There has been renewed scrutiny of climate contrarian PR specialist Tom Harris in the wake of a highly critical report on a controversial course Harris taught at Carleton University, most recently in 2011. Much of the current interest in Harris has naturally focused on his involvement with the Heartland Institute, itself very much in the news following the leak of detailed budget and fundraising plans (accompanied by a suspect two-page strategy memo).
Today I’ll take a close look at the beginning of the Harris-Heartland connection in 2007, based on Heartland’s publicly available 2007 tax declaration and December 2007 press releases, as well as the illuminating full recorded interview of Harris by Suzanne Goldberg of the Guardian. Taken together, these provide compelling evidence that Heartland funded Tom Harris’s Natural Resource Stewardship Project right around the time that Harris was organizing the Bali contrarian petition attacking climate science, part of a broader attempt by Heartland to disrupt the December 2007 UNFCCC conference.
National Post financial editor Terence Corcoran essentially provided Harris the sole (but very powerful) PR channel for the petition, while hiding Harris’s involvement, a fact that the Post has never publicly acknowledged to this day. Now that it turns out that the effort was likely funded by the Heartland Institute, the Post’s credibility has been compromised even further.
About a week ago, the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) announced the publication of a critique of the Carleton University course, Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective, as taught by Tom Harris in 2011. The body of the report reviews the course lecture by lecture, detailing “142 erroneous and fully-quoted claims” put forth by Harris during the course. In a future post I’ll zero in on some of Harris’s more interesting claims, including the assertion that global surface temperature analyses use only one weather station “for the whole of northern Canada”.
For now, however, I’ll focus on the Heartland connection. The recent media reports on Harris (for example, by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg and Mike de Souza of Post Media) have mentioned Harris’s (unpaid) role as a Heartland Expert (Policy Advisor, Environment) and his presence at Heartland’s contrarian climate conferences starting in 2008. But they have shed little light on the initial connection just before that time, which turns out to be the most interesting of all.
To set the context, here’s a brief recap of Tom Harris’s PR career in the decade leading up to his first involvement with Heartland. In 1998, Harris started his long involvement with the National Post, apparently enabled by financial editor Terence Corcoran. After a short stint as legislative assistant to Canadian Alliance environment critic Bob Mills, Harris worked in APCO Worldwide’s Ottawa office from 2002 to 2005.
Harris’s APCO tenure was most notable for the rise of the astroturf group Friends of Science. In 2005, Harris produced and promoted the error-ridden and biased Friends of Science film, Climate Catastrophe Cancelled, with funding provided by a research fund set up by Barry Cooper at the University of Calgary. That fund was eventually closed by the University after it was determined that some research funds had been used “to promote a partisan viewpoint on climate change”. There were signs that Calgary-based Talisman Oil had played a logistical and financial role in the Friends of Science and its ostensible projects. But the full extent of Talisman funding was only recently revealed by PostMedia’s Mike de Souza ($175,000 in 2004), following a protracted information to the University request under ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy).
After APCO, Harris joined energy lobbyists High Park Group for a time, and then in 2006 formed his own organization, the Natural Resources Stewardship Project (NRSP), with Friends of Science advisor Tim Ball as chairman. Through it all, Harris continued to enjoy access to the National Post platform.
GETTING TO WHEN
Let’s pick up the story midway through Goldenberg’s interview with Harris (which Harris recorded with Goldenberg’s consent and subsequently posted at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy website). Here Goldenberg tried to establish when Harris’s relationship with Heartland began. While still maintaining his usual affable tone, Harris became increasingly evasive.
SG: How long have you been working with Heartland?
TH: I don’t actually work with Heartland.
SG: Well, you know, having connections with them , going to their conferences, receiving funding from them.
TH: Well, you’re speculating on the funding part.
SG: Not really, it’s in documents that have been authenticated.
