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Climate clash: Corporate giants caught as groups skirmish

The Heartland Institute

This billboard was up for a day in the Chicago area last week.

Some corporate giants are caught in the middle of a battle between a think tank skeptical of manmade global warming and an environmental group that it is trying to undermine its financial health. 

On one side is Forecast the Facts, which was founded this year and claims to have 20,000 members ready and willing to use e-mail and social media to counter criticism of mainstream climate science that points to a warming world.

On the other is The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based group that's been around for 28 years. It has called global warming a "fringe theory" and covers not only climate issues but also budget policy, education, insurance, health care and telecom issues.

Forecast the Facts has been after Heartland since February, when documents were released purporting to show donors to the think tank. Peter Gleick, a climate scientist/activist, came under fire from various sides for posing as a Heartland board member to obtain the documents.

Heartland felt the heat again last week when it launched -- and 24 hours later halted -- a billboard campaign comparing mainstream climate scientists to "madmen". The billboard used Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's image and the words: "I still believe in Global Warming. Do You?"

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Forecast the Facts seized on the billboard, urging Pfizer, several insurers, Microsoft and Comcast -- whose external affairs director, Mike Rose, is on Heartland's board of directors -- and other corporations to cut financial ties even if those donations were for non-climate programs at Heartland.

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Comcast did not comment on the issue, but  other companies have issued statements since the billboard campaign and after Forecast the Facts started lobbying them online.

Among them:

  • State Farm Insurance, on its Facebook page, said it "is ending its association with the Heartland Institute" due to the billboard.
  • In a blog post over the weekend, Steve Lippman, Microsoft's director of corporate citizenship, said the donations were in the form of free software available to any nonprofit. "The Heartland Institute’s position on climate change is diametrically opposed to Microsoft’s position," he added. "And we completely disagree with the group’s inflammatory and distasteful advertising campaign."
  • Beverage giant Diageo told London's The Guardian over the weekend that it has no plans to work further with Heartland, after a donation two years ago for a tax policy program.
  • Pfizer spokesman Peter O'Toole told msnbc.com that "we do not agree with the Heartland Institute’s position on climate change and have said so publicly a number of times. We also review our engagement with outside organizations regularly."
  • The Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers, in a letter to Heartland, said that "we write to disavow any future relationship with your organization. Recent revelations of the Heartland Institute’s radical position on climate change as portrayed on the new billboard featuring Ted Kaczynski made our association with other parts of your organization untenable."

Forecast the Facts said a few other insurers pulled out as well. 

The heat from the climate controversy is accelerating a "divorce" between Heartland's Chicago headquarters and its Washington, D.C.-based insurance unit, and that a split is "imminent," according to a report Wednesday by PropertyCasualty360.com, an insurance underwriting website.

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Even before the billboard campaign, Forecast the Facts was pressuring Heartland donors. 

"General Motors was the first to respond ... ending its 20-year relationship with Heartland on March 28," said Johnson. GM spokesman Greg Martin later confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that the company "decided to discontinue" its ties to Heartland. "GM's operating its business as if climate change is real," he added.

Pepsi last month stated it had been a Heartland member but had only engaged on taxation issues, not climate science.

Heartland, for its part, remains strong with 1,800 donors, including foundations and corporations, spokesman Jim Lakely told msnbc.com.

The billboard campaign ended "after 24 hours because it offended many of Heartland’s friends and supporters," he said. "If we had it to do over, we wouldn’t, and that billboard will not be appearing again."

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