A secretive funding organization called Donors Trust spent the last decade funneling vast sums of money to an array of think tanks and activist groups, all dedicated to undermining the science of climate change and heading off the progress of climate policy. That’s according to reporting last week by The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg and a recent analysis by Greenpeace.
Working in concert with its sister organization, Donors Capital Fund, Donors Trust provided critical funding to some of the leading lights in the climate denial campaign: From 2002 to 2010, Americans for Prosperity received $11 million from Donors Trust, the Heartland Institute received $13.5 million, and the American Enterprise Institute received more than $17 million.
In 2010 alone, Donors Trust dedicated $30 million — 46 percent of all its grants to conservative causes — to climate denial groups, 12 of which owe from 30 to 70 percent of their 2010 funding to the organization. Indeed, some may not have even existed absent the largess; the Donors Fund boosted the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow from a $600,000 operation to $3 million over the years, to cite just one example.
According to Goldenberg, the total contributions of Donors Trust from 2002 to 2010 dwarfs the amounts given by Exxon Mobil or even the Koch Foundation:
By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118m distributed to 102 think tanks or action groups which have a record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations.
The money flowed to Washington thinktanks embedded in Republican party politics, obscure policy forums in Alaska and Tennessee, contrarian scientists at Harvard and lesser institutions, even to buy up DVDs of a film attacking Al Gore.
Throw in Greenpeace’s numbers for 2011, and the total contributions rise to $146 million.
Donors Trust is a form of organization called donor-advised funds, which are apparently not uncommon in America. According to Goldenberg, donor-advised funds offer wealthy donors a good deal of advantages: “They are convenient, cheaper to run than a private foundation, offer tax breaks and are lawful.” They also allow contributors an unusual level of control over where their money ends up going, an advantage that helps combat the tendency for foundation money to “drift left,” as Whitney Ball, the president and CEO of Donors Trust, put it. Finally, in the case of Donors Trust at least, there is complete anonymity for contributors:
“The funding of the denial machine is becoming increasingly invisible to public scrutiny. It’s also growing. Budgets for all these different groups are growing,” said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace, which compiled the data on funding of the anti-climate groups using tax records.
“These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There is no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them,” Davies said.
Ball told The Guardian that while the organization’s wealthy donors run the gamut of conservative ideologies, from libertarian to social conservative, Donors Trust has allowed them to find common ground in opposing action on climate change and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. “We exist to help donors promote liberty which we understand to be limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,” she told The Guardian in an interview. The money “won’t be going to liberals.”
Recently, Donors Trust has been dedicating more of its resources to the relatively young Franklin Centre for Government and Public Integrity, marking a strategic shift away from activism centered in Washington, D.C., and towards efforts to scrap climate policy at the individual state level.
Here’s Goldenberg discussing her reporting with Democracy Now! and here’s an in-depth look at the Donors Trust money trail by the Center for Public Integrity, including more details on its state-level operations and a pretty slick interactive infographic.