Few institutional climate change communication blunders compare with that of a recent short-lived Heartland Institute street poster initiative. What could they have been thinking?

The words don’t readily come to mind in trying to capture the real essence of the Heartland Institute’s short-lived Chicago street poster prank last week.

One could try “vulgar.” Or “obscene.” Or perhaps “tawdry.” Yes, that might work. (“Grossly inept” would be a gross understatement.)

In the annals of ill-advised climate change communications strategies, nothing compares.

You’ve surely heard about it by now, notwithstanding its mercifully and relatively short lifetime before it got the stage hook from none other than Heartland itself. It’s about the Eisenhower Expressway electronic poster with the image of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and the statement “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” The one that Heartland initially had planned to follow-up on with images of Charles Manson, Fidel Castro, Osama bin Laden, and James J. Lee.

As if its expressway poster wasn’t bad enough on its own — make no mistake about this, though, it surely is — the organization compounded its communications blunder both in its announcement on its website of its reasoning and later, less than 24 hours later, in its announcement that it was pulling the plug. Which is not the same as saying it apologizes for its posting, by the way. “We do not apologize for running the ad,” the group said on its website, “and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the ‘realist’ message on the climate.”

In the annals of bone-headed actions on the climate change front — by those both supporting the sweeping scientific consensus and those vowing they never will — there are no equals, and few come close. In this vein, the early pundits were pointing fairly to the obscene 10:10 “No Pressure” British video as an example of the trains running off the tracks.

What makes the Heartland street poster initiative so extraordinary is that it was not the wayward moment of a single individual, perhaps acting impulsively however inappropriately. This one was an institutional blunder, planned, premeditated, and executed consciously, albeit not at all intelligently. That their explanation and protestations on their own website merely add to the insult they self-inflicted only compounds their snafu.

“The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists,” Heartland President Joe Bast said on the Heartland website in listing the group’s rogues gallery of bad guys.

“Of course, not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants,” the group said at one point on its site.

That’ll surely be comforting to all those IPCC, National Academy of Sciences, Royal Academy, and hundreds of actual climate scientists, won’t it. Need one say here that you just can’t make this stuff up? Even if Heartland did?

The instant-news/analysis blogosphere erupted on Thursday once the Guardian in the U.K first reported the episode. Some examples are here, here, here, here, here, and here. Moreover, a Washington, D.C.-based newswire May 7 reported on what it characterized as “a surge” of corporate donors bolting from the group and on “a mutiny” among Heartland D.C. staff “decamping for less volatile surroundings,” but those reports could not be independently verified.

What stands out amidst the initial widespread revulsion is that the criticisms of Heartland’s effort came not only by the usual cadre of what climate skeptics dismissively call “warmists,” but also by those ideologically in synch with the group. Along with their disgust with the message, of course, came their disappointment that the billboard had handed Heartland’s many adversaries a useful weapon of criticism.

Don’t expect this public relations blunder to become course material for future journalism or public relations students: No student eligible for admission could possibly be so dumb to even consider such an ill-considered venture.

There’s more, much more, that can be said about this tawdry — yes, we’ll go with tawdry — episode. There likely will be a price to pay, certainly in terms of any shred of credibility Heartland could conceivably lay claim to.

Amidst all the foolish chicanery that sometimes obscures the seriousness of the climate challenges lies one line that a respected scientist (more on this to come) is fond of using: “The molecules don’t care.”

That, in the end, is the important thing to remember. And as a result, the greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise incessantly notwithstanding the rhetorical excesses and heinous accusations that would sometimes obscure the issue. Don’t let them.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...