Shortly before the crucial conversation, shortly before Heartland’s chief strategist tells us how it’s all orchestrated, we sit together, some enjoying steaks. The German lobbyist and YouTuber, Heartland’s chief strategist from America, a British lord and Trump’s former security advisor are all present.
It’s the evening of Dec. 3, 2019. The location: Madrid, in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel. Gray marble flooring, expensive furniture high columns. A few kilometers away, heads of states and governments are negotiating at the World Climate Conference on how the global rise in temperature can be curbed.
We are tracking an international network of climate change deniers, ranging from conservative American billionaires to the German AfD. We want to understand their links and strategies. We tried to get the information by going through the normal channels, but we failed. There was only one way to get into the inner circle: We had to go undercover. That’s why we’re sitting at this table – and that’s why we’re nervous.
We keep checking the hidden cameras, one of them in Katarina’s pen, which she’s wearing on her conference blazer. We try to keep the cameras stable while acting naturally and making small talk.
The people around the table consider the negotiations at the Climate Conference nonsense – yet they have come to Madrid to meet in the shadows of the World Climate Conference with an international lobby of climate change deniers .
Their goal: to spread doubt about human responsibility for current global warming. Their opponents are anyone who recognize this responsibility: politicians, activists, journalists and climate researchers.
CORRECTIV reporters Jean and Katarina are not at the table. Instead, meet Mathias and Karina, two public relations consultants who work for a strategic communications agency in Berlin. We pretend to probe for potential donor opportunities for our clients in the automotive industry and energy sector, who want to anonymously support the work of climate deniers with money. Big money.
The New Right, particularly the AfD, put the fight against climate protection high on their agenda last year. They continue to fight against young activists like Greta Thunberg and present themselves as the defender of the diesel car. Former AfD leader Alexander Gauland recently proclaimed that climate change was a new key topic for his party: “Criticism of the so-called climate protection policy is the third major issue for the AfD after the Euro and Immigration”. It is a polarizing topic.
The AfD relies on an international network of climate change deniers. Here, in the hotel lobby, many of the key players have gathered. One of them is EIKE, aopaque German association that provides politicians with arguments against climate protection. We want to learn as much about them as possible, but we can’t be too pushy. We need to play our roles, discreetly and firmly. We can’t get busted.
At some point Mathias gets up and speaks to James Taylor, chief strategist and director of climate policy at the Heartland Institute, a libertarian thinktank based in the US. We suspect many of the threads that we’ve been following will convene at Taylor. If we want to learn how this network spreads doubts about human-induced climate change, we need to talk to him.
Mathias politely asks if he has a moment for a question.
Taylor understands: It’s time for business.
They get up and head to a seating area a few meters away. It’s not completely isolated, but sufficiently enough that nobody can eavesdrop. While walking, Mathias starts to explain:
“I have a client.”
Throughout the next half hour, Taylor shares the inner workings of his disinformation toolbox. He believes that Mathias, the PR agent sitting opposite him, wants to help his clients funnel cash into the intricate network of climate change deniers.
Taylor explains how he is able to raise awareness of topics in exchange for money, how people can make tax-deductible donations anonymously through a U.S. foundation, and how the Institute’s publications mimic the tone of the New York Times so obscure ideas are taken more seriously. He detailed how he intends to make a young YouTuber from Germany the star of climate denier, and how he works closely with German partners whose ideas are consistently cited by the AfD in the Bundestag.
Then a few weeks later, Taylor will send an offer in writing. It is something like a strategy document for a PR campaign in Germany: A campaign that the public will not recognize for what it really is, making it even more effective.
The goal: No more prohibitive climate laws. Diesel instead of electric cars, energy from coal instead of wind turbines, industry growth instead of environmental protection.
The document, a product of our joint investigation with ZDF Frontal21, gives exclusive insight into the million euro business of climate change deniers. It proves how disinformation is professionally scattered around society with the help of supposed experts, corrupt scientists, intentional spin and YouTube.
There is a worldwide consensus among climate researchers that climate change is largely caused by humans. Hundreds of climate researchers regularly evaluate the current state of scientific knowledge in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their forecasts are conservative, yet dramatic.