At this point, Harris abandoned the tack that Heartland funding is “speculation” (an untenable position in any case, as we’ll see in a moment). Rather, he lectured Goldenberg that this line of inquiry is based on “logical fallacy” (twice) and that “funding doesn’t matter” and is a “red herring”. Harris even admonished Goldenberg not to interrupt when she attempted to get him to actually answer the question.
But Goldenberg tried again.
SG: Okay, [sigh] so you don’t want to say … when your first contact with Heartland was.
TH: I don’t really know … It’s only in the last few years that I’ve had regular updates from them. … I didn’t even know where they stood in the global warming issue at all until I was invited to one of their conferences. … the first one in New York in 2008.
So, finally, we get to at least a rough idea when the connection began, during the run up to Heartland’s first so-called International Conference on Climate Change, held in New York in March 2008.
Planning for the conference apparently started very late in 2007. Indeed the earliest known reference to the Heartland conference comes in an ad on page 2 in the January 2008 edition of Environment & Climate News.
Of course, as would be normal with print publications needing lead time for production and mail delivery, the January edition was actually put together in late 2007; in fact, the PDF was created on December 7, 2007.
At that point, details were very sketchy, but Heartland was clearly thinking big.
Hundreds of the world’s leading scientists, economists, and policy analysts will explore key issues overlooked by advocates of the theory of man-made global warming. …
Five tracks with more than 20 concurrent sessions
2007 also happens to be the year that Harris’s Natural Resources Stewardship Project (NRSP) received funding from Heartland, as first reported by Gareth Rowendon at Hot Topic (also covered in passing in John Mashey’s mammoth analysis of Heartland and Sepp). Despite Harris’s attempt to brand Heartland funding as “speculation”, a grant of $25,000 to the NRSP was one of five detailed in Heartland’s publicly available “990” tax form for 2007.
Obviously a grant to the NRSP for “environment & climate” would have been a clear indication of where Heartland “stood in the global warming issue”, as Harris put it. So that would imply that the grant came after the invitation to the first Heartland conference, which itself could have come no earlier than December 2007 (and may have even come in early 2008). At the very least, then, it’s reasonable to suppose that the grant occurred very late in 2007.
HEARTLAND GOES BALI-STIC
Two other grants listed provide additional corroborating evidence as to the timing of Heartland’s funding of Harris, and at least as importantly, the activities supported thereby. Both the New Zealand International Climate Science Coalition (NZCSC) and its very recent spinoff, the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) were very active at the 2007 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference held in Bali in December 2007. Hot Topic’s Gareth Renowden had a very detailed look at their activities and plausibly argued that at least part of the ICSC grant went to support the contrarian campaign on the ground in Bali.
But there’s more. The ICSC was only incorporated in late October 2007, and didn’t even have a functioning website in December 2007; the online presence appears to have been launched after the Bali conference. So there would have been no other ICSC activities for Heartland to support in 2007!
Not only that, but Heartland’s press releases at the time were dominated by the action in Bali. An advance press release on the eve of the conference complained bitterly: United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali Hijacked by European Liberals.
Stated [James M.] Taylor, “The science is reversing on the alarmists, yet they persist in refusing to engage in a dialogue with the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC). They have even rejected the voice of reason by ignoring dissenting scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
On the same day, Heartland also complained that “representatives” from Environment & Climate News had been denied press credentials, thus supposedly demonstrating the loss of “any claim of impartiality” on the part of conference organizers.
On December 5, 2007, during the conference’s first weekend, Heartland put out a press release entitled U.N. Blackballs International Scientists from Climate Change Conference.
The International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) has been denied the opportunity to present at panel discussions, side events, and exhibits; its members were denied press credentials. …
The scientists, citing pivotal evidence on climate change published in peer-reviewed journals, have expressed their opposition to the UN’s alarmist theory of anthropogenic global warming. As the debate on man-made global warming has been heating up, the UN has tried to freeze out the scientists and new evidence, summarily dismissing them with the claim “the science is settled.”
