The well-funded, well-orchestrated climate change-denial movement

"The climate change counter movement, as I call it, is really an add-on to the already-existing conservative movement in the United States."


As the climate change movement gains momentum world-wide, a counter movement to change public opinion on climate change is scouring the United States. According to a new study conducted by Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, a well-funded and well-orchestrated climate change-denial movement has many Americans confused about climate change.

From climate scientists, credible research institutes and international governmental bodies, it’s been proven that climate change is real and it’s a problem that needs immediate attention. But a group of “powerful people” with “deep pockets” are leading the anti-climate effort—a movement that is a powerful political force, Brulle said as reported by Smithsonian Magazine.

This is how wealthy individuals or corporations translate their economic power into political and cultural power,” he said. “They have their profits and they hire people to write books that say climate change is not real. They hire people to go on T.V. and say climate change is not real. It ends up that people without economic power don’t have the same size voice as the people who have economic power, and so it ends up distorting democracy.

Brulle’s research determined that there are 91 climate change counter-movement (CCCM) organizations in the United States. These organizations consist of advocacy organizations, think tanks and trade association—mostly comprised of both industry and conservative philanthropies. The study compiled total annual income from a sample of CCCM organizations through the utilization of IRS data, which was then “coupled with IRS data on philanthropic foundation funding of these CCCM organizations contained in the Foundation Center’s data base,” the study’s abstract stated. The data sample was comprised of the annual income of 91 CCCM organizations between 2003 and 2010 and funded by 140 different foundations.

According to the study, these 91 CCCM organizations have an annual income of more than $900 million (with an annual average of $64 million in identifiable foundation support), which is used to “lobby or sway public opinion on climate change and other issues” in the U.S., Smithsonian Magazine reported.

With delay and obfuscation as their goals, the U.S. CCCM has been quite successful in recent decades. However, the key actors in this cultural and political conflict are not just the “experts” who appear in the media spotlight. The roots of climate-change denial go deeper, because individuals’ efforts have been bankrolled and directed by organizations that receive sustained support from foundations and funders known for their overall commitments to conservative causes. Thus to fully understand the opposition to climate change legislation, we need to focus on the institutionalized efforts that have built and maintain this organized campaign. 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. However, they are only the most visible and transparent parts of a larger production. Supporting this effort are directors, script writers, and, most importantly, a series of producers, in the form of conservative foundations. Clarifying the institutional dynamics of the CCCM can aid our understanding of how anthropogenic climate change has been turned into a controversy rather than a scientific fact in the U.S.

The counter movement, which is described as “a movement against change” by Brulle, is trying to “maintain the status quo and to not have change.”

“So this movement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act in this area,” Brulle said. “I don’t think it’s the only cause why we failed to act, but I think it’s a significant cause in delaying action to address climate change.”

The top leading funders over the 2003 and 2010 time period were the Koch Foundation—early on—and the Scaife Foundation and the Sierra Foundation. The rise of two foundations in particular, the Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, ended up funding one-quarter of the climate counter movement by the end of the time period Brulle researched. Both foundations are “donor-directed foundations,” which means the “foundation receives money from an individual with the understanding that it’s going to a particular organization,” Brulle said.

“… We don’t know a whole lot about the Donors foundations other than they do a lot of pass-through funding,” Brulle said. “We don’t know who their donors are, except in a couple of cases where we find information in the databases about who funds them.”

The climate change denial movement is using the same strategies as the tobacco industry used, Brulle said.

Now, what you can see in the movement itself is that it has two real roots. One is in the conservative movement itself, in that you see a lot of conservative foundations that had been funding the growth of the conservative movement all along now appear as funding the climate counter movement. You also can see dedicated industry foundations that come in to start funding the climate counter movement.

So it’s kind of a combination of both industry and conservative philanthropies that are funding this process, and what they did was they borrowed a great deal of the strategy and tactics that came out of the tobacco industry’s efforts to prevent action on the health impacts of smoking.

What you see is the tactics that this movement uses were developed and tested in the tobacco industry first, and now they’re being applied to the climate change movement, and in fact, some of the same people and some of the same organizations that were involved in the tobacco issue are also involved in climate change.

With this being the first of a three-part project, Brulle concluded that the climate change counter movement is an “organized campaign to deny the reality and significance of climate change,” which in turn has “worked to undermine the claims of the scientific community and block efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Oxford Scholarship Online stated. Next up, Brulle will look into the environmental movement or the climate change movement and then do a comparison of the two.

“I think what’s important to understand is to see this movement in context with the larger conservative political movement in the United States,” Brulle said. “The climate change counter movement, as I call it, is really an add-on to the already-existing conservative movement in the United States.”


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