Climate change deniers are disputing the results of the IPCC – supposedly based on the same methods. They call themselves “climate skeptics” or “climate realists” and conduct scientific studies to cast doubt on human-induced climate change. They write papers and magazines, organize conferences and dedicate time to lobbying. They are waging an information war to disseminate doubts about human-induced climate change.
If it were up to them, then their self-proclaimed “science“ would be confronting science. Thus, the question of whether human-induced global warming actually exists would be a question of opinion – with good arguments on both sides.
However, hardly any climate researchers or scientists agree with them. The facts speak clearly.
“The communication practiced by the Heartland Institute has nothing to do with science. These are definitely politically motivated statements,” said Kathleen Mar, a scientist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam.
Throughout the US there is a traditional belief that competition and continued growth are good for the economy. It is a mindset fundamentally intertwined with the rejection of state intervention in such economic matters. Libertarian think tanks like the Heartland Institute — financed by the foundations of wealthy entrepreneurs like the Mercer family and, until a few years ago, the Koch brothers – are founded in this tradition. In Germany, this current of opinion is relatively small. But it is getting louder when it comes to the topic of human-induced climate change.
The AfD is using the frustration over climate policy to gain momentum. It’s a good topic for populist politics, given that policies meant to halt climate change often involve placing restrictions that threaten personal comfort: less driving, less garbage production, less meat consumption, less travel. The AfD is increasingly using the arguments of climate change deniers at the EIKE association by inviting representatives to technical conferences and Bundestag committees. But the spin doctors are somewhere else.
We wanted to understand the extent of the climate change denial network, exactly how it’s funded, and how it’s members think and work. So we started our investigation by looking into climate change deniers in Germany. We made the decision to go undercover because we believed it was the only way to get authentic insight. CORRECTIV is well known among the German EIKE association, as their publications regularly fail our fact checks – and they frequently publish furious counter-articles. In 2018, a journalist at CORRECTIV was banned from participating in one of EIKE’s conferences when she tried to obtain press credentials. Also that year, the head of EIKE violently threatened a reporter from the ARD magazine, Monitor. We carefully weighed our decision. In the end it was clear to us that we would not get very far following the typical path.
So we built our undercover identities: Karina and Mathias, two PR agents who, on behalf of a client from the automobile industry, wanted to learn how to send money to climate change deniers in Germany –discretely, without attracting attention.
We create a fictional agency called “Faidros”, printed business cards to reinforce our fake identities, got a second pair of cellphones with new numbers and set up a website. We pretended to be experienced consultants who increase public awareness of climate-skeptical arguments on behalf of industrial clients.
Our undercover journey started in Munich. To be able to participate in an EIKE conference as private individuals, we paid 220 euros each to the association. We used PayPal because it allows you to change your name without being immediately exposed by online searches. Then we received an email confirming that the money had arrived and the venue would soon be announced. A cumbersome way to organize a conference.
Munich, late November. The tables are organized in long rows. A desk and a large screen are in front. Roughly 250 people walk through the entrance hall of the closed Munich-Riem Airfield, the so-called Coat of Arms Hall. They are mostly older men, some with doctorates or professorships, many of them already retired. We stand among them, equipped with business cards, wearing conference clothing and hidden cameras. We are significantly younger than the average attendee. Karina is a woman under 30. We stand out.
EIKE’s annual conference had almost been canceled. After protests, the contract between the original hotel and EIKE was terminated. But shortly before the planned start, we received an email with the new venue.
EIKE stands for “Europäisches Institut für Klima und Energie” (European Institute for Climate and Energy). Many channels of self-proclaimed “climate realists” meet at this association in Germany, which states on its website that human-induced climate change is a “hoax affecting the general public”.
Like Heartland, the non-profit organization claims to be a scientific think tank and advertises its online studies as “peer reviewed”.
“They take scientific terms and misuse them for political purposes. They are not interested in scientific work at all,” said Potsdam sustainability researcher Mar about the self-appointed climate experts. “I would immediately ask myself who these scientists are, what their qualifications are.”
Holger Thuss, the chairman of EIKE who threatened the Monitor’s reporter last year, kicked off the Munich conference. He set the framework for the conference by saying climate protests have assumed “terrorist proportions”.
