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Anonymous Donors Keep the Climate Denial Machine Chugging

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There’s lots of talk from the GOP and fossil fuel companies these days about changing their tune and finally getting really serious about climate change. But new research shows that not much has changed in the world of organized climate denial: It’s still massively funded by mostly anonymous donors shielding major conservative actors, and money has increased at a steady churn of around 3.4% per year over the past two decades. This consistency could be the key to climate denial’s continued success.

The research, which was published Tuesday in Climatic Change, is an update to research published in the early 2010s by Robert Brulle, a Visiting Professor of Environment and Society at Brown University. Brulle’s earlier work on the “climate change countermovement,” as he termed the vast network of dark money feeding into right-wing organizations, showed that around 75% of all donations to these groups were from anonymous donors, even as both the Koch brothers and Exxon pulled a portion of their public funding in the early 2000s.


Much of Brulle’s earlier research spans the years from 2003 to 2010. For this new research, he updated past data to look at money spent all the way from 2003 to 2018. The new research covers grants made during the last six years of the Obama administration, as well as the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. You may expect new donors to pop up on the scene, big funding shifts to occur, or for some fossil fuel companies to get more bold under the Trump administration and make changes to their donation structure.

Instead, Brulle said, his updated research showed more of the same: A steady supply of funding for climate denial and misinformation based on the playbook written decades ago by the fossil fuel industry. The overwhelming amount of money donated between 2003 and 2018—74%, in this case—comes from anonymous sources.


“This is a coordinated strategy that stretches all the way back to the 1970s and was implemented through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, up to today,” Brulle said. “They’re highly organized to provide a steady drumbeat of money. I don’t think the greens have any idea of what they’re up against.”

To compile the data, Brulle and his coauthors first created a list of 128 nonprofit right-wing groups that traffic in climate misinformation, which include big names like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution. They used tax documents to compile income data on these organizations and pulled grantmaking data from foundation directories as well as grantmaking organizations’ tax documents to track money flow.

Many of the climate misinformation organizations work on multiple public policy areas; grants are generally made to support a groups’ work as a whole, so it’s impossible to separate most of the funding into a specific climate bucket. But there’s no doubt that spreading climate misinformation and fighting climate science are key portions of these groups’ portfolios. In order to assess how much emphasis these groups put on climate, Brulle and his colleagues scraped all the groups’ websites to create a library of 615,000 records. They analyzed these to estimate how much of the groups’ emphasis was on climate change and extrapolated funding counts from that, estimating that donors gave $36 million per year, or around 8% of their total funding, for climate obstruction efforts.

There’s some usual suspects among the names of the grantmakers, including the Koch Family Foundation. But the top grantmakers, the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, may not be as recognizable—and with good reason. These organizations’ structures are designed to cover the asses of the right-wing groups and families who shovel money into them. These two groups alone, once called the “dark money ATM of the conservative movement” by Mother Jones, made up 13.7% of grants to climate change countermovement groups alone in the time period covered by the research, and don’t seem to have slowed down over time. This lopsided giving isn’t unusual: the top 1% of grantmakers, the analysis found, accounted for 67% of grants, while the top 10% of grantmakers accounted for 94% of grants.


Brulle said there’s some newcomers to the scene—the Devos family, for instance, is now a higher-profile donor than it used to be—but it’s still a lot of the same organizations on the scene now as there were 15 years ago, repackaging and reissuing climate doubt in a cyclical churn. And, Brulle said, the consistency of this anonymous funding has locked in the same Republican conversations that have locked in gridlock for decades. In other words, what we’re seeing from the GOP is the same as it has always been.

“The campaign to obstruct climate action has always included discussion of raising doubts about the science, but also bringing up the economic impacts and the cost of climate action, the fact that it’s not fair on a global scale—China’s not doing its part—et cetera,” he said. “This is part of a coordinated, larger-scale discourse that’s been going on for decades. This is not new.”


Correction 5/19/21 8:22 AM: This piece has been updated to correct Robert Brulle’s affiliation.