James M. Taylor, senior fellow for The Heartland Institute explained, “It is not surprising the UN has completely rejected dissenting voices. They have been doing this for years. The censorship of scientists is necessary to promote their political agenda. After the science reversed on the alarmist crowd, they claimed ‘the debate is over’ to serve their wealth redistribution agenda.”
Oh, yes, the apolitical voice of civility and reason: “alarmist”, “censorship” and “wealth redistribution agenda”. Heated rhetoric aside, Heartland also listed ICSC contacts (including team leader Brian Leyland and Lord Monckton) and had contact information for “reporters and editors”.
Two more press releases followed:
- Dec 5: Dishonest Political Tampering with the Science on Global Warming (a dispatch from Christopher Monckton)
- Dec 13: Skeptical Scientists Kicked Off UN Press Schedule in Bali … Again
But the best – or worst, depending on one’s point of view – was yet to come.
HARRIS STEPS UP
Behind the scenes, Tom Harris was hurriedly putting together his latest project. On December 6, the Bali Climate Declaration, a “consensus document” signed by 200 leading scientists, was issued under the auspices of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
The next round of focused negotiations for a new global climate treaty (within the 1992 UNFCCC process) needs to begin in December 2007 and be completed by 2009. The prime goal of this new regime must be to limit global warming to no more than 2ºC above the pre-industrial temperature, a limit that has already been formally adopted by the European Union and a number of other countries.
Harris was well placed to lead the counterattack. He had worked on contrarian petitions before, and had already forged links with ICSC and NZCSC contacts, two of whom, Bob Carter and Vincent Gray, were among the five NRSP scientific advisors. And most importantly, he had a key ally in National Post financial section editor Terence Corcoran, who had long given Harris access to opinion pages at the Post.
It may well be that a new contrarian petition had already been in the works, but the scientists’ petition appears to have heightened the urgency. An email asking for signatures and emphasizing the need for speedy action was posted on Canada Free Press and related websites on December 6 (probably by mistake, as the email was intended to be confidential, and was removed soon after).
We are writing to invite you to join us in endorsing the following open letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon. It is intended that this letter, accompanied by a list of signatories of established professionals in science, engineering and social sciences, will also be published by a major media outlet towards the end of the current UN Conference on Climate Change in Bali, Indonesia.
Both Carter and Harris were listed as contacts on the solicitation of endorsements. And exactly a week later, Harris delivered on what was “intended”, and more. As recounted in much greater detail in a previous post, Bali 2007 Revisited, the Post ran the Open Letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations under the headline “Don’t fight, adapt: We should give up futile attempts to combat climate change” (with signatories). It was accompanied by a long commentary from Corcoran himself, pretentiously entitle A New Call to Reason. The statement itself repeated many common contrarian shibboleths, such as “no net global warming since 1998”, while Corcoran opined that “Bali and the the whole IPCC process is a big mistake that will ultimately be futile”. The signatory list was the usual mix of a handful of contrarian climate scientists, along with questionably qualified climate science critics (including Ross McKitrick, Edward Wegman and David Wojick).
In his typical misleading fashion, Corcoran contrasted the Harris-Carter statement to those from Al Gore and UN Secretary-General, not even bothering to mention the sober assessment from 200 climate scientists just the week before. But the questionable journalistic conduct didn’t end there.
There are two salient facts that stand out about this effort.
First, at no time has Terence Corcoran, or indeed anyone at the Post, acknowledged publicly the leading role played by Cororan’s longtime associate Tom Harris in the Bali initiative. Even after the connection was pointed out to the Post in no uncertain terms, the Post continued to hide Harris’s involvement and refused to run a clarification admitting it. Astonishingly, Corcoran tried to disavow knowledge of Harris’s true role, even as he acknowledged that Harris had indeed promised and then provided the statement and list of signatories.