Then we saw James Taylor, the chief strategist of the Heartland Institute, for the first time. He went on stage in good spirits to give a lecture. He looks like a company manager, slightly stocky, black hair pulled back, ironed shirt, a smile on his lips. A smart man with a meaty American accent, and an engaging speaker. Standing on the stage, he congratulates everyone for making it to the conference and says that the original hotel’s cancellation is encroachment on freedom of expression.
Taylor is a successful lobbyist and spin doctor who says of himself that he is more libertarian than conservative. He considers hostility to be praise for his work. Taylor also appears frequently on American television, and for some time he wrote a column in Forbes magazine.
For the next two days, the group of almost exclusively white men present scientific-looking graphs, diagrams and tables. There are those who consider themselves to be on the side of science, presenting their methods, explaining, arguing and evaluating series of experiments.
And then there are the conspiracy theorists, the esotericists and the ultra-religious. A man sitting next to us in the audience says it is contempt of God to judge whether something God created is good or bad. He was talking about CO2.
EIKE was founded in 2007 and has close ties to the AfD. Michael Limburg, the organization’s vice-president, is employed by the office of Karsten Hilse, a member of the German Parliament, the Bundestag. He confirmed this to CORRECTIV. Limburg is an AfD member himself, and he participated in drafting of the AfD’s party program on climate policy as well as ran for the Bundestag in 2017 on the Brandenburg state list.
The Transatlantic Network Over the past 20 years, the Heartland Institute has received funds from various companies and wealthy families
in the United States for the purpose of denying the climate change. It has also helped EIKE to spread its ideas in Germany.
Police officer Karsten Hilse sits on the environmental committee of the Bundestag on behalf of the AfD. He gave a speech in the Bundestag in March 2018. At the time, while being laughed at by members of other government parties, he declared war on the “false doctrine of human-induced climate change”. A year later, he distributed leaflets that contained a quiz to demonstrators of “Fridays for Future”, who he intended to embarrass.
Hans-Joachim Lüdecke, EIKE’s press officer, wrote an expert statement for the environmental committee at the invitation of the AfD. Now, members of EIKE’s entourage are writing for a new wave of right publications such as “Freie Welt” (Free World). The blog is run by the right-wing association “Zivile Koalition” (Civil Coalition), which is led by the deputy federal spokeswoman for the AfD, Beatrix von Storch.
We asked members of EIKE what kind of relationship the association has with the Heartland Institute. Michael Limburg, EIKE’s Vice-President, answered in writing: “We maintain a good relationship based on similar interests.”
After the conference, we invited Heartland lobbyist Taylor to dinner. We talked about his Institute, which is based in Chicago with just 40 employees.
While making small talk, Taylor explains that he knows how to convince people: “I think I present the actual logic, but people aren’t motivated by an actual logic. So you have to go and argue emotions.”
Things are going smoothly and we indicate our reason for meeting with him without revealing too much. We are successful, too: At the end of the evening we receive an invitation. In 10 days, climate change deniers will meet once again on the sidelines of the World Climate Conference in Madrid. The organizer of the counter-conference is the Heartland Institute.
“Our event will take place on December 3,” said Taylor. “We have eight or nine speakers and a five-hour program.”
The next stop for these consultants from “Faidros”: Madrid.
The “Climate Reality Forum” takes place on the first floor of the Marriott Hotel in Madrid, a small room with suspended ceilings. There are about 20 people, half of whom will give lectures today. Water in tetra packs with an environmental seal are on the tables.
The conference is significantly smaller than the one in Munich. It is shorter, without journalists, and the Heartland Institute does the filming and online streaming itself with two large cameras. The World Climate Conference was originally scheduled to take place in Chile, but a month earlier the Chilean President cancelled it due to protests against social inequality that took place throughout the capital city, Santiago de Chile. Climate change deniers also had to reschedule, rebook flights and hastily organize a new conference.
We met some acquaintances from Munich and greeted each other amicably. “It’s nice to see you again,” said one of the few women in the room. She is a YouTube influencer, 19 years old and blonde. Later on we would learn that she is supposed to become the star of the scene.
One of the speakers is William Happer, professor emeritus of physics and former security advisor to US President Donald Trump. In 2015, a team from Greenpeace, disguised as an oil and gas company, asked Happer to write a scientific paper to prove the benefits of high CO2 emissions for plants. Happer, then a professor at Princeton University, agreed – for an hourly rate of $250.
