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Obama’s next opponent: our vast network of climate denial think tanks

According to the Guardian, the funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing "wedge issue" for hardcore conservatives.


By David McRobert
This morning (Feb. 14) the Manchester Guardian published a Valentine’s missive to all climate scientists and activists around the planet when it revealed that conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (U.S.) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.
According to the Guardian, the funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives.
Timely Revelations in view of Obama’s State of the Union address
These revelations are timely in view of State of the Union address by President Obama on Tuesday night warning that Congress must tackle “dangerous carbon pollution,” describing Superstorm Sandy and other natural disasters as no “freak coincidence.”
The Obama SOU speech establishes an apparent turning point for a president who treated climate change tentatively during his first term of office and seemed reluctant to broach the issue in his 2012 re-election campaign. Indeed, it was only when a devastating autumn hurricane with record storm surges descended on the U.S. East Coast in late October and a blistering drought bedeviled the U.S. mid-West and other food growing regions of North America that climate change once again resumed a higher status in public policy discussions in the U.S. and Canada. The fact that these and other severe weather events took place during one of the warmest years on record also has boosted momentum on the issue, one that Obama signaled he planned to tackle three weeks ago in his inaugural address.
Obama’s Feb. 12th State of the Union speech drew clear lines, invoking phrases similar to those employed by John F. Kennedy in his inaugural presidential address in address in 1961:
“But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change,” Obama said in his SOU speech. “It’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods — all are now more frequent and intense.
“We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he added. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”
Obama openly urged that the U.S. Congress reconsider legislation similar to the cap-and-trade bill pursued in the past by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and retired Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a legislative program that remains extremely unpopular among many Republicans and Conservatives in Canada. He also taunted the Republican-controlled Congress by
threatening to use his executive authority to regulate the release of carbon dioxide from industry sources if lawmakers fail to “act soon.”
If Congress won’t “act soon to protect future generations,” Obama said in his SOU speech, “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Climate change deniers: an embattled and persecuted minority?
The new Guardian report will not be surprising to climate scientists and activists who have battled with these well-funded industry folks for years. However, it does highlight the bizarre irony of climate change deniers claiming to be an embattled and persecuted minority. The persistent claims of deniers that they only were concerned only with getting the truth out despite the efforts of nefarious scientists and environmentalists to silence them seem to grow more laughable each year.
The latest study confirms findings of earlier studies by sociologists and other academics. For example, in 2004, Naomi Oreskes published a path-breaking study in the journal Science titled “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” In the article, Oreskes examined the positions taken on climate change within peer-reviewed scientific articles. Of the 928 articles examined, none expressed disagreement with the consensus view that humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change.
Then in 2008, Peter Jacques, Riley Dunlap and Mark Freeman published a brave paper titled “The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Skepticism” in the journal Environmental Politics.
http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/routledg/ep/2008/00000017/00000003/art00001
Jacques et al analyzed 141 books published between 1972 and 2005, all of which expressed skepticism about the seriousness of environmental problems, including climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, resource shortages, air pollution, and others. Of these, the researchers found that over 92% were published by conservative think tanks, written by authors affiliated with those think tanks, or both.
Jacques et al. draw on their literature review to argue that “skepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism.” In other words, groups with an economic or ideological commitment to an economic system whereby most energy comes from fossil fuels and the atmosphere is a giant garbage dump for greenhouse gasses – are continuing to press for policy paralysis using various self-serving tactics and strategies. They construct elaborate diversions using questionable information and perplexing arguments at odds with that in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
In 2010, Oreskes and Erik Conway published their Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. This exhaustively researched and documented book probably is one of the most important books published in the past decade. Oreskes and Conway demonstrate that the climate doubt merchants are not “objective scientists” as the term is popularly understood but sales people. Instead, they are “science-speaking mercenaries” hired by corporations to process numbers to prove that the corporations’ products are safe and useful.
The writing reminds the reader of some of the powerful journalism in the U.S. in the 1970s (e.g. Watergate accounts). This is investigative journalism at its best; the authors unravel complex and obscure links between past environmental and public health controversies. Moreover, with respect to climate science Oreskes and Conway leave “little doubt about their disdain for what they regard as the misuse and abuse of science by a small cabal of scientists they see as largely lacking in requisite climate science expertise”.
The Guardian’s report, reproduced below, shows that millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1 million or more. Whitney Ball, chief executive of the Donors Trust told the Guardian that her organization assured wealthy donors that their funds would never be diverted to liberal causes.
