For years, climate change scientists and environmentalists have faced swarms of opposition to their research, activism, and policy pushes. This opposition has primarily been driven by corporate lobbyists and think tanks funded by the corporate industries that stand to lose profits and power from policies enacted to combat climate change. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, these same sources of misinformation from the oil and coal sector are celebrating it as a victory stemming from the millions of dollars poured into these campaigns predicated on casting doubt on climate change science.
On June 1, the Competitive Enterprise Institute issued a press release with the heading, “CEI Commends President Trump’s Decision to Cancel Paris Climate Agreement.” The CEI has been one of the leading climate change denying groups. It’s received over $2 million in funding from Exxon Mobil and has received significant financial support from the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch Brothers, Texaco, Arch Coal, and several other big polluters, while its exact donor network is shrouded in secrecy.
The Director of the CEI Center for Energy and Environment, Myron Ebell, said in a press release praising Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, “President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Treaty is welcome news and leads America—and the world—to a brighter future as lower energy prices over the long-term will benefit consumers and energy-intensive industries.” Ebell briefly led Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s called environmentalists, “the greatest threat to freedom.”
The Koch Brothers-founded think tank, Americans for Prosperity, issued their own press release praising Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal. Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, praised Trump’s decision, claiming he didn’t succumb “to pressure from special interests and cosmopolitan elites.” The Heritage Foundation is a multi-million dollar organization that has relied on funding from the Koch Brothers and organizations within their billionaire network, as well as Exxon Mobil, Texaco, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and several other corporations with interests in direct opposition to climate change policies.
Organizations like these, with massive funding hidden behind dark money infrastructure, have astroturfed climate change denial into an ideology that is marketed as coming from small businesses, working, and middle-class Americans, falsely packaging it as though denying climate change aligns with the interests of the average American. Mainstream media outlets have lent their platforms for these industries to successfully propagate this narrative, making climate change denial and “skepticism” widely accepted among millions of voters and Americans. This narrative overtly contradicts the well-established science and evidence around the world that affirm the real threats climate change poses to all life on Earth.
On June 2, the New York Times published an article on small businesses cheering Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, contrasting it with opinions from Elon Musk and other multi-national corporate executives who have denounced the decision. This is the narrative the oil, coal, and other pollutant industries want pushed when it comes to climate change, ignoring the science completely to make it appear to people that climate change regulations are something being forced upon them to their own detriment. During a White House Press briefing in regards to the Paris climate decision, Trump’s EPA Chief Scott Pruitt even cited the New York Times opinion columnist and climate skeptic Bret Stephens to defend denying climate change, a hiring decision the New York Times has falsely misconstrued as predicated on neutrality.
Other outlets have provided climate skeptics with the ammunition to continue propagating this false narrative against climate change. In April 2017, Bill Nye openly criticized CNN for lending their platform to climate change deniers. NPR interviewed Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in December 2015, allowing him to espouse his distorted beliefs on climate change. The Wall Street Journal has often lent its opinion section to writers directly funded by the oil and coal industry, like big oil-funded Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who in December 2016, spouted oil industry propaganda in an op-ed over the Dakota Access Pipeline and water protectors’ efforts to stop its construction. In July 2016, The Intercept reported oil lobbying groups paid the Washington Post and the Atlantic to host climate change deniers at the Republican National Convention. In September 2016, The Hill published an op-ed from an oil industry lobbying group, Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now Coalition, entitled, “On the Dakota Access Pipeline, let’s stick to the facts.” Much of the Dakota Access Pipeline reporting in mainstream media overwhelmingly relied on disinformation and press releases from the oil industry, investors, and police departments involved in suppressing the protests. A study conducted by Media Matters found climate change in general has widely been ignored by major broadcast networks and not a single question was asked during any of the general election presidential debates on the subject.
When it comes to challenging the special interests of the oil and coal industries, several mainstream media outlets have refused to do so, often elevating voices that speak on behalf of these industries that already have heavily funded think tanks, propaganda outlets, and lobbying efforts directed at spreading doubt on climate change science and framing any semblance of climate change regulations or policies as anti-small business and anti-American. At the same time, these industries have exploited and turned their backs on working, middle class, and low-income Americans. The coal industry has been devastated by automation, employing fewer people than the Arby’s fast food chain, at 76,000 jobs, while the industry itself has actively worked to dismantle labor unions, scale back safety regulations, and strip workers of their benefits.
The oil and gas industry has regularly spent over $100 million annually on lobbying in the past decades, and billionaires from these industries have secretly donated millions of dollars to fund a vast network of climate denial think tanks all working in tandem to politically polarize climate change science as a left vs. right issue, and the mainstream media have contributed to the development of this dichotomy.
As The Guardian’s George Monbiot cautioned in a November 2016 op-ed, “the fake news we should be worried about is not stories invented by Macedonian teenagers about Hillary Clinton selling arms to Islamic State, but the constant feed of confected scares about unions, tax and regulation drummed up by groups that won’t reveal their interests.” These groups, heavily funded by corporations and special interests, have helped make climate change denial a conspiracy theory driven by scientists around the world and mainstream media have been complacent in allowing these levers of power to propagate a narrative largely unchallenged to subvert any push for regulation that opposes their business interests.