Robert Brulle: Inside the Climate Change “Countermovement”


October 23, 2012
A sociologist at Drexel University, Robert Brulle’s research focuses on the strategy and funding patterns of what he calls “the climate change countermovement.” Brulle says that since the late 1980s, “this movement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act” on the issue of global warming. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 30, 2012.

Tell us how you decided to enter into this research and what you did.

… Despite rigorous scientific evidence of the nature of climate change, the world has yet to act in a significant way, and in particular the United States has been a real laggard in this area. So my concern was, why is that occurring, and how do we understand this?

As a sociologist, we look at the political process as a conflict among different parties with different political and ideological agendas. So in trying to understand this process from a sociological viewpoint, you look at both the proponents of action on climate change, which we would call the climate change movement or the environmental movement, and then the climate change countermovement, which is the movement to try to stop any kind of political action on climate change.

So the proper research procedure here is to start looking at these two different components of the political process to see where their funding comes from, to see what viewpoints they espouse, and to see how they try to influence the political agenda.

This is part one of a three-part project that I’m working on, is to look at the climate change countermovement first, and then I’m going to look at the environmental movement or the climate change movement. Then the third part is to do a comparison between the two. …

What surprised you about what you found?

… What surprised me about the analysis was really the comprehensive nature of the climate countermovement. This is an extremely well-organized political movement that has a number of different components that are loosely coordinated but all act along the same lines. You have organizations that focus on development of ideas, such as think tanks, media outlets, advertising for public opinion, scholarly activities at universities.

I think what’s important to understand is to see this movement in context with the larger conservative political movement in the United States. The climate change countermovement, as I call it, is really an add-on to the already-existing conservative movement in the United States.

Starting after World War II, there has been a comprehensive effort to build established think tanks and intellectual outlets to advance progressive viewpoints. So by the mid-80s, there was already a well-established network of think tanks and organizations. But climate change wasn’t one of their focuses. Climate change was added on to an already-existing network of organizations as one of their major issues.

Starting in 1988, we can see the first appearances of these organizations in climate change hearings, and then it expanded rapidly in the 1990s and through the 2000s. …

Now, what you can see in the movement itself is that it has two real roots. One is in the conservative movement itself, in that you see a lot of conservative foundations that had been funding the growth of the conservative movement all along now appear as funding the climate countermovement. You also can see dedicated industry foundations that come in to start funding the climate countermovement.

So it’s kind of a combination of both industry and conservative philanthropies that are funding this process, and what they did was they borrowed a great deal of the strategy and tactics that came out of the tobacco industry’s efforts to prevent action on the health impacts of smoking.

“The tactics that this movement uses were developed and tested in the tobacco industry first, and now they’re being applied to the climate change movement.”

What you see is the tactics that this movement uses were developed and tested in the tobacco industry first, and now they’re being applied to the climate change movement, and in fact, some of the same people and some of the same organizations that were involved in the tobacco issue are also involved in climate change.

Can you give an example of that?

The tobacco industry was faced with a real problem in that the scientific evidence that smoking was related to cancer was very clear, and that if that was applied, that basically would devalue their product immensely. So they formulated the strategy of sowing doubt about the scientific validity of the connection between smoking and cancer.

They had their own experts testifying about the doubts and the incompleteness of the scientific data regarding smoking and lung cancer, and they developed organizations that would promulgate these ideas through the media. They developed the initial strategy of selling doubt in the face of scientific certainty to prevent action.

That strategy is exactly what you see in the climate countermovement. They use the same organizations, the same tactics, and try to sow doubt about climate change as a real, serious environmental issue.

… What is the