Much research has been devoted in recent years to understanding why doubt about human-caused climate change is so widespread. Many of these studies have focused on the factors that influence an individual’s feelings about the issue, such as personal values, experiences and political alignments.
But while such research has yielded useful insights into the ways climate science is received and understood by the public, few studies have explored the other side of the coin — that is, the factors that make contrarian organizations (those that are skeptical of mainstream climate science) powerful in the first place.
Now, a ground-breaking study in Nature Climate Change offers new insights into the factors that are most important to an organization’s power when it comes to spreading ideas. The study finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that funding is the key — but it turns out that the most important factor isn’t how much funding an organization receives, but rather who it comes from. The study asserts that merely having ties to certain elite corporate benefactors is a predictor of an organization’s power and its ability to spread climate-doubting information to the public.
“I’ve personally been interested in understanding how a social movement can spread such uncertainty and doubt in the general public on an issue that has achieved near scientific consensus,” said Justin Farrell, a sociologist at Yale University and sole author of the study, in an e-mail to The Post. “This does not happen on its own. So, I sought to develop a data-driven understanding and explanation of this phenomenon by focusing particular attention to the network of influence and the funding associated with it.”
Farrell compiled a list of more than 4,500 individuals with ties to 164 organizations involved in the promotion of contrarian viewpoints, including think tanks, foundations, public relations firms, trade associations and ad hoc groups. He found that these organizations, with their ties to various individuals uniting them, formed a kind of network, with some organizations more central within the network — and, thus, more powerful — than others.
Next, he looked into where these organizations had received funding — specifically, whether they’d been funded by either ExxonMobil or the Koch family foundations. The reason for focusing on these two sources, he said, is that there’s a “large body of work cited in my article that have suggested ExxonMobil and the various Koch family interests have played an important role in the climate contrarian movement.”
Finally, Farrell used a special form of textual analysis to compare texts about climate change — both written and verbal — from these organizations with those from major news outlets, U.S. presidents and Congress. Similarities in the texts would indicate that contrarian organizations were able to influence these sources, which are key avenues for reaching the public.
Farrell found that organizations that had received funding from either ExxonMobil or the Koch family foundations were more central within the network — which is an important way of looking at an organization’s power in the public sphere.
“If an organization or individual is more centrally located… they become a conduit through which information can flow through a lot of avenues or arenas,” said Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University. Brulle was not involved with the study, but served as a reviewer for the paper.
Additionally, these organizations’ texts on climate change were more similar to those found in the news media, suggesting that they had a greater influence in the dissemination of ideas into the public.
However, Alan Jeffers, a media relations manager at Exxon Mobil, said that the company “rejects the premise” that it was involved in funding climate denial. “We were engaged with funding public policy groups on policy issues, not on science,” he said, adding, “We made our position known on some climate policies that made us unpopular with environmental activists, and they tried to position that as us funding climate denial. And that’s just not accurate.”
And in an e-mail to The Post, Charles Koch Foundation representative Trice Jacobson said, “Our grants help researchers to explore ideas broadly, enabling an open discussion on the merits of scholarship from a wide range of perspectives. We accept proposals from scholars across the country who come to us to seek support for research that can advance a better understanding of a variety of critical issues ranging from principled entrepreneurship to criminal justice.”
Interestingly, an organization’s total assets didn’t seem to play an important role in its power — simply having ties to these corporate benefactors was enough to predict its influence. The reason is not completely clear, said Farrell in his e-mail, although he speculated that “belonging to the network provided certain benefits beyond simply having more financial resources. It provided important social and political capital that most likely made more difference than having high levels of financial capital.”
Brulle also pointed out that the organizations examined in the study were frequently “multi-purpose organizations,” meaning some of them were devoted to causes other than climate change. This means that some large organizations with many assets might devote relatively modest amounts of their income to the propagation of climate change doubt, while other small organizations with small incomes might devote a majority of their resources to climate-related issues.
“It’s not surprising to me that total income of the organization is not a dramatic determinant,” Brulle said. The important thing, he noted, is that the paper opens up the doors for a new line of thought on the study of climate change skepticism.
“In this paper, we’re not looking at individual-level changes in what causes people to believe or not believe in climate change,” Brulle said. “We’re looking at aggregate public opinion.” Looking at the issue from this angle may help climate activists find better ways to combat misinformation about climate science moving forward.
“The implications of this research extend beyond climate science itself, toward what we want our democracy to look like, and whether we enable social movements like this to flourish,” Farrell said in his e-mail. “How this actually happens through laws, regulations, and so on, is beyond my pay grade, but hopefully I have shown that there is indeed corporate influence on an issue that we desperately need public support for moving forward.”
The study, in fact, comes on the heels of another paper published by Farrell just last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That paper suggested that corporate funding has an influence on polarizing the climate change conversation, with organizations that received such funding promoting similar contrarian themes. Both papers, taken together, provide a clearer look at the influence that corporate funding can have on the climate discussion as a whole.
The question that remains is how this knowledge can be used. In Farrell’s words, “Of course, the solution is not to forbid corporate funding of this or that issue, but to start by providing better access to who is funding who, so that folks are not kept in the dark, making it hard to know who to trust, if anybody.”
And Brulle added that future research might examine whether other types of funders — conservative foundations not linked to corporations, for instance — have a similar sway on the contrarian sphere of influence. In the meantime, he noted that climate activists might take some cues from these organizations by focusing more attention on their media strategy.
“When you look at comparative strategies, the climate science community or the climate advocacy community does not have as much of a media-centered focus as does the conservative movement,” Brulle said. “I think that that’s what this paper starts to push on. You have to move more toward a media-centered influence — the influencers’ strategy — rather than trying to convert individual by individual.”
And Farrell noted that, while his paper explores funding from two major source, “they are certainly not the only ones, and my intent was not to point fingers at them alone.”
“I hope people read these findings in the light of the bigger picture, and not just ExxonMobil or Koch, but more broadly these two entities are simply a very strong indicator of the larger types of financial interests that are behind the movement,” he said.