data gathered by NOAA. That data, widely used by scientific organizations around the world, helped lead to the conclusion that 2023 was the “warmest year since global records began” and that the 10 warmest years in recorded history have all occurred since 2014.

It’s powerful proof that global warming is more than a distant threat — it’s affecting the planet right now. As a result, that data has been targeted by groups seeking to downplay the severity of climate change or cast doubt on the science.


Heartland calls its station network the Global Open Atmospheric Temperature Systems, or GOATS for short. The sensors cost $2,000 apiece to set up, and Heartland has been pitching its followers to donate so more stations can be built throughout the country. The group plans to build hundreds of “properly located” sensors in order to collect “unbiased temperature data.”

The Heartland Institute did not respond to multiple attempts by an E&E News reporter to learn more about the sensors, how they would function or where they would be stationed. The network’s existence was revealed in at least two emails that the Heartland Institute sent to followers.

At least one station has been installed, according to one of the emails. It is not clear where the sensor is located.

The effort is spearheaded by Anthony Watts, a meteorologist and senior fellow at Heartland. Watts long has downplayed climate science findings and has spent years attacking the NOAA data temperature network in particular — claiming that it has been corrupted by the heat island effect.

That’s the phenomenon in which urban centers experience higher temperatures than surrounding areas because “structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes,” according to EPA.

Some NOAA data sensors are in cities. Watts has claimed that makes their temperature readings artificially higher.

In reality, scientists have long known about the heat island effect, and the variable has been accounted for in the data collection, said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

There is no larger concern among climate scientists that the data is faulty, he said — and if there were mistakes, they would have been corrected. He added that in 2005, federal researchers began using a second system called the U.S. Climate Reference Network to collect more data from a wider variety of sites.

“It’s just Anthony Watts. It’s one guy who keeps repeating himself every decade,” said Schmidt, who is a climate modeler. “I mean, it’s like he has one talking point, and he keeps talking about it. Almost nobody else is talking about it.”

Watts did not return two requests for comment.

As the science of climate change has become more clear to a majority of Americans, the tactics of those unwilling or unmotivated to accept the findings has shifted. Fossil fuel allies and groups that oppose regulations are less likely to directly deny climate science, but rather claim that global warming is not as serious or as much of a threat as scientists have found.

Attacking the instruments that gather climate data or the models that project global warming is commonplace for those who want to continue or expand fossil fuel use. The Heartland Institute claims that temperature data is the “empirical bedrock on which the radical left’s agenda is built.”

“Climate change is the excuse given for ESG scores, carbon taxes, the Green New Deal, and all other forms of economic destruction,” the group wrote in a note to prospective donors for the effort. “The public must have easy access to comparable scientific data that directly dispute the left’s claim of impending environmental disaster.”

The Heartland Institute, which now hides its donors, previously has received millions of dollars in funding from the fossil fuel industry as well as from prominent conservative groups and individuals.

That includes the Mercer Family Foundation, which backs other efforts that attack climate science.

Hedge fund manager Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah also supported former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. The Mercer family backed away from supporting Trump in 2020 but have returned to his side in the 2024 campaign, co-hosting a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser that pulled in more than $50 million for Trump last month.

Trump’s conservative allies want to see NOAA “broken up and downsized” as part of a broader effort to unwind the Biden administration’s “climate fanaticism.” In March, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah called for “increased federal oversight” of NOAA data, citing Watts’ erroneous claims that federal temperature data stations were being corrupted to make climate change appear more serious.

There is no conspiratorial cover-up among hundreds of federal climate scientists, said Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Instead, he said Heartland and Watts might be surprised to learn that their additional temperature stations — as long as the data is properly gathered and open — could be useful to NOAA’s existing cooperative data network.

“If they want to join the cooperative network, it’s a cooperative network, right?” he said. “And anybody can host a station and do what they want with it, and it can go into the hopper. And I’m sure that NOAA will say, ‘That’s great, let’s make sure all your data is open so that we can access it.’”