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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

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)