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How a Few Wealthy Individuals Shape the Climate Agenda

J. Mijin Cha

We’ve highlighted how the U.S. media leads the world in the amount of time given to climate deniers, even though nearly 80 percent of Americans believe in climate change. Now the Guardian reports that conservative billionaires funneled nearly $120 million to more than 100 groups to promote climate denial. Between 2002 and 2010, the money built a vast network of think tanks and advocacy groups singularly focused on making climate change a polarizing wedge issue for conservatives. And, based on the level of time devoted to climate denying in the media and the inability to engage in bi-partisan climate discussions, it seems they were successful.

The money was routed through two trusts, the Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund. While a host of conservative causes were funded by the Donors Trust, climate denial was at the top of the list. Not surprisingly, leading climate deniers like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, and Americans for Prosperity received millions from the Donors Trust. The Heartland Institute, touted as “The world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change,” received $13.5 million from the Donors Trust—a substantial amount given its annual budget is only $6 million.

As the graph below shows, the Donors Trust has given the lion’s share of funding to climate denial groups since 2002.


This revelation is not surprising. It is just another example of how the donor class sets policy priorities. Similar to why Washington focuses on deficit reduction and not job creation, a handful of very rich individuals are able to use their wealth to influence public debate and advance their priorities over the priorities of the public. While it’s unclear how much Americans prioritize action on climate change, it is clear that an overwhelming majority believe in climate change. Yet, the donor class has successfully continued to advance climate denial in the media and among policymakers.

The ability of a few wealthy individuals to fund a vast network of climate deniers is bad for our democracy and bad for our economy. As we’ve stated continuously, there is literally no aspect of our economy that won’t be impacted by climate change. The longer we let the donor class dominate our policy priorities, the more we risk substantial economic damage, let alone what will happen to our climate.