“I don’t know how far this shrillness will get,” said Happer, visibly aged, in Madrid. “First global warming, then climate change and now climate crisis and climate emergency – what else?”
German climate change deniers are also present. Wolfgang Müller, Secretary General of EIKE, praised the Heartland Institute before his lecture: “Heartland is a paragon in the fight against this climate madness.”
Christopher Monckton, an English lord residing in the Scottish Highlands, speaks later. Monckton advised neoliberal British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s – and does the same today for the British right-wing populist party UKIP. His suggestions include asking to quarantine people who are HIV positive. Monckton is a dazzling character, always polite and eloquent, who happens to also represents some of the crudest beliefs. On stage he pretends to give a speech to country representatives at the World Climate Conference. The delegates, he says, promote a cult of death through their ignorance. “Everything on which this conference in Madrid is based is fundamentally wrong.”
A few hours later, when the conference is over, Lord Monckton sits contentedly at the grand piano in the hotel lobby, playing a few songs. The other speakers sit a few meters away, ordering drinks and snacks to their table.
We sit in between, asking questions, laughing, answering without getting too personal. Secretly, we check the undercover cameras we are carrying with us.
The YouTuber talks about studying economics in Münster: She stopped because the program was too socialist for her. She also says that she is going to work for the Heartland Institute soon.
The YouTuber did not respond to a request for comment after the conversation.
Later at the bar, Karina met Debbie, who introduces herself as a cattle rancher from the States. After a while Debbie pulls a pen out of her pocket and points to the hidden camera at the end. She says she intends to secretly film people at the official UN Climate Conference. “You have no idea about what people will tell you if they don’t know who you are.” The pen is the same model, even the same color as the pen tucked into Karina’s blazer pocket.
Finally, Mathias asks Taylor for a private meeting. This is the moment we have been working for over the past few weeks. Taylor sits relaxed in the armchair, his white shirt unbuttoned at the top, with a glass of red wine in his hand.
From the start, Mathias directs the conversation towards the possibility of donating to groups that deny climate change anonymously. His client, he says, is interested in a long-term investment — but requires that under no circumstances can he be linked to the transactions.
If the donor does not want to be named, there are some groups in the US, Taylor says. “One is Donors Trust.” You can tell them which group the money should go to – Donors Trust will then channel the funds.
Donors Trust’s activities are not illegal, but they do bypass the otherwise quite extensive transparency regulations in the US. Both Donors Trust and Donors Capital Trust are tax-exempt foundations that redistribute corporate donations to conservative and market-liberal think tanks. US tax law requires them to disclose to whom the funds are given. However, they are allowed to keep the name of the donor undisclosed on the grounds of anonymous. In practice, this means oil and coal companies can support anti-climate campaigns via Donors Trust or Donors Capital without having to reveal their financial support.
In the past, big players in the fossil industry like Exxon Mobil and Koch brothers were among Heartland’s major donors — but they withdrew public support a few years ago. We checked this by looking at tax returns, which are largely public in the US.
Now, Donors Trust is now one of the association’s biggest donors. The American magazine “Mother Jones” described Donors Trust in 2013 as a “Black Box ATM”. You could say that the foundation lends its name to the actual donors. Taylor confirmed this during the conversation.
Donors Trust is now directing between two thirds and three quarters of its budget to Heartland to support its climate-skeptical positions, says Taylor. He sells this as his personal doing.
Soon after, Taylor starts to speak about the German YouTuber sitting at the table a few meters away.
“We’re looking to bring her on board,” says Taylor, pointing in her direction.
Mathias asks: “The young lady?”
“To do some videos for us. Presenting to young people.”
The young influencer is to start forming new groups. She should be a dropout from mainstream society, with whom as many as young people as possible should identify. According to a Facebook post by the Rhineland-Palatinate Association of “Junge Alternative” (Young Alternative), she is a member of the AfD’s youth organization. The AfD and its members regularly distribute her videos. Taylor says the fight against climate protection measures needs a better image, to move away from old white men and instead showcase a younger generation. The YouTuber is going be the new face of the movement. She is Taylor’s media strategy for the masses.