Second, the solicitation letter makes clear that the National Post had agreed to run the petition well in advance and in effect provided the sole PR channel for the Harris-Carter statement. Indeed, the Post was the only outlet that was seriously targeted, as even the NRSP’s own press release did not provide the full text, but merely linked to the Post version. (That strategy also ensured that references to the petition would have broken links once the Post removed the online version in 2011, but such initiatives are clearly not designed for the ages).
Five days later, Heartland put out its final press release on the Bali effort, Foundations of Bali Climate Change Policy Condemned by 100+ Experts. It extolled the open letter (although it too pointed to the now missing Post online version) and contains this nonsensical gem of wisdom:
The IPCC reports do not reflect many of the most recent peer-reviewed findings in climate science, discoveries that shed serious doubt on the increasingly improbable hypothesis that human carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are having a significant impact on global climate.
And that was that. Early in 2008, Harris left the NRSP, and took the helm of the ICSC where he remains to this day. The revamped ICSC was relaunched at the first Heartland conference, along with a new Harris initiative, the Manhattan Declaration (yet another statement with endorsements from the usual contrarian roster). Harris would go on to attend three more Heartland conferences, and as a Heartland Expert, has provided several recent podcasts. But, in the eyes of Heartland at least, Bali remains his finest hour; it’s the only specific accomplishment mentioned in his Heartland bio.
WILL THE NATIONAL POST AND HARRIS FINALLY PART WAYS?
Of course, from the standpoint of journalistic integrity, this was not the National Post’s finest hour, and the revelation of Heartland funding should only heighten the embarrassment. $25,000 may not be a lot of money, but it is remarkable how far that can go in the hands of a savvy operator like Tom Harris with access to a leading conduit of the contrarian echo chamber. To the unsophisticated reader, the mainstream media presentation of such a petition. with no hint of its true provenance, would give it a misleading gravitas similar to legitimate scientific consensus statements.
However, it should be noted that there are signs that some at the Post are attempting to rein Corcoran in. In particular, in 2010 Jonathan Kay attacked Corcoran and Post colleague Rex Murphy (without explicitly naming them), as I noted in National Post shocking turnaround: “Global-warming deniers are a liability to the conservative cause”.
And his general comments about climate change “denialism” (his term) were no less scathing.
Rants and slogans may help conservatives deal with the emotional problem of cognitive dissonance. But they aren’t the building blocks of a serious ideological movement. And the impulse toward denialism must be fought if conservatism is to prosper in a century when environmental issues will assume an ever greater profile on this increasingly hot, parched, crowded planet. Otherwise, the movement will come to be defined — and discredited — by its noisiest cranks and conspiracists.
In general, there are at least some pro-AGW commentators to be found at the National Post, although they are still far outweighed by contrarian voices.
More recently, Kay wrote a piece comparing the non-story of “Climategate” to the Friends of Science-University of Calgary scandal, again tweaking Corcoran.
Following the latter episode in 2009 [i.e. Climategate] , a Financial Post colleague wrote that the controversy “requires a full investigation by competent scientists and official bodies.” In his next column, I expect he will be demanding that UCalgary gets the same treatment.
Kay’s summary of what happened with Friends of Science is succinct and accurate: “[O]il-industry-funded research accounts at the University of Calgary have been used to pay for anti-warming propaganda”.
Since National Post editorial brass are presumably aware of Tom Harris’s long hidden but central role in both the Friends of Science and Bali episodes, they will no doubt want to save themselves further embarrassment by revoking, once and for all, the privileged access Harris previously enjoyed. Unfortunately, here the recent record is decidedly mixed, as no fewer than four opinion pieces with Harris’s byline were run in the Financial Post section between May and October of last year.
But since then, Harris has been relegated to the letters page, which is certainly a step in the right direction.
And that brings us back to the beginning. It has now been more than a week since Post Media’s Mike de Souza covered the Tom Harris and Carleton course flap (with ample room for Harris to respond to the CASS report criticisms).
In Harris’s golden era, the Post would have welcomed him to respond at length in yet another opinion piece. But maybe, just maybe, those days are gone for good.