What Drives Climate Change Denial? Campaign Donations and Lobbying

The recovery from hurricanes Harvey and Irma is likely to total more than $200 billion. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry spent $1.4 billion in the past decade telling the federal government climate change didn’t exist.

September 19, 2017
Flooding Harvey

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

I moved to Florida six years ago from New York. Since that time New York was hit by two huge storms — Irene and Super Storm Sandy  and I was relatively unscathed.  My string of luck ran out last week. I could sense my time was up early last month when my son learned to surf in the Atlantic. “Was the water cold?” I asked. “No. It felt like a bathtub,” he replied. Monster storms, I knew, feed off of water that warm.

I live in Tampa Bay. On the night of Sunday, September 10th, Hurricane Irma came howling around my home, my neighborhood, and the whole state all at once. The storm was the size of Texas.

When we bought our home here, we looked for a house on a hill. This feature became critical when Irma was supposed to slam into Tampa as a Category 4 hurricane along with a storm surge. Fortunately, by the time Irma arrived, it had calmed to a Category 2.

But that hardly means Irma was just a bunch of sprinkles. The storm hit full force around 9 p.m. The rain sounded like bb’s hitting the siding. The wind sounded angry and unrelenting. The power went out at midnight. Everything was pitch black. Throughout the night there were unidentified rattles, bangs, thuds and crashes. The storm didn’t die down until 6 a.m.

Irma hit both coasts of Florida simultaneously. It caused huge trees to tip into my backyard, massive flooding from Miami to Jacksonville, and left 13 million Floridians without power.

Yet, I live in a country where President Trump has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. I live in a state where the Republican Governor, Rick Scott, reportedly ordered state agencies to not use the words “climate change.” This reminds me of the Bush Administration’s vain attempt to define away torture by calling it “enhanced interrogation.” It’s still torture. And the water is still heating up, whatever appellation you’d like to call it.

Why do so many American politicians feel so comfortable sticking their heads in the sand on climate science? One reason is that some major donors insist on this stance and then spend millions (and in some cases billions) lobbying for a dangerous denial of the overwhelming evidence.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists reported a few years back, companies promoting climate change denial often hide their fingerprints by spending through trade associations. This technique is also used to conceal corporate political spending. One of the ways so-called “dark money” becomes “dark” is by spending through trade associations.

But not all of the money spent on politics and lobbying is dark. According to OpenSecrets.org, the energy and natural resources sector generally ranks fourth among all industries, behind health and finance/insurance/real estate, and well ahead of defense. So far in 2017, 650 lobbyists reported spending $64 million on behalf of 154 oil and gas clients.

In the past decade (2007 to 2017), the oil and gas industry has spent $1.4 billion on federal lobbying. Among the heavy hitters in this period   are Exxon ($167 million total); Koch Industries ($114 million); Chevron ($112 million); Shell (Royal Dutch Petroleum) ($96 million); Conoco Phillips ($89 million); the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade association, ($76 million); BP ($68 million); and Peabody Energy ($51 million).

Climate change denial also gets a boost from campaign donations. Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of  PayPal and a climate change skeptic, donated more than $1 million to Trump’s campaign and inauguration. And, of course, the Koch Brothers’ long spending in politics has also shaped the debate. As Jane Mayer notes in Dark Money, “[b]y 2015, their [the Koch Brothers’] antigovernment lead was followed by much of Congress. Addressing global warming was out of the question.”

On the other side of the ledger, there are few big spenders supporting climate science. An exception is billionaire hedge fund manager and private equity manager Tom Steyer. He has spent heavily in both the 2014 and 2016 cycles to support environmentally responsible causes and candidates. Steyer spent $74 million in 2014 and $87 million two years later. His 2016 contributions alone accounted for 78 percent of all environmental interest spending. But his lone largesse against the oil and gas industry titans has yet to change the conversation.

I hope the experiences of Floridians in Irma and Texans still recovering from Hurricane Harvey will convince politicians to accept climate change. Politicians—especially those on the right-- have long made the calculation that they can’t afford to buck their oil and gas benefactors. The damage from Irma and Harvey will cost as much as $100 billion – each. Perhaps now the cost-benefit analysis for politicians will finally shift toward science. 

(Photo: AP)