Taylor also knows how to reach those who are not on YouTube but do vote in parliament. For a long time, he published a monthly brochure that the Heartland Institute sent to politicians.
He says it was specifically written “We do it as if it were for The New York Times or any other leftist newspaper.”
He explains that the rule for their editors is to write it as if they were news stories. They cannot write anything that looks like it is opinion. “You present our angle on it, but you do it by who you decide to quote”, he says”.
Taylor’s team uses supposedly journalistic standards to raise doubts about human-induced climate change. What he is not interested is rigor and balance.
And he succeeds at that, or at least that’s what he says. There are people who will realise it is Heartland how is writing these articles, he explains, but others feel it is something they could use, and this is how they get to them.
Taylor repeatedly emphasizes the good work done by EIKE. He says it is amazing what they can do in a year with such a small budget, and claims that the organization has 200,000 euros available. They help each other, he says, by participating in each other’s conferences. Heartland also gave EIKE a small sum of money for the Munich conference in late November. When asked about EIKE’s budget, the organization’s representatives said that their “donation volume” per year is “significantly below the stated amount”.
But whenever Mathias steers the conversation toward our client’s possible investment, Taylor brings his own institution into play — even though Mathias emphasizes several times that the client wants to donate to EIKE because he is mostly concerned about the European market.
“Then he tries to convince me to give my client’s money directly to Heartland, instead of EIKE“, Mathias recalls. Taylor politely adds that EIKE could, of course, use it much better in Europe. Then, a few seconds later, he talks about the benefits of Heartland establishing and disseminating specific information at the request of the client in exchange for money.
A half hour has passed. Taylor and Mathias promise to stay in touch before returning to the other conference goers. Mathias writes down the conversation so he can jog his memory later.
This is far more than we had hoped for. Taylor has given us a deep insight into the business of climate change deniers. We now know about some of the strategies they use to disseminate disinformation.
But we want to have it in writing.
A few weeks later, we call Taylor for a follow-up. How does Taylor intend to get into business in Germany? Would it even be possible to purchase content as a donor?
We mention our client from the auto industry and bring up the current diesel bans in Germany and the growing popularity of electric cars, which are hurting his business.
Again, Taylor advertises the 19-year-old YouTuber as a promising social media strategy in Germany.
Mathias asks: Can his client decide what she says in her videos?
Taylor hesitates, but doesn’t say no. Of course, she would have to agree with and feel comfortable with what is going to be said. And he’s pretty sure that everyone involved wants the same thing.
Mathias: “Perhaps we could agree on certain buzzwords. Disseminate certain information.”
Taylor: “Absolutely. Key points, keywords, the way to present something.”
Content in exchange for money. It’s like a deal in the advertising industry. The only difference is that the content is political.
Taylor thinks he’s in business with Mathias. Shortly after our phone call, we text Taylor to send us a written offer to convince our client.
The document arrives via email, just two hours after our conversation. It’s three pages long, with the title: “Funding Proposal: Germany Environmental Issues”.
In the proposal, Taylor summarizes what we discussed over the phone – and goes into even more detail. He outlines a plan for a possible campaign against climate protection policies in Germany. It’s an immoral offer formulated in the advertising language of a pitch. Recognize the problem, present the solution.
He describes German climate policy as “unwise”. Conventional power plants could be closed and replaced by expensive, unreliable wind turbine systems. Diesel vehicles could be banned. “These restrictive environmental programs are largely unnecessary”, says the proposal. Even worse: Other countries would be negatively impacted by Germany, which is often viewed as a pioneer.
Taylor suggests that the Heartland Institute instead draws attention to projects that “raise German living standards through common-sense environmental stewardship.”
For climate change deniers, this means one thing: As few environmental protection measures as possible.
Taylor uses the same language utilized by Heartland and EIKE, the same language pushed by climate change deniers on social media and also by the AfD in the Bundestag: Climate alarmists are thoughtless and hysterical people who jeopardize economic growth. So, in reaction, they stand up: the climate realists, the only sensible people in the debate.
The central pillar of the German campaign is to be the AfD-affiliated YouTube influencer praised by Taylor in Madrid, “(…) she is eager to direct her viewers to topics on environmental overreach that harm German households,” writes Taylor. The funding will allow Heartland to equip her in such a way that she can produce a series of effective videos.
