How a Talking Point Is Born: $1 Billion Against Action on Climate Change

“Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change,” reads the headline of an article in the Guardian on a new study, that purports to show the extent of foundation funding opposing action on climate change. Only the study shows no such thing.

The study, “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations” by Robert Brulle, was published last Friday in Climatic Change. For this study, Brulle identified 91 organizations that oppose the imposition of emission controls on greenhouse gases (the “Climate Change Counter Movement” or CCCM), and totaled up their entire annual operating budgets, without regard to whether climate or environmental matters generally represent a significant portion of each organization’s work. The study then trumpets the resulting number — $900 million per year from 2003 to 2010 — as if this represents the size and extent of think tank and advocacy group opposition to climate change policies. This is ridiculous, as many of the organizations listed, such as the American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institution, and Heritage Foundation, spend only a tiny fraction of their budget on climate policy. AEI’s revenue in 2009, for instance, was $28.8 million.  Yet AEI does relatively little on environmental issues, let alone on climate change. Moreover, during the period examined in Brulle’s study, AEI published work supporting action on climate change (see, e.g., here). The Brulle study also details foundation funding for these organizations, again as if every dollar given by conservative foundations to these groups has something to do with climate policy, when it is easy to show this is not the case.

The point of studies like this is to sustain a narrative that environmentalist organizations are out-gunned by a sinister network of well-funded conservative organizations.  Sure, outfits like AEI have sizable budgets.  But consider that a single major environmentalist group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, has an annual budget over three times greater than AEI. NRDC devotes all of its resources to environmental matters, and has made climate change a priority. AEI, on the other hand, devotes the bulk of its resources to issues like tax policy, national defense, foreign policy and health care.   At places like AEI, environmental policy is an afterthought.  Add up the annual budgets of major environmental groups working on climate change and its easy to surpass the $900 million figure in the Brulle study — and that’s not even including the progressive counterparts to the AEIs of the world, such as the Center for American Progress, which had a $36 million in 2010.  It would be one thing to argue that corporate lobbying expenditures opposing action on climate chance overwhelm the efforts of environmentalist groups (, but the Brulle study has nothing to say about that (and it’s not clear even that claim would hold up to scrutiny, as the data in this study shows).

No matter. The Brulle study will serve its purpose, and the “$1 billion per year of climate denial” factoid will soon become a regular claim in the climate policy debate. Think Progress already has a story of its own: “Conservative Donors Pump $1 Billion A Year Into Climate Denying Groups, Study Finds.”   The specter of a well-funded anti-climate action monolith — the CCCM –may console climate activists, but it diverts attention from the real obstacle to action on climate change.  Meaningful GHG reductions are exceedingly costly.  Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of GHGs requires doing far more than the EPA has contemplated to date, and even that won’t be enough.  Until meaningful GHG reductions are cheap and easy, they won’t happen.  So until climate activists focus their efforts on reducing the costs of climate action, little progress will be made.