Approximately three quarters of the hundreds of millions of dollars that go to US climate change denial organisations is from unidentifiable sources, according to new research in the journal Climatic Change.
Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University in the US, set himself the challenge of trying to identify the financial backers who bankrolled more than 100 US organisations that make up what he calls the “climate change counter movement”.
He did so, he reports, because in the US the level of understanding of climate change as a serious and imminent problem remains low, despite urgent pronouncements from national academies and international agencies.
“In response to a survey question in the fall of 2012: Do scientists believe that Earth is getting warmer because of human activity? 43% replied no, and another 12% didn’t know. Only 45% of the U.S. public accurately reported the near-unanimity of the scientific community about anthropogenic climate change. This result reflects a broad misunderstanding of climate science by the general public”, he writes.
One major factor driving this misunderstanding was what he calls a “deliberate and organised effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate change.”
Opting for anonymity
So Brulle compiled a list of 118 important climate denial organisations in the US: many of them conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and so on.
He then obtained Internal Revenue Service data from 91 of these organisations, and matched it with information from the US National Center for Charitable Statistics and the Foundation Center, a source of information on US philanthropy, fund-raising and grant programmes.
In his final analysis, he found that 140 foundations had made 5,299 grants worth $558 million to the 91 organisations between 2003 and 2010.
A number of free market and conservative trusts and foundations had openly funded the climate change counter movement, but more interestingly, once-prominent backers such as the ExxonMobil Foundation were no longer making publicly traceable contributions. Funding had shifted to untraceable sources.
For example, one foundation called the Donors Trust now provided 25% of all traceable funding used by organisations engaged in promoting systematic denial of climate change. But those who in turn funded the Donors Trust could not be traced.
In fact, Brulle reports that most funding for denial efforts is untraceable: only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to such organisations can be accounted for in public records. Approximately 75% was “dark money” from unidentified sources.
In effect this “dark money” served as a megaphone to amplify the voices of denial, and leave many US voters with the impression that man-made global warming had doubtful scientific support, or was at least in scientific dispute. In fact, the illusion of uncertainty had been staged.
“To fully understand the opposition to climate change legislation, we need to focus on the institutionalised efforts that have built and maintain this organised campaign. Just as in a theatrical show, there are stars in the spotlight”, writes Brulle.
“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.”
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