For the first time, Taylor is also involving staff from his institute. Their titles and degrees are intended to ensure credibility beyond YouTube.
Peter Ferrara, a graduate in economics from Harvard University and former advisor to US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, is to join the team. Ferrara can “(…) research and present important information on the severe economic costs of German environmental restrictions”.
Taylor also has a plan to counter the argument that diesel car emissions are harmful to health.
To tackle this particular issue, he plans to get a physician and a biostatistician in on the plan. The two scientific professionals, Dunn and Milloy, “are two of the science experts Heartland would – if properly funded – like to utilize calling attention to the minimal health impacts of diesel engines, coal power plants, and other conventional energy sources”
Their degrees and job descriptions will give off a supposed level of expertise.
The strategy is similar to the one used by Heartland US. Without mentioning EIKE explicitly, Taylor writes that “Heartland would proactively explore opportunities to galvanize our friends and allies to advocate in conjunction with our Germany Environmental Issues project.“
Taylor proposes two US trusts as payment vehicles, with confidentiality and legality guaranteed: Donors Trust and National Philanthropic Trust. “Donors fund an account with the organization and then direct the organization how it would like to distribute the funds” In exchange: One percent of the donated amount will be debited quarterly.
It is an offer designed to be convincing. And it actually is convincing, because it shows how strategically and discreetly the climate change denier network functions. It establishes topics, tailors communication strategies and offers entire campaigns while granting the donors and masterminds complete anonymity.
After the conversation, we offered the Heartland Institute the possibility to make a statement. However, they did not response to our comment.
Other people in the climate change denier network are, however, in the public eye: young influencers on YouTube as well as older men who present themselves as professionals at conferences, in interviews and in pseudo-scientific discussions.
The network of climate change deniers extends across the Atlantic and grows increasingly closer to the authorities. They use professional communication strategies, funded by anonymous donations.
Heartland functions as a kind of model for its German counterpart, EIKE – even if the latter has only a fraction of the budget at its disposal. Still, under German law, EIKE does not have to disclose its finances. The association itself reports that it has “almost only small and very small donors”.
In the US, Heartland’s ideas have reached the President. In Germany, EIKE benefits from the fact that the AfD now uses climate policy for itself, framing it in the context of the euro and immigration.
Heartland had already extended its hand into Europe before we went undercover. Our reporting confirms that for years, Heartland and EIKE jointly sponsored conferences, even though an EIKE spokesman said he was not aware of this when we reached out for comment. The German association is an ally to Heartland: they share the same goals and attend each other’s conferences. And on Heartland’s website, the chairman of EIKE, Holger Thuss, is listed as an “expert”. We also learned that that Heartland will run campaigns for German foundations and corporations in exchange for donations.
Climate change denial is spreading not just in the US, but also in Germany. Members of the movement do not outright deny climate change itself, instead preferring to question whether it is the fault of man’s fault, and if it even poses a serious risk. This frames their ideas as diverse, and presents the possibility that everyone else is simply hysterical. They paint their challengers as hotheads who want to introduce socialism instead of protecting individual freedoms.
Thus, the wording of the “false doctrine” of climate change, of the hysterical and erring “climate alarmists” – conceived and disseminated by institutions such as Heartland and EIKE – ends up on social media and in the Bundestag. Look no further than AfD member Karsten Hilse, who spoke of “the false doctrine of human-induced climate change” – the same language used by the YouTube influencer. Numerous members of EIKE and speakers at Heartland conferences use the same rhetoric.
A few weeks after the Madrid conference, a video appeared on Heartland’s YouTube channel. It shows fragments from the speech given by the 19-year-old influencer at the conference in Madrid, intermittent with statements by Greta Thunberg. The video ends with a question: Who do you believe more?
Reporting by: Katarina Huth, Jean Peters Text: Katarina Huth, Jean Peters, Jonas Seufert Video: Katarina Huth, Jean Peters, Philipp Schulte, Bastian Schlange Editorial: Olaya Argüeso, Justus von Daniels Design&Production: Benjamin Schubert, Belén Ríos Falcón Translation: Max Donheiser