End-of-year academic stress getting you down? Here’s a spirit-lifting tip: Open your browser and Google “Heartland billboard.”

You’ll quickly find The Heartland Institute’s latest propaganda piece: a mugshot of Ted Kaczynski next to the words, “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” Heartland’s not-so-subtle subtext: If you think the climate is changing, you’re no better than terrorists like the Unabomber.

The billboard, which appeared alongside a Chicago highway, was the first in a series that, Heartland said, would have included other standout characters like Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson.

But the message was so outrageous (almost humorously so – see Grist.org for some telling spoofs) that the backlash – which included public withdrawals of funder support – convinced Heartland to cancel the ad within hours.

The incident is the latest in a series of ethical quandaries that have cropped up since the think tank switched on its climate change denial machinery. The Heartland Institute bills itself as a pro-business non-profit with a $6 million annual budget for education, lobbying, advertising, and regular installments of its “International Conference on Climate Change,” which features climate skeptics from around the world. Recent leaked internal documents describe (mis)education plans and public opinion campaigns designed to perpetuate the embarrassingly pervasive American disbelief in human-driven climate change, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary.

Heartland is just one part of the pervasive climate change denial machine, which spans think tanks, interest groups, and political parties. Its financers represent an even broader spectrum, from private donors to corporations built on fossil fuel usage. But it’s getting harder and harder to figure out who’s paying for which messages because, as evidence for climate change mounts, Americans are getting more suspicious. For example, in 2005, Heartland stopped naming its funding sources, pulling another shroud between its messages to the American public, and those who fund them.

Given Heartland’s position on climate change, it’s not surprising to note that, since 1998, the think tank has received more than half a million dollars from ExxonMobil – a multinational energy company that would do particularly well by convincing us not to worry about our carbon footprints.

Though in 2006, rocked by public relations scandals surrounding its support of climate change denialism, ExxonMobil reportedly cut ties with Heartland, it’s still a key member of the American Petroleum Institute. The API is the political voice of the oil and natural gas industry in the United States. Backed by 400 member corporations – including ConocoPhillips, BP, and Shell – it spends $3 million lobbying in Washington each year, and more on ad campaigns convincing Americans of the critical importance of fossil fuels.

The bottom line is simple: If you sell oil, coal, or gas, acknowledging climate change is bad for business.

But what all these companies also understand, very clearly, is that climate change is happening, and that it can, in itself, be bad for business. For example, melting permafrost threatens the stability of the Alaskan oil pipeline. And intensified hurricanes increase damage to Gulf of Mexico drilling rigs.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: fossil fuel supplies are finite, and we’re already on the downhill side of production. Major oil and gas companies are adding alternative energies to their portfolios, hoping to ensure their survival in the post-fossil fuel world.

Perhaps that’s why in 2002, long before it froze out Heartland, ExxonMobil committed $100 million in research funds to Stanford’s own Global Climate and Energy Project. The company also invests in energy conservation research at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and other research universities. 

Exxon is not alone. Consider BP, now self-styled “Beyond Petroleum.” Or flip through the API’s seven-page list of the ways its member corporations are addressing climate change. Many of these efforts have been in the research pipeline for a decade or more, occurring behind the scenes at companies whose public relations machinery busy denying climate change.

This year, investors at ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips have filed multiple shareholder resolutions asking for management transparency. They want to know what plans are being made for climate change, whether greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced, and if hydraulic fracturing is really still on the table. They want to know how their stock portfolios will sustain growth in an unsustainable market space. 

These focused demands, and gradual opinion change of the American public, have forced many energy corporations to green their image, highlighting renewables research and hiding ties to the Heartlands of the world.

It’s our job as consumers – of oil, and of advertising – to see those ties anyway. Because as long as environmental concerns threaten the profits of these big corporations, a very powerful Mr. Hyde will be working in Dr. Jekyll’s shadows.

Front page image: Shutterstock.com