Leader of the Heartland Institute abruptly exits

By Scott Waldman | 06/11/2019 07:26 AM EDT

The leader of the Heartland Institute has abruptly departed after a short stint in charge of the organization known for rejecting climate science.

Tim Huelskamp last week resigned as president of the Heartland Institute.

Tim Huelskamp last week resigned as president of the Heartland Institute. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The leader of the Heartland Institute has abruptly departed after a short stint in charge of the organization known for rejecting climate science.

Former Rep. Tim Huelskamp left the group last week, less than two years after he became its leader. In July 2017, Huelskamp took over Heartland’s leadership role from co-founder Joe Bast, who headed its operations for 34 years.

The group’s spokesman, Jim Lakely, is now its interim president. The art director, Kevin Fitzgerald, has been promoted to serve as chief executive officer.


"These new hires and changes to Heartland’s organizational chart will boost our productivity and have an impact in several key areas," Bast said in a statement.

Huelskamp was a three-term Republican congressman from Kansas and former chairman of the House Tea Party Caucus and member of the House Freedom Caucus. He did not explain the reasons for his exit.

Lakely said that "nothing has changed about Heartland’s mission."

"Heartland’s direction is now what it has been for 35 years: to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems," he said in an email. "That means fighting for school choice, lower taxes, less regulation, market-based health care, greater access to life-saving prescription drugs, science over dogma on the climate, and sensible energy policy."

But Huelskamp’s departure comes just weeks before Heartland’s annual climate change conference, typically its most prominent event of the year. Last year’s conference in New Orleans, though, attracted only a few dozen people and had far fewer sponsors than in previous years. This year, the event will be held in Washington in July at the Trump International Hotel. The full list of speakers has yet to be announced, but if the past is any guide, it could include Trump administration officials.

The personnel changes at Heartland also come as the group is facing a period of uncertainty.

In recent years, Heartland has received more than $1 million in funding from the Mercer Family Foundation, a major Trump donor. But as the group remains on the far edge of climate denial, other past funders, including Exxon Mobil Corp., have stopped donating. Organizations that have allied with Heartland, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, have wrestled with their views on climate change even as Heartland has leaned into extreme positions (Climatewire, Nov. 15, 2017).

Insiders say that Heartland’s fundraising challenges remained under Huelskamp and that his style of leadership differed from Bast, who was more aggressive. Under Bast, Heartland infamously paid for a billboard that compared those worried about climate change to the Unabomber. Shortly before Huelskamp took over, the group shipped copies of the book "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming" to 300,000 teachers around the country, urging them to consider climate science unsettled.

During Huelskamp’s tenure, Heartland placed more emphasis on energy policy and promoting coal at the state level rather than on attacks on the science, with limited success.

Still, the group has continued to push state-level proposals to restrict the teaching of climate science in schools and is planning to distribute a reference book for students. What’s more, conservatives affiliated with Heartland have launched attacks on their colleagues on the right for acknowledging climate science — even threatening those who don’t focus on the denial of science. The campaign so far has had little effect on congressional Republicans (Climatewire, May 28).

That may be because Heartland’s extreme level of climate science denial has been eroded in Washington in recent years. A growing number of Republican lawmakers accept that humans are the primary drivers of climate change. Public polling has shown more acceptance of climate science in recent years, even among conservative Republicans. Multiple Republicans have proposed modest climate policies.

At the same time, Heartland has seen other groups, including the CO2 Coalition, another group that rejects climate science, rise in influence in the Trump White House (Climatewire, Feb. 28).

Heartland has had some small successes in the Trump era. Bast was invited to attend the Rose Garden ceremony where Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and, under former Administrator Scott Pruitt, EPA officials reached out to Heartland for recommendations of researchers who refused to acknowledge climate science.

And yet, despite aggressive courting, the group could never land Pruitt as a speaker for any of its conferences, even as the former EPA chief traveled to speak at other events around the country.

The change of leadership at Heartland comes as another conservative think tank, the Cato Institute, recently disbanded a program designed to sow uncertainty around climate science. The libertarian think tank co-founded by Charles Koch parted ways with Pat Michaels, a climate scientist who rejects mainstream researchers’ views on global warming, and shuttered its Center for the Study of Science (Climatewire, May 29).