Corporations wanting help in advancing their agendas often turn to think tanks. In addition to providing the appearance of independent support for corporate policies, think tanks combine a scholarly image with expertise at how to play the media and policymakers alike.
To give just one example, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute is holding a conference in New York this week, featuring a persistent if increasingly-isolated group of global warming skeptics. Heartland has a long history of being well-funded by the tobacco industry and fossil fuel companies. Not that Heartland discloses which corporations and foundations fund its operations; it, like many think tanks, prefers secrecy. Heartland president James L. Bast recently claimed that "by not disclosing our donors, we keep the focus on the issue." His benefactors presumably appreciate Bast's discretion, but it should give others pause. Many global warming skeptics directly or indirectly receive funding from the oil, coal or other industries with a stake in the dangerous status quo. Of course, revelations of such funding torpedo the skeptics' credibility. Perhaps that's why Heartland, in describing its skeptics conference, insists that "no corporate sponsorships or dollars earmarked for the event were solicited or accepted." The claim may sound reassuring, but we should take it with a grain of salt, especially since Heartland is not disclosing which foundations are funding the conference. In response to our SourceWatch article on Heartland, Bast stated that in 2007, corporations contributed 16 percent, or approximately $832,000, of the think tank's $5.2 million budget. He added that "gifts from all energy companies -- coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear" accounted for less than five percent of the group's budget, or approximately $260,000. According to Greenpeace's ExxonSecrets website, ExxonMobil gave Heartland $676,500 from 1998 to 2006 (not adjusted for inflation). In 2007, the think tank was not a recipient of the oil company's generosity. Even funding of less than 5% of the think tank's total budget is problematic. Most companies contribute to specific projects. So 5% of the think tank's total budget may still amount for all of a specific project. For example, it is hard to envisage a coal or oil company funding Heartland's education or information technology activism.
Same Skeptics, New Badges
One of the free-market think tanks listed as a "co-sponsor" of Heartland's climate change skeptics conference is the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI). SPPI founder and president Bob Ferguson is a featured conference speaker. (Co-sponsoring the skeptics conference does not imply financial support, as Heartland's website explains.) SPPI is one of a number of seemingly new climate skeptics groups. However, many are little more than a new website involving veteran skeptics, many of whom are listed as advisers to numerous such groups. SPPI describes itself as "a nonprofit institute of research and education dedicated to sound public policy based on sound science," and proclaims that it is "free from affiliation to any corporation or political party." In late January, a supporter of SPPI stated on Wikipedia that, according to Ferguson, SPPI "has NEVER had any affiliation with, or funding from, Frontiers of Freedom Foundation (FOF) or Exxon -- not ever!" To its credit, Exxon is one of the few corporations that details at least some of its donations to think tanks" To its shame, Exxon has been a major funder of think tanks that dispute the science of global warming and oppose policies to address it. According to Exxon's 2007 disclosure report, the oil giant didn't fund SPPI that year. (Exxon's 2008 report has not yet been released.) But that doesn't say much. SPPI was only founded in mid-2007, after Ferguson left the Center for Science and Public Policy (CSPP), where he had been the Executive Director since CSPP's formation. CSPP was a project of the corporate-funded Frontiers of Freedom Institute (FOF). And Exxon funded FOF (pdf), providing $100,000 in 2002 specifically for the "Center for Sound Science and Public Policy" (sic), with $97,000 more for "Global Climate Change Outreach Activities," and a further $35,000 for "Global Climate Change Science Projects." According to its 2004 financial report (pdf), FOF paid Ferguson $100,000. In addition to being the Executive Director, Ferguson served on the group's Board of Directors. The group's 2007 financial report (pdf) listed Ferguson as working 40 hours a week for CCSP, but not being paid. So -- at least as of 2007 -- SPPI has not received Exxon funding, and its only connection to FOF was through Ferguson's previous employment. But who funds SPPI? On its website, the group discloses nothing about its funding sources, and does not say if it has a policy on what types of funding it will or won't accept. Asked directly whether SPPI receives funding from companies with energy interests, Ferguson was not forthcoming. "Funding comes from private interests," he told me. "That's all I'm going to say." Perhaps Bob Ferguson is trying to be as discreet as Heartland's James Bast. Perhaps he even thinks, like Bast, that his silence on funders will "keep the focus on the issue." But the lack of disclosure should sound alarms. News of a global warming skeptics conference automatically raises questions about the funding behind the event. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the increasingly alarming projections of the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions has cause to wonder about the interests being served. Why Ferguson and Bast think that any sensible person would accept their secrecy -- focusing on the activities of the monkey instead of the organ grinder -- is beyond me. Bob Burton is the Managing Editor of SourceWatch. If you would like to add to the SourceWatch profiles on the skeptics attending Heartland's conference, please see our project page.