Damian Dovarganes / AP

Moneyed interests are blocking US action on climate change

The Koch brothers and their allies have used their wealth to undermine science and block consensus

February 8, 2016 2:00AM ET

Global warming is an increasingly pressing crisis. While the recent international climate accords in Paris are an important step forward, the power of wealthy interests in the United States still hampers progress. In her new book, “Dark Money,” journalist Jane Mayer traces how the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and their right-wing allies have funded an elaborate climate change denial operation that has successfully derailed climate legislation.

The denial apparatus

Donors in the Koch network have good reason to oppose climate change, as their business model relies on the market failing to price carbon correctly, due to government subsidies and inaction. As Mayer notes, “Coal, oil, and gas magnates formed the nucleus of the Koch donor network.” Indeed, Koch Industries is one of the country’s largest producers of toxic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. As journalist Tim Dickinson reports, one of the first wins for the Koch brothers was torpedoing President Bill Clinton’s first-term proposal to create an energy tax, which, one high-profile Koch executive said “may have destroyed our business.”

Though the Koch brothers claim to love markets, their overriding political goal is to prevent the pricing of externalities. Koch Industries, Mayer reports, increased its lobbying more than 20-fold to $20 million between 2004 and 2008, more than any other energy and gas company.

Lee Fang, a journalist at The Intercept, has written about how major donors like the Koch brothers have funneled millions into organizations that deny climate change and actively work to oppose climate legislation. He recently uncovered a massive network of secret political spending aimed at funding climate change denial.

A Drexel University study finds that there is an extensive network of organizations funding climate denial, with 140 primarily conservative foundations making donations totaling $558 million to 91 organizations between 2003 and 2010. They find that 5 percent of those donations, or $26.3 million, came from Koch-affiliated organizations. Big fossil fuel companies have spent millions funding climate denial groups, including money to support Willie Soon, a discredited researcher who inflated his credentials and denied climate change (Soon also received money from the Koch Brothers).

In 2009, the year the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES, also called Waxman-Markey after its Democratic co-authors, Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey) was debated, OpenSecrets reported that while pro-environmental groups spent $22.4 million on 489 lobbyists in favor of the bill, the oil and gas industry spent a whopping $175 million and hired 820 lobbyists to defeat it.

As University of Massachusetts-Amherst political scientist Brian Schaffner and I have shown, Republican donors overwhelmingly oppose action on climate change, while non-donors on the right are more supportive. But the problem is even deeper. As the chart below demonstrates (using data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study), non-donors (of any party) are more supportive of Waxman-Markey than donors, and big donors (those giving more than $1,000) are the least supportive. Among big GOP donors, only 8 percent were supportive of Waxman-Markey. If politicians responded to voters, rather than donors, there would be more support for pro-climate policies.

In their extensive survey of the opinions of wealthy Americans published in 2013, Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright found that climate change ranked dead last among issues threatening the U.S., behind “loss of traditional values,” “trade deficits” and “inflation.” While the wealthy in their study generally favored reducing spending on the environment, the public strongly favored increasing spending. The authors also found that within their sample, the wealthiest respondents were least likely to support regulating the economy. When asked about whether the oil industry needed more regulations, the wealthy were modestly in favor of more regulation (5 points net), while the general public was overwhelmingly favorable of more regulations (50 points net).

Shifting the agenda

One of the most successful campaigns by the big money climate change denialists has been to pressure the GOP into increasingly extreme stances. Mayer writes that, “[President George W.] Bush had vowed during the campaign to act on climate change by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but once in office [Vice President Dick] Cheney countermanded him.” Instead of reining in greenhouse gas emissions, Cheney pushed for the 2005 energy bill, which included massive subsidies and tax breaks for dirty energy. The Kochs, belying their libertarian views, cashed in huge on the subsidies and lavish government contracts. Bush and Cheney also worked to undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Climate justice is an existential problem for the entire human race. But it’s also yet another example of how the will of the American people is being overridden by a small group of powerful interests.

As recently as 2008, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain accepted the science behind climate change and pushed for action. Now that his close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham has dropped out of the presidential race after receiving negligible support, it is certain that the eventual GOP nominee will be a climate change denier.

One reason for this shift is that the Koch-backed group Americans For Prosperity has encouraged members of Congress to sign a “No Climate Tax Pledge,” committing them to opposing “any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” In the 111th Congress (2009-2010), 46 percent of House GOP members and 26 percent of GOP Senators had signed the pledge. By the 113th Congress (2013-2014), a whopping 61 percent of House GOP members and 56 percent of GOP Senators had signed it.

But Harvard University political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez have shown that the constituents of these “No Climate Tax” pledge signers aren’t on board with this approach. As they note, 73 percent of the residents of their districts support action to regulate climate change.

GOP legislators who stray from the denialism dogma can find themselves under attack from Koch-backed groups. Consider Graham: When he began working with then-Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to co-sponsor a Senate version of ACES, the Koch network immediately went into action. American Solutions, a political group formed by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich with ties to the coal industry, supported by key donors in the Koch network, attacked Graham for his support of the “gas tax.” Graham soon backed down.

Beyond politics

The actions of donors like the Koch brothers and their vast network go beyond politics. In 2010, David Koch funded an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution that predicted humans would evolve to adapt to climate change. Mayer reports that the Commonwealth Foundation For Public Policy Alternatives, a Pennsylvania think tank funded by secret money but likely tied to conservative publisher and Koch ally Richard Mellon Scaife, who died in 2014, “waged a war” to get a prominent climate scientist fired “and successfully lobbied Republican allies in the legislature to threaten to withhold Penn State’s funding” until they sanctioned the professor. This is just one example of the Koch brothers’ long-held strategy of taking over universities to win the war of ideas.

The Kochs and other groups have waged an extensive denial war modeled after the tobacco industry’s earlier campaigns against regulation. The aim is to discredit science. As a leaked memo by conservative pollster Frank Luntz advises, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The result of the denial war has been that since 1992, gaps on environmental policy between Republicans and Democrats have opened faster than on any other issue. Asked whether they agreed with the statement “There needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment” in 1992, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans agreed. In 2012, the percentage for Democrats was unchanged, but only 47 percent of Republicans agreed.

Similarly, Gallup data suggest that the share of Americans who accept the science of climate change steadily increased from 48 percent in 1998 up to 61 percent in 2008, but then dramatically fell, reaching a low of 49 percent in 2011, at the height of the denial campaign.

The overwhelming influence of the Koch brothers and their allies has shifted climate change from a bipartisan priority to a political non-starter. However, many elite pundits have still failed to recognize this. A recent piece by New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait entitled “Why Are Republicans the Only Climate-Science-Denying Party in the World?” doesn’t include a single reference to powerful moneyed interests. Instead, Chait has spent more time bashing the Keystone XL pipeline protestors.

Climate justice is an existential problem for the entire human race. But it’s also yet another example of how the will of the American people is being overridden by a small group of powerful interests.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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