Conservative and libertarian think tanks have been key recipients of donor dollars. Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock
Conservative and libertarian think tanks have been key recipients of donor dollars. Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

The ExxonMobil representative on the Zoom call was bragging, listing a series of tactics his company had used over the decades to foil attempted responses to the climate crisis.

“Did we join some of these ‘shadow groups’ to work against some of the early efforts on climate? Yes,’” said the man, Keith McCoy, a senior director in the oil giant’s Washington, D.C., government affairs office.

His rhetorical question was one of many admissions made by McCoy and another company representative revealed in an undercover investigation published last month by Greenpeace UK’s journalism outlet, Unearthed—Exxon fights against climate science, it supports a carbon tax because it does not believe it can pass, it speaks weekly with the office of Democratic senator and swing vote Joe Manchin. (Exxon has said the statements do not represent their positions.)

By now, a long-running tactical toolkit of denial, disinformation and delay by American oil companies fighting any changes to their practices has been well-documented in the excellent work of journalists like Amy Westervelt and academics such as Naomi Oreskes. This latest investigation is a flagrant reminder that those efforts continue.

Yet grantmakers should also keep in mind that the groups, both shadowy and public, that push climate denial have long depended not just on companies like Exxon, but on private philanthropy. A research note published earlier this summer, titled “Obstructing action: foundation funding and U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” which updated a comprehensive 2014 study, found that a few dozen funders continue to provide key support for the web of groups working to obfuscate the science and delay action against climate change. And the funding keeps coming, rising an average of 3.4% per year over the past two decades.

Who’s funding the climate change counter-movement?

The six-page study estimates that 37 funders account for about two-thirds of all grants to the climate counter-movement, providing an average of $36 million a year between 2003 and 2018. The list is topped by two conservative donor-advised funds, Donors Trust and the affiliated Donors Capital Fund, which my colleague Philip Rojc recently profiled, together accounting for 13% of all funding. The three Scaife family foundations (together), the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Searle Freedom Trust follow, each representing between 3% and 4%.

Next up are the Charles Koch Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation (together), Davis Family Foundations, John Templeton Foundation, Devos Family Foundations, John William Pope Foundation and the Dunn Foundation, which each accounted for 2% of giving. By contrast, the ExxonMobil Foundation had just a 1% share, though that likely does not represent all such funding with links to the oil company.

“These foundations play a really critical role in getting these organizations off the ground and getting them going and giving them a stable baseline of funding that they know they can count on year after year,” said lead author Robert Brulle, a visiting professor of environment and society at Brown University, who has long focused on environmental movements.

While big grantmakers like these dominate institutional giving to counter-movement groups, most funding is actually from outside institutional philanthropy: Nearly 74% of gifts to these organizations come from unidentifiable sources. In total, over the 16-year period studied, unknown donors provided nearly $8.2 billion to counter-movement groups—but keep in mind that most of these groups are not solely focused on climate, and only a fraction of their total combined budgets goes to climate-related work.

¨We think it’s big checks coming from sugar daddies, but there’s no way to prove it; we have no idea,” Brulle told me. “There’s a million different ways to conceal funding, and they’re really good at it.”

But Brulle said philanthropy’s role should not be underestimated. Aside from providing seed funding, he believes that when wealthy individuals and companies opposed to climate action look for groups who will fight for their beliefs, or protect their interests, they turn to giving by this network of foundations as a guide.

“I think a small group of heavy-duty funders who work in this area long-term set the giving agenda,” Brulle said, though he noted that this is his conjecture, not a proven fact. “They form kind of an informal brain trust of the funding priorities and funding strategies over the long term.”

Who are the top counter-movement recipients?

The top three organizations receiving this money are giants of the conservative movement: the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution, which together received nearly a third of all funding, totaling roughly $813 million. (Some of these groups have denied receiving any specific climate funding.) Other top recipients include the Cato Institute, Federalist Society, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and Hudson Institute, each pulling in between 3% and 5% of funding.

Organizations ranging from the Union of Concerned Scientists to environmental groups like NRDC have named these groups as key conduits for climate change denial. Individually, they’ve accepted funding from fossil fuel interests and joined denialist coalitions. They have also released misleading economic studies, employed climate change deniers and offered bounties for researchers to debunk major climate studies, to take just a few examples.

How the study overcame limited data

Brulle and his team culled grants and amounts from a mixture of 990 forms, Candid’s Foundation Directory Online and foundations’ publicly posted grantee lists. They ended up with nearly 50,000 grants from 3,787 foundations. But those sources provided scant details, if any, on whether any particular grant supported climate-related work. Part of the problem: Philanthropic grants to conservative think tanks and policy organizations are often for general support.

The team instead scraped the websites of 128 organizations they had identified as part of the counter-movement and analyzed the contents to determine what fraction of those organizations’ work was dedicated to climate change. The average was 8%. They then multiplied that figure by each organization’s expenditures to arrive at an estimate of how much was specifically spent on climate obstructionism, totaling roughly $576 million over the 16-year period examined.

It’s easy to imagine how this method might be completely wrong for any single grant, but given the limited disclosure required of foundations, it is an inventive method to reach a reasonable estimate.

What does this support tell us?

The latest research builds on an analysis Brulle published in 2014. This time, an entirely different team of student researchers ran the numbers. Yet their findings were nearly identical, besides the fact that the overall amount of money has risen across the board.

Brulle said this replication shows counter-movement funders’ dedication to steady support for developing and spreading conservative ideals, in alignment with the so-called “fat memo,” a directive from the John M. Olin Foundation that laid out a long-term vision for combating socialism and promoting free enterprise. A crucial conservative grantmaker for many years, the Olin Foundation sunsetted in 2005. But the funders listed above have long operated according to the playbook it helped pioneer.

By contrast, activists and certain funders have long criticized environmental movement grantmakers for their largely short-term and project-based grants—a tendency that stretches well beyond green giving. Some observers, including Brulle, say green funders have underinvested in think tanks and certain types of academic research. Climate deniers, on the other hand, have been making deep investments in both since the 1970s.

“The idea is, you create intellectual investments in universities to develop the ideas, you then move into the think tanks to flesh them out and make them into concrete policy proposals, get them out into the media, get them out into Congress, and then you fund political activity at the very end,” Brulle said. “They’ve been operating like that for 50 years. The greens have nothing in comparison.”