The ATM for Climate Denial: Shadowy Group Bankrolls Vast Network of Science Skeptics
Editor's note: the following is Part 2 of a Democracy Now! segment on Donors Trust, a secretive network that allows wealthy conservatives to funnel millions into right-wing causes and groups while remaining under the rader. Read part 1 here.
While the secretive Donors Trust has given millions to a variety of right-wing causes, denying climate change appears to be its top priority. An analysis by the environmentalist group Greenpeace reveals Donors Trust has funneled more than one-third of its donations — at least $146 million — to more than 100 climate change denial groups over the past decade. In 2010, 12 of these groups received between 30 to 70 percent of their funding from Donors Trust. We’re joined by Suzanne Goldenberg, U.S. environment correspondent for The Guardian, who has written a series of articles detailing the ties between Donors Trust and opponents of climate change science. "The goal here is to create this illusion, this idea that there is a really strong movement against the science of climate change and against action on climate change," Goldenberg says. "In fact, that’s actually, to an extent, become a reality now: You see that opposition to action on climate change is central to Republican thinking."
AARON MATÉ: While Donors Trust has given money to a variety of right-wing causes, denying climate change appears to be its top priority. An analysis by the environmentalist group Greenpeace reveals Donors Trust has funneled at least $146 million to more than 100 climate change denial groups over the past decade. In 2010, 12 of these groups received between 30 to 70 percent of their funding from Donors Trust. Some of the recipients include Americans for Prosperity, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
AMY GOODMAN: Although many Donors Trust funders are unknown, at least two of its members include foundations bankrolled by the billionaire Charles Koch, a leading backer of climate denial. According to the most recent figures, the Koch-funded Knowledge and Progress Fund gave Donors Trust nearly $8 million through 2011.
For more on Donors Trust and the denial of global warming, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Suzanne Goldenberg, U.S. environment correspondent for The Guardian. She has written a series of articles detailing the ties between Donors Trust and opponents of climate change science.
Lay out what you’ve found, Suzanne.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, basically, what you see is that—over the last decade or so, you see a concerted effort by wealthy conservatives, conservative billionaires, to fund up and prop up a whole series of institutions that could work to undermine the science behind climate change and also work to undermine any kind of effort to pass legislation to deal with climate change. This money is going to think tanks. It’s going to activist groups. It’s going to so-called "scholars." It’s going to a wide range of individuals, you know, more than a hundred different organizations.
And, you know, the goal here is to create this illusion, this idea that there is, you know, a really strong movement against the science of climate change and against action on climate change. In fact, that’s actually, to an extent, become a reality now: You see that opposition to action on climate change is central to Republican thinking.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the different groups.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: You’ve got lots. You know, you’ve got sort of blue-chip think tanks in Washington, D.C., some of the really big institutions like the American Enterprise Institute. You’ve got organizations that really wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t, you know, make much of an impact at all if they didn’t get half their budget from Donors Trust. In that category, I would put the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. One of its main activities is to run a website that’s like a clearing house for articles that try and discredit the science behind climate change or, you know, launch personal attacks against people like Al Gore or climate scientists, you know, people who speak up against climate change. So you’ve got lots of different efforts going on. I mean, you’ve seen—I don’t know if you remember, a few years back, there was this organization called the Energy Citizens that was launched by Americans for Prosperity, you know, grassroots activists against action on climate change. That, it now turns out, had funding from Donors Trust, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Donors Trust declined our request to join us on today’s show, but the group’s president and CEO, Whitney Ball, provided us with a statement. She wrote, "DonorsTrust was established to promote liberty and help like-minded donors preserve their charitable intent. We follow the same rules and operate in the same manner as other donor-advised funds which include the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, Jewish federations, local community foundations, and the left-of-center Tides Foundation, just to name a few. Donor-advised funds are classified as public charities, and thus are not required to disclose their donors. I do not know of a donor-advised fund that makes their donor lists public. The press has referred to us as a 'black box,' labeled our funding as 'dark money,' and [Suzanne] Goldenberg described us as 'secretive.' These characterizations are unfair and misleading. How is it that the Tides Foundation, which has a record of funding environmental causes and does not publish donor lists, is never characterized in the same way by these same reporters?" Your response, Suzanne Goldenberg, as she names you?
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, oh, sure. This is the first I’ve heard of it. Well, you know, I talked to Whitney Ball. I asked her flat out, "Can you tell me who gives to you, what kind of people give to you?" And she said, "No. I mean, that in fact is the purpose of this trust, to make the giving anonymous, to give—to allow these conservative billionaires to remain hidden." And I think, you know, she’s trying to cast this as, look, the right have their organizations, the left have their organizations.
I think there’s something really different here and that comes into play, in that these organizations being supported by Donors Trust are actually working to spread information that is factually incorrect, that is untrue. You know, it’s as if you’re sort of funding groups to go around saying, "Oh, you can get the HIV virus from toilet seats." You can’t draw this equivalence here. These organizations are—you know, were funded for the express purpose, many of them, of spreading disinformation.
