The dark money in climate change

Two men roll a green globe during a climate change demonstration in Brussels, Saturday Dec. 5, 2009, at the opening of a climate conference in Copenhagen. (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

Two men roll a green globe during a climate change demonstration in Brussels, Saturday Dec. 5, 2009, at the opening of a climate conference in Copenhagen. (Virginia Mayo/Associated Press)

In his speech at Georgetown University this year, President Obama made it clear that tackling climate change will be one of the key priorities for the remainder of his term. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said.

But as virtually everyone who follows that debate knows, climate denialists are aggressive and particularly well-funded. A new study from Drexel University has broken down the financial structure of the climate-denial movement, and the findings are essential for plotting out a map to success on combating global warming. It’s the first peer-reviewed analysis of its kind.

The thrust of the study, done by Dr. Robert J. Brulle, is that climate-denial money has largely been driven underground to dark-money sources. About 75 percent of the money backing climate-denial efforts is untraceable, primarily via conservative foundations and shadowy tax-exempt groups that obscure their funding sources.

What’s notable is that many of the big industrial funders — ExxonMobil and Koch Industries chief among them — have withdrawn their publicly traceable funding in recent years, and that withdrawal tracked closely with an increase in untraceable funding. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what’s happening there.

So why is industry money going underground? In part, it’s just part of a much broader trend in the post-Citizen’s United world in which corporations prefer to make their political giving anonymous. But the somewhat drastic nature of that change in the climate-denial movement also indicates a couple vulnerabilities for the denialists.

Among the things environmentalists have been able to achieve in the past decade or so is making climate denialism (1) seem increasingly kooky and unfounded, and (2) seem like the efforts of an industry that is protecting itself rather than one that wants an honest debate about the science. If you reread Obama’s Georgetown speech, it’s clear the White House believes both areas contain much fertile ground. Recall the president’s invocation of the “Flat Earth society” and repeated references to the high percentage of scientists who agree climate change is happening.

The rush by ExxonMobil and other industry funders to obscure their funding of climate denialism could be a confirmation of those vulnerabilities. In turn, it presents an opportunity for environmentalists: keep pressing on those fronts. Climate denialism is wrong, and it is largely funded by CEOs trying to protect profits. Our present campaign finance system makes that harder to demonstrate, but far from impossible.

Incidentally, this episode also bolsters the sunlight strategy of campaign finance reform. With repeal of Citizen’s United being a very heavy lift, reformers have focused in recent years on bringing transparency to the system: through things such as the Disclose Act, which passed the House in the first part of Obama’s term, or things such as Securities and Exchange Commission action to reveal the political giving of publicly traded corporations. The theory is that companies don’t want to have their controversial political donations become public, and if you force transparency into the system, corporate giving could at least moderate. The trends in climate denial funding suggest again that’s probably the case.

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