According to the Guardian report the funding stream for the trusts far outstripped the support from more visible opponents of climate action such as the oil industry or the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
“We exist to help donors promote liberty which we understand to be limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,” Ball said in an interview. By definition that means none of the money is going to end up with groups like Greenpeace, she said. “It won’t be going to liberals.”
Ball won’t divulge names, but she said the stable of donors represents a wide range of opinion on the American right. Increasingly over the years, those conservative donors have been pushing funds towards organizations working to discredit climate science or block climate action.
The same anonymous groups and individuals who funded the Donors Trust are now mobilizing against Obama’s efforts to act on climate change in his second term. A top recipient of the secret funds on Wednesday put out a point-by-point critique of the climate content in Obama’s February 12th SOU address.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/feb/14/funding-climate-change-denial-thinktanks-network
Secret funding helped build vast network of climate denial think tanks
Climate skeptic groups are mobilizing against Obama’s efforts to act on climate change in his second term.
Manchester Guardian
Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120 million (U.S.) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned.
The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives.
The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more.
Whitney Ball, chief executive of the Donors Trust told the Guardian that her organization assured wealthy donors that their funds would never by diverted to liberal causes.
The funding stream far outstripped the support from more visible opponents of climate action such as the oil industry or the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
“We exist to help donors promote liberty which we understand to be limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,” she said in an interview.
By definition that means none of the money is going to end up with groups like Greenpeace, she said. “It won’t be going to liberals.”
Ball won’t divulge names, but she said the stable of donors represents a wide range of opinion on the American right. Increasingly over the years, those conservative donors have been pushing funds towards organizations working to discredit climate science or block climate action.
Donors exhibit sharp differences of opinion on many issues, Ball said. They run the spectrum of conservative opinion, from social conservatives to libertarians. But in opposing mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, they found common ground.
“Are there both sides of an environmental issue? Probably not,” she went on. “Here is the thing. If you look at libertarians, you tend to have a lot of differences on things like defence, immigration, drugs, the war, things like that compared to conservatives. When it comes to issues like the environment, if there are differences, they are not nearly as pronounced.”
By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118 m 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 think tanks 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.
The ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against Barack Obama’s environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action on climate change.
Those same groups are now mobilizing against Obama’s efforts to act on climate change in his second term. A top recipient of the secret funds on Wednesday put out a point-by-point critique of the climate content in the president’s state of the union address.
And it was all done with a guarantee of complete anonymity for the donors who wished to remain hidden.
“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.
The trusts were established for the express purpose of managing donations to a host of conservative causes.
Such vehicles, called donor-advised funds, are not uncommon in America. They offer a number of advantages to wealthy donors. They are convenient, cheaper to run than a private foundation, offer tax breaks and are lawful.
That opposition hardened over the years, especially from the mid-2000s where the Greenpeace record shows a sharp spike in funds to the anti-climate cause.
In effect, the Donors Trust was bankrolling a movement, said Robert Brulle, a Drexel University sociologist who has extensively researched the networks of ultra-conservative donors.
“This is what I call the counter-movement, a large-scale effort that is an organized effort and that is part and parcel of the conservative movement in the United States ” Brulle said. “We don’t know where a lot of the money is coming from, but we do know that Donors Trust is just one example of the dark money flowing into this effort.”
In his view, Brulle said: “Donors Trust is just the tip of a very big iceberg.”
The rise of that movement is evident in the funding stream. In 2002, the two trusts raised less than $900,000 for the anti-climate cause. That was a fraction of what Exxon Mobil or the conservative oil billionaire Koch brothers donated to climate skeptic groups that year.
By 2010, the two Donor Trusts between them were channeling just under $30m to a host of conservative organizations opposing climate action or science. That accounted to 46% of all their grants to conservative causes, according to the Greenpeace analysis.
The funding stream far outstripped the support from more visible opponents of climate action such as the oil industry or the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the records show. When it came to blocking action on the climate crisis, the obscure charity in the suburbs was outspending the Koch brothers by a factor of six to one.
“There is plenty of money coming from elsewhere,” said John Mashey, a retired computer executive who has researched funding for climate contrarians. “Focusing on the Kochs gets things confused. You can not ignore the Kochs. They have their fingers in too many things, but they are not the only ones.”
It is also possible the Kochs continued to fund their favourite projects using the anonymity offered by Donor Trust.
But the records suggest many other wealthy conservatives opened up their wallets to the anti-climate cause – an impression Ball wishes to stick.
She argued the media had overblown the Kochs support for conservative causes like climate contrarianism over the years. “It’s so funny that on the right we think George Soros funds everything, and on the left you guys think it is the evil Koch brothers who are behind everything. It’s just not true. If the Koch brothers didn’t exist we would still have a very healthy organization,” Ball said.