Funding climate change denial: Report points to interlocking efforts of US, European think tanks

A man protests outside the "This Changes Everything" conference on climate change March 28 in London. (Newscom/Zuma Press/Jonathan Nicholson)
This article appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

The United States might hold the distinction of harboring some of the most potent climate-change-denying individuals and organizations on the planet, but it is hardly alone when it comes to organized attempts to debunk of the widely accepted science saying that the Earth's climate is warming due to human activity.

Indeed, a 2014 study by United Kingdom-based polling giant Ipsos MORI showed the United States leading the world in climate change denial. Of the 20 countries polled, people in the U.S. registered the least agreement (54 percent) when asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement: "The climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity." It was the slimmest majority among the 20 countries (and 16,000 people) surveyed.

Just above the United States were Great Britain and Australia, each at 64 percent. China showed the most agreement with the statement that climate change was caused by humans, at 92 percent; Argentina and Italy followed at 84 percent each. In the middle of the pack were Belgium, 78 percent; South Korea, 77 percent; and South Africa, 76 percent.

In the same survey, India and the United States topped the list with 52 percent in each country agreeing with the statement that climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

It is impossible to calibrate just how much of the resistance to climate change science is the result of material generated by U.S. think tanks amply funded by interests with economic stakes in the fossil-fuel-burning status quo.

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Research by one European group concluded that documenting ties in Europe between companies dependent on fossil fuels -- either as emitters or producers -- and climate-change-denying think tanks was difficult.

"In the EU there is no obligation for think tanks to disclose their funders," said a report issued in 2010 by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). According to its website, CEO is a "research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making."

What may further cloud any direct connection between climate change denial and business is what one CEO researcher described as a change in tactic in European circles from a direct confrontation with science to a new approach emphasizing economic development needed to stem the costs of transition to alternative fuels and energy sources.

In the 2010 CEO report, much is made of the influence of Koch Industries, one of the largest U.S. corporations, with its extensive global reach and wide involvement in oil and chemical industries. The report cites a 2010 Greenpeace study that claims that Koch, in the years 2005-2008, spent nearly $25 million in campaign contributions, lobbying efforts and think tanks to advance efforts by climate change deniers. The report cited the Institute for Energy Research, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Cato Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute, all U.S. groups, as chief recipients of Koch funding.

In a response to a 2010 New York Times report on the Greenpeace study, Koch issued a statement, the essence of which would remain a consistent company response to criticism. The statement said, "Koch companies and Koch foundations have worked to advance economic freedom and market-based policy solutions to challenges faced by society."

The company also claimed that Greenpeace "mischaracterizes" and "distorts" Koch's environmental efforts, without citing particulars, and states, "Political response to climate issues should be based on sound science. Both a free society and the scientific method require an open and honest airing of all sides. Not demonizing and silencing those with whom you disagree."

Whether pointing out the amount of funding the Koch enterprise is willing to invest in entities challenging the prevailing climate science constitutes "demonizing" is an open question. The Corporate Europe Observatory report, however, claims that the relevance of the funding can be established in the interlocking connections between U.S. and European think tanks engaged in climate change denial.

One example in the 11-page report involves Robert Bradley, chief executive officer and founder of the Institute for Energy Research, who is also a visiting fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and an adjunct scholar at both the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. According to CEO, Bradley "regularly speaks at conferences organized by the Heartland Institute, which brings together climate deniers from around the world."

The Institute for Energy Research also "has active links with several of the European climate deniers' think tanks" and "has commissioned bogus research by European think tanks and then organized campaigns to promote these in the U.S. with the support of fellow right-wing think tanks so as to attack Obama's push for renewable energy and green jobs."

Another European think tank viewed by CEO as a source of anti-climate-change thinking is the International Policy Network, based in London. The 2010 report says it "is an offspring of the Atlas Research Foundation, which played a role in spreading the web of Koch industry money to Europe."

In Spain, the Instituto Juan de Mariana, a group advancing libertarian ideas, was "launched with a seminar against the Kyoto Protocol," a 2005 international agreement that extended a 1992 United Nations initiative committing member nations to reductions in greenhouse gases.

Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner for the Brussels-based CEO group, said he has not seen much reaction to the pending papal encyclical on the environment from the libertarian or climate-change-denying think tanks in Europe.

At the same time, significant pockets of resistance exist throughout Europe to climate change science and to making changes to reduce human causes of climate change. That resistance, he said, has taken new shape since 2010.

"Industry over the last five years has been moving away from denying the science of climate change," said Sabido. In fact, he said, some of the major voices in the debate have essentially left that behind and are focusing instead on what might be called interim strategies that Sabido said allow business as usual to continue. One element of the strategy, he said, was to call for increased economic growth necessary to deal with the costs of transitioning to new fuels and environmentally friendly technologies.

Another, he said, is the claim that increasing the use of renewables would correspondingly increase the costs of electricity for ordinary consumers. Sabido said the Corporate Europe Observatory believes that claim is false "because the power industry in Europe is protected" from such spikes.

He said the claim is used to stir fear that if electric costs go up, so will consumer prices. "It is a kind of threat used to convince people that the status quo is preferable. The threat is if prices go up, industry will leave Europe, and the jobs will go with them. The implication is that if Europe takes a strong stand on emissions, those emissions will just go elsewhere."

Another means of maintaining the status quo, he said, is to advocate natural gas as "clean burning," a kind of "bridge fuel" to the future as a way of convincing Europeans to allow U.S.-style "fracking" as an acceptable means to explore for and capture natural gas.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

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This story appeared in the April 24-May 7, 2015 print issue under the headline: Funding climate change denial .

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