AARON MATÉ: Now, Suzanne, one of the climate denialists funded by Donors Trust is a group called the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Yes.
AARON MATÉ: They run the website Climate Depot, which consistently attacks scientists and environmentalists who call for taking on global warming. Now, the head of Climate Depot, Marc Morano, appears frequently on Fox News and also mainstream outlets like CNN. On Monday, the day after tens of thousands of people rallied against the Keystone XL pipeline on the National Mall, Morano appeared on Fox News to warn that Keystone opponents could resort to, quote, "ecoterrorism." And he cited as their inspiration the NASA climatologist James Hansen.
MARC MORANO: So, the leaders at NASA—and, you know, I call him NASA’s resident ex-con—is inspiring these people to potential acts of ecoterrorism. These people believe in this doomsday prophecy. And don’t think they won’t act. I mean, when I was in the U.S. Senate Environment Committee, we had to deal with ecoterrorism when it came to animal rights. We had to deal—there’s been ecoterrorism when it deals with property rights out in Colorado. So it’s a very real thing—torching SUVs. This movement, if it gets frustrated, particularly frustrated with a Democratic president, Obama, who’s supposed to be their standard bearer, and actually goes ahead and approves the pipeline, there are going to be a lot of angry people, not the least of which is probably the NASA scientist going to jail again, James Hansen.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Marc Morano of Climate Depot appearing on Fox News.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: You know, I wish I’d—
AARON MATÉ: Suzanne Goldenberg, if you could talk about his group.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, I wish I would seen. I mean, that’s quite incredible. Just let’s get back to the truth here, is that, yes, James Hansen was arrested, in fact as recently as last week, and what he was doing was just using plastic twist-tie handcuffs to handcuff himself to the gates of the White House and, you know, in an agreement arranged in advance with the D.C. police, arranged to be arrested in a nonviolent fashion with 40-something other activists, you know, to make a symbolic protest against the Keystone pipeline. So I do not know how you can describe these kind of acts, which, you know, were preceded by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other, you know, peaceful resisters—I don’t know how you can call that ecoterrorism.
But I think it’s really—it’s really interesting and important to see what Marc Morano is doing here, and which is that he’s deliberately spreading misinformation and lies, really, about what happened and about the means of protest that are taking place against the Keystone pipeline. And this is crucial because it helps create this sort of confusion about what people are doing to oppose the pipeline, and in that confusion, it makes it difficult for people to make an informed choice about what is right, what is wrong, and it makes it really hard for people in Congress or people in government agencies and in state agencies to actually act on a very urgent problem, because there’s so much confusion and controversy surrounding it.
AMY GOODMAN: Suzanne, the Donors Trust-backed Heartland Institute sparked controversy last year after it paid for a billboard advertisement in Chicago likening those who accept the reality of global warming to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: The billboard featured a picture of Kaczynski and the words "I still believe in global warming. Do you?" Talk about the Heartland Institute, this ad.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: That’s interesting. I just want to add, briefly, first, you know, I asked Whitney Ball about that advertisement, and she laughed. And she said, "Look" — and, you know, I was asking, "Well, did your donors like what Heartland did?" And she said, "Some of them did; some of them didn’t."
I think that ad was really interesting, because, in a way, it was—you know, it really exposed Heartland Institute and exposed the way that they see—you know, exposed the lengths they will go to to try and defend their cause, right? I mean, you know, for a lot of people looking at that, that was really an extreme kind of action. And I think that’s true. I think what Heartland and these other groups are promoting is a really extreme view and a wrongheaded view of the science of climate change, of the need for action on climate change. That billboard, for many people, crystallized that extreme view.
To go back there, the reason why Heartland put up that billboard was because they were feeling besieged and under attack because of a disclosure of information about their finances, which showed that they were being heavily financed by the Koch brothers and by conservatives like Donors Trust. So, they had been the victim of a sting, which sort of laid bare all their financials, laid bare their strategy, and they fought back and sort of went overboard with this extremist ad about the Unabomber.
AARON MATÉ: Now, Suzanne, we’ve talked already about the actions of Donors Trust on the state level, and you’ve written about their funding of groups trying to fight wind farming in several states. We have 30 seconds.
SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Yeah, I think that’s their new focus, is not to look at trying to oppose action in Washington on climate change, because it’s not happening, but they’re going to go out into the states and oppose efforts to increase the amount of renewable energy, like wind farms and solar farms. I would also look at them to oppose action for—by city councils in coastal communities to protect themselves from climate change in future development planning.
AMY GOODMAN: Suzanne Goldenberg, we want to thank you for being with us, U.S. environment correspondent for The Guardian. Her article, most recently, "Secret Funding Helped Build Vast Network of Climate Denial Thinktanks," and we’ll link to it at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.