Organizations that actively block efforts to address climate change are funded by a large network of conservative donors to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year, according to the first in-depth study into the dark money that fuels the denial effort.
The study, published Friday in the journal Climatic Change, analyzed the income of 91 think tanks, advocacy groups, and industry associations, funded by 140 different foundations, that work to oppose action on climate change. The study’s author, Robert Brulle, refers to these organizations as the climate change counter-movement, and concludes that their outsized influence “has not only played a major role in confounding public understanding of climate science, but also successfully delayed meaningful government policy actions to address the issue.”
“It is not just a couple of rogue individuals doing this,” Brulle told the Guardian. “This is a large-scale political effort.”
From 2003 to 2010, the organizations had a total income of more than $7 billion, averaging out to over $900 million per year. Over the eight year span, their funding has increased by 13 percent and in 2010, total funding for the organizations was nearly $1.2 billion. An important caveat, as Brulle notes, is that many of the organizations are multi-purpose, so not all of the income was devoted to anti-climate change initiatives.
Brulle defines the climate change counter-movement as the organized effort to prevent policies that will limit the carbon pollution emissions that drive man-made climate change. Their efforts cover a range of activities, from lobbying to political contributions to media campaigns that attempt to discredit the scientific consensus around global warming.
The 91 groups include trade associations, think tanks, and advocacy organizations. The vast majority of the groups — 78 percent — were registered as charitable organizations and enjoyed considerable tax breaks.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation, two of the best-known conservative think tanks in the U.S., were also among the top recipients of funding. AEI received 16 percent of the total grants that were made to organizations active in the climate change counter-movement and Heritage was close behind, receiving 14 percent of total grants.
The largest and most consistent funders of organizations leading the charge on climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation.
A key shift Brulle uncovered is that traditionally high-profile funders of climate denial, such as the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil, have moved away from publicly funding organizations that oppose action on climate change. The single-largest funders are the combined foundations Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, providing more than $78 million in funding to the groups over the eight year span. These donor directed foundations make grants on behalf of an individual or corporation, thereby funding their preferred causes while keeping their identity a secret. As a result, writes Brulle, “these two philanthropic organizations form a black box that conceals the identity of contributors to various CCCM organizations.”
The Donor Trust/Capital giving increased dramatically over the period of time Brulle examined, from just 3.3 percent in 2003 to 23.7 percent in 2010. At the same time, the funding from Koch Affiliated Foundations and ExxonMobil Foundation declined significantly, with Exxon effectively ending public funding of climate change counter-movement groups in 2007.
Just as it’s impossible to know whether Koch Foundations and ExxonMobil are channeling their climate-denying funds through third party groups such as Donors Trust, most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. According to Brulle, approximately 75 percent of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources.
Despite the significant amount of “dark money” being funneled into efforts that seek to obstruct action on climate change or misinform the public, Brulle concludes that sufficient evidence exists that “a number of major conservative foundations have clearly played a crucial role in the development and maintenance of the [climate change counter-movement].”
The result is not just an obfuscation of fact and deliberate effort to slow any progress on addressing the most pressing issue of our time, but an assault on democracy. “Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible,” said Brulle. “Money amplifies certain voices above others and, in effect, gives them a megaphone in the public square. Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts.”