The scientific community is perfectly clear: Human-activity is disrupting Earth’s climate at an unprecedented rate and we need to act now to avoid catastrophic change. But despite the overwhelming scientific consensus backed up by a tsunamis of evidence, climate change denial still persists, especially in the US.
If you wish to understand why this mindset continues to struggle on, you can start by chasing the billions of dollars that have funded it over the past few decades.
Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, has carried out numerous studies looking at the funding behind the US climate change counter-movement. Through this work, he has unearthed the well-orchestrated network of foundations, corporations, think tanks, advocacy organizations, and trade associations that drive this ideology.
Reporting in the journal Climatic Change in 2013, Brulle highlighted that much of the funding for climate change-denial groups can be traced back to 140 different foundations. Between 2003 to 2010, these foundations were found to have sent over $558 million worth of grants and donations each year to 91 groups skeptical of climate change.
These funding foundations include the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. It also includes foundations with more blatant links to the fossil oil industry, such as the ExxonMobil Foundation and Koch Family-affiliated foundations.
Around 79 percent of these foundations are listed as charity organizations – meaning they can get tax relief – that promote conservative values or neoliberal free-market ideology.
Although it remains unclear how much of their funding goes directly to climate change activities, as many of the organizations have multiple interests, it’s clear that hundreds of millions of dollars end up in the pockets of climate change denial groups. In turn, these groups are associated with a range of agents, from amateur climate bloggers and self-designated experts to public relations firms and media pundits.
“Just as in a theatrical show, there are stars in the spotlight. In the drama of climate change, these are often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians, such as Senator James Inhofe,” the study concludes.
“However, they are only the most visible and transparent parts of a larger production. Supporting this effort are directors, scriptwriters, and, most importantly, a series of producers, in the form of conservative foundations.”
As one example, ExxonMobil Foundations – among some of the fossil fuel industry’s biggest players – were heavily invested in climate-change denial organizations in the past. InsideClimate News carried out a widely acclaimed investigation into how Exxon executives were warned about a possible catastrophe from greenhouse gas as far back as the 1970s, but then actively led efforts to hamper any solutions. They also launched efforts to sow uncertainty into the debate and delay widespread acceptance of climate change through lobbying, advertising, and grantmaking. These tactics have even been compared to big tobacco's attempts to cover up the damaging health effects of smoking.
However, according to this study, ExxonMobil appeared to stop making publicly traceable contributions by 2008. Perhaps most worrying of all, Brulle found that most of these funds were routed through trusts or other mechanisms that assure anonymity to donors.
“The real issue here is one of democracy. Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible,” Brulle said in a statement from 2013.
“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,” he added.
“At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts.”