New Climate Change Report Upends Conventional Wisdom

Conventional thinking in Washington, D.C. holds that conservative foundations, think tanks, businesses, and advocates widely outspent environmental organizations during the cap and trade policy debate. The huge financial advantage of opponents to climate change legislation helped ensure that cap and trade failed in Congress. However, in Climate Shift, a new, somewhat controversial 100-page report from Matthew Nisbet, Associate Professor of Communications at American University and Google Science Communications Fellow, the view is that environmental organizations weren’t outspent and, in some measures, actually had more money than conservatives. Overall, the climate change debate that roiled Washington, D.C. was fueled by huge amounts of money on both sides. Nesbit says: “The effort to pass cap and trade legislation may have been the best-financed political cause in American history.”

Unfortunately for environmental groups, the failure to pass cap and trade has led to some criticism from within the ranks. As one Obama official noted, “they spent like $100 million and they weren’t able to get a single Republican convert on the bill.” There have been questions about the approach taken by the leading environmental groups. Nesbit seems to say the failure to pass legislation may have been the result of a poor strategy and focusing all those lobbying and advocacy resources on a “technocratic” cap and trade system. Instead, the many different environmental groups could have had greater success if they promoted energy technology innovation and came up with an approach for addressing the many “social, political, and cultural dimensions of the climate change challenge.” In other words, a new climate change legislation and regulatory approach needed to be broad based, focus on building support for government investment in innovation, and address the range of messy human issues that create greenhouse gases.

Nesbit writes that environmental groups weren’t outspent in some measures: “Overall, in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, the major conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, and industry associations took in a total of $907 million in revenue, spent $787 million on all program-related activities, and spent an estimated $259 million specific to climate change and energy policy. In comparison, the national environmental groups took in $1.7 billion in revenue, spent $1.4 billion on program activities, and spent an estimated $394 million on climate change and energy-specific activities.” However, he also adds, in terms of lobbying, environmental organizations had less funds available: Environmental organizations spent $229 million on lobbying in that year in comparison with prominent opponents that spent $272 million.

According to Nesbit, there are some 6,500 national and 20,000 local environmental organizations in the U.S. These groups have 20-30 million members and more than $5 billion in annual revenue. The largest 31 organizations have $2.1 billion in revenue (2002 numbers). Many of these organization receive millions to advocate on climate change. For example, from 2005 to 2009, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) received $40 million from hedge fund trade Julian Robertson. In addition, a strategy of many of these larger environmental organizations maneuvering within the Beltway is to partner with major corporations. Like conservative organizations, environmental groups broadened their base and created coalitions of supporters. No big gaps between the sides there.

The decision to focus on cap and trade may be linked with a 2006  report commissioned by some of the leading foundations: “Design to Win: Philanthropy’s Role in the Fight Against Global Warming.” The report called for a “specific policy agenda” and recommended “tempering climate change” through cap and trade. Nesbit seems somewhat critical of this report, arguing that one of its main features is “its notable absence of any meaningful discussion on the social, political, or cultural dimensions of the climate change challenge.” The report took a “technocratic view,” driven largely by economists, scientists, and engineers. This approach would prove highly influential and guide the funding of nine aligned major foundations, which then funneled funds to environmental organizations and other climate change-focused coalitions.

An interesting table in the report outlines foundation funding associated with specific policy goals during 2008 to 2010. The large chunk of funding was targeted at promoting climate policy and clean energy and building support for cap and trade. A limited number of foundation grants were targeted at promoting energy efficiency within buildings ($8.19 million), smart growth / sustainable municipal planning ($5.02 million), conserving land ($13 million), managing biodiversity ($5 million), or conserving water resources ($5.5 million), among other areas.

Furthermore, in another table indicating funding associated with communications targeted at specific groups, some $43 million was targeted at policy makers and decision makers and additional $32 million towards public outreach. Influentials were the target audience for $14 million in grants. However, only $800,000 was directed at “builders, architects and planners,” clearly a critical group given building construction and operations account for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. An even lower amount, just $450,000, was focused at health professionals who will have to deal with climate impacts on populations.

Nesbit argues that “contrary to conventional wisdom, […] nine aligned foundations have been strategic in targeting specific policy outcomes as even the Koch brothers [conservative advocates], applying more than 10 times the amount of money in pursuit of their goals.” He goes on to say that “the ‘Design to Win’ report defines climate change in conventional terms, as an environmental problem that required only the mobilization of market incentives and public will. With this definition, comparatively little funding was directed towards fostering the role of government in promoting new technology and innovation. Nor was there equivalent investment in such important human dimensions of the issue as adaptation, health, equity, justice, or economic development.”

Sections of the report also attempt to gauge whether media coverage was biased on climate change. Nesbit finds that “between October 2009 and March 2010, as the Copenhagen meetings took place and debate over Climategate occurred, 75 percent of all articles reflected the consensus view.” He and his researchers examined coverage from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal,, Politico, and The Washington Post, news sources that key policymakers and influentials in Washington, D.C. read.

He also argues that ideology can partially explain how concerned someone is about climate change. Nesbit says “the difference between how Republicans and Democrats view the issue is wider today than at any other time in history.” He points to studies at Yale University that conclude “perceptions of scientific consensus on climate change vary by an individual’s cultural values and in relation to the inferred course of policy action.” He examines the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), who responded to an in-depth survey, and finds that “ideology shapes how these non-specialists view the causes and seriousness of climate change.” However, he adds that recent social psychological research shows that “people have a finite pool of worry,” and there’s an “inverse relationship between public worry over climate change and the unemployment rate over 1997-2011.”

Nesbit concludes that instead of focusing on the “threats of climate change,” a new emphasis on “energy security and the need for innovation” may be the way to go. As opposed to the “green” group, the “innovation” group of environmentalists sees conservatives and industry as “potential partners.” There’s another story that he says needs to be told: many communities are far ahead in planning for climate impacts, but poorer communities that lack economic competitiveness are already falling farther behind in their efforts to become more resilient.

To add, there may need to a greater focus on critical sectors like the building industry that account for 30 percent of global emissions (and nearly half of those in the U.S.) and increasing public support for existing, pragmatic movements like the U.S. Green Building Council (with its LEED and LEED-ND systems), Architecture 2030, and Sustainable Sites Initiative™  (SITES®), which are laying paths for more sustainable future practices and all have business support.

Finally, while the report has garnered some support among some climate change experts, including Roger Pielke Jr, and journalists from TIME magazine and The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, there are others who have been critical and it’s worth noting their arguments. Joe Romm at Climate Progress raises many questions about how the numbers on environmental and conservative funding of climate change were developed. One reviewer also pulled his name from the report after its release.

Read the report online or in PDF format.

Image credit: Climate Change Protest / Power Past Coal

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