Last month, as global temperatures broke new records and new research showed that the near-unanimous consensus among scientists that human activity is driving global warming passed 99 percent, climate science deniers convened at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., for the Heartland Institute’s 13th International Conference on Climate Change.
A leading player in the climate denial industry, the Heartland Institute is an Illinois-based think tank that has long sought to cast doubt on climate science by peddling disinformation and promoting so-called “experts” who have done little if any credible, peer-reviewed climate research. It is an affiliate of the conservative, anti-regulatory State Policy Network (SPN), which itself has promoted disinformation about climate change while taking funds from fossil-fuel interests like Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company.
The July 2019 Heartland gathering came in for some skeptical treatment in the mainstream press, with The Weather Channel noting that the attendees were “a couple hundred mostly white men in their 60s and 70s” who “sat reverently during long-winded pseudo-scientific discussions.” Meanwhile, the investigative website Documented reported that the number of conference co-sponsors was down dramatically this year — and that one who was listed, Fidelity Charitable, was not a sponsor at all. Heartland eventually removed Fidelity from the list.
The impression that emerged from media coverage of the Heartland conference was that the climate denial movement is faltering and irrelevant. But the reality is that groups promoting climate science denial continue to exercise significant influence in many states and are making it more difficult to address the problem constructively.
Consider the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina, where the climate crisis is already leading to more dangerously hot days, increased flooding, and greater risk of mosquito-borne illnesses. An SPN affiliate founded and primarily funded by leading Republican donor and discount-retail millionaire Art Pope, the organization has long been a leading source of climate science denial in the state policy debate and was a co-sponsor of Heartland’s annual climate conference as recently as 2015.
The John Locke Foundation, which is a go-to source for right-leaning policymakers and a prominent conservative voice in the media, has distributed misleading information directly to lawmakers and the public through its various publications and speaking engagements. Shortly after legislation addressing climate change was first introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly in 2005, the group released a policy statement titled “Global Warming Policy: NC Should Do Nothing,” which claimed that climate science remained “unsettled.” That same year, it distributed to all North Carolina lawmakers the Michael Crichton novel “State of Fear,” a work of fiction that promoted the views of Dr. S. Fred Singer, a prominent climate science denier.
The John Locke Foundation has questioned mainstream climatology through a series in the Carolina Journal, its monthly newspaper and flagship publication, and in opinion pieces published by its staff in other outlets. It’s also spread its message of doubt through speaking engagements by pundits like Pat Michaels, a climatologist and climate science skeptic who left the University of Virginia amid controversy over his industry funding. Meanwhile, its Carolina Journal radio show has discussed topics like “the biases that help convince global warming alarmists that their cause deserves so much attention.”
The group has never issued a mea culpa for getting so much so wrong. In fact, it continues its mission of misinforming on climate science even today — despite the many obvious signs and scientific warnings that the climate is in a crisis of human making.
Over the past year, the John Locke Foundation has published over a dozen stories attacking the science of global warming on its Locker Room blog, a forum for discussing statewide issues. The stories have called climate change a “hoax,” likened climate activists to religious cultists, and mocked concerns over emissions of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas.
Last July — then the warmest on record globally — the group sponsored a public talk at its Raleigh offices by Bill Lynch, a fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, titled “The Balanced Truths about CO2, H2O and Climate Change.” In it, Lynch, who is not a climate scientist, claimed incorrectly that “CO2’s spatial uniformity and small increases with time have no effect on weather or climate.” The group also promoted Lynch’s scientifically discredited views on its radio show.
At the same time it’s promoting skepticism of mainstream climate science, the John Locke Foundation’s publications also offer a parallel narrative in which it acknowledges that warming is happening but rejects proposals to curb greenhouse gas pollution. So even while it calls climate change science a “hoax,” it argues that North Carolina needn’t take action because emissions are already falling, that carbon taxes are too costly, and that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order to address climate change can’t alter the global climate.
The John Locke Foundation is not anti-science across the board, though: Over the past year, it has published stories citing mainstream science to make the case that vaccinations do not cause autism and that obesity itself is not necessarily a health problem.
In response to Facing South’s request for comment on its role in presenting disinformation about climate science, the group issued a statement in which it said it doesn’t endorse every claim made by the speakers it sponsors or the blog posts it points to. It also said it does not dispute the existence of a relationship between greenhouse gas concentrations and global temperature trends over time but that it believes there “remains significant room for scientific inquiry and debate about the magnitude of the effect and of the net consequences.”
So who is funding the John Locke Foundation’s ongoing climate disinformation effort? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the group is not required to publicly disclose its funders, and does not do so. A 2007 Facing South analysis found that the group got over $100,000 from funders with fossil fuel ties. A more recent analysis of tax data by the Conservative Transparency Project found that the group’s top donor by far has been the John William Pope Foundation, the family foundation led by Art Pope, which gave it $26 million from 1994 through 2014.
While the Pope Foundation derives its wealth largely through Pope’s fortune — he’s the owner, chair and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a group of 370 discount stores in 16 states — it has held investments in fossil fuel interests. According to the most recent publicly available IRS report for the Pope Foundation covering 2016, the foundation sold stock that year in the fossil fuel-dependent electric utilities American Electric, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, and Exelon, as well as in oil and gas giants Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Exxon, all of which have an interest in blocking action on climate change.
Responding to Facing South’s request for comment on its role in financing disinformation about climate science, the foundation said in a statement that it “gives to a wide-ranging group of nonprofits” and “does not direct the activities of its grant recipients.”
Another leading funder of the John Locke Foundation is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the nation’s largest conservative grantmakers and a major funder of climate denial. According to Sourcewatch.org, between 2015 and 2017 the Bradley Foundation contributed $1.5 million to the John Locke Foundation and the John William Pope Civitas Institute, another conservative think tank in North Carolina founded and funded by Art Pope.
In 2017, Pope was elected chair of the Bradley Foundation. The following year, a Center for Media and Democracy investigation showed that the foundation has been involved in “a concerted effort … to delegitimize climate science, while promoting fossil fuel energy development in the United States.”
Boosting the signal
The John Locke Foundation’s misleading messaging on climate has a considerable reach. According to its website, Carolina Journal has a statewide print circulation of more than 40,000, while during the first quarter of this year the online version served more than 150,000 unique visitors. The group also reports that a recent survey by an independent consulting firm found that Carolina Journal in all its formats is read by about three-quarters of North Carolina “influentials,” including politicians, government staffers, lobbyists, CEOs, journalists, civic leaders, and political activists.
The organization’s message also gets picked up and boosted by other media outlets. Carolina Journal Radio provides an hour-long newsmagazine broadcast each weekend in nearly 20 markets across the state, and it is available to member stations on Curtis Media Group’s North Carolina News Network, which has nearly 80 affiliates statewide. At the same time, the Carolina Journal News Service distributes content to media outlets across the state, serving more than 300,000 readers in an average month. Nearly 60 newspapers have run the organization’s stories in their print or online editions, though few appear to have focused on global warming.
John Hood — president of both the John Locke Foundation’s board and the John William Pope Foundation — writes a syndicated column on politics and public policy that runs in newspapers in more than 60 North Carolina communities; they include the Winston-Salem Journal and the High Point Enterprise. He also writes a regular column for Business North Carolina magazine and serves as a weekly panelist on “NC SPIN,” a political talk show broadcast on 26 TV and radio stations across the state.
In addition, Becki Gray, the John Locke Foundation’s senior vice president, and Mitch Kokai, its senior political analyst, are regular guests on WUNC public radio’s “This Week in NC Politics” with host Jeff Tiberii. In one appearance in 2017, for example, Gray claimed — falsely — that scientists say there’s no link between increasingly violent storms and climate change, and Tiberii failed to correct the record. Neither Tiberii nor WUNC station management responded to Facing South’s request for comment.
While most of the reports and opinion pieces produced by the John Locke Foundation are not about the climate, their presence in mainstream outlets boosts the organization’s credibility on the topic — and that can be problematic for a constructive public discussion on addressing climate change.
The way in which the voices of climate science deniers are amplified by the media was the topic of a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications. Tracing the digital “footprint” of more than 770 climate scientists and climate science deniers across 100,000 English-language media reports, it found that about half of the mainstream media visibility on the topic of climate change goes to science deniers, many of whom are not climate scientists. That proportion increases significantly when blogs and other “new media” outlets are included. The authors say this poses serious danger to efforts to raise public awareness and motivate rapid action.
“It’s time to stop giving these people visibility, which can be easily spun into false authority,” said Alex Petersen, one of the authors and a professor at UC Merced.
Sue Sturgis is the editorial director of Facing South and the Institute for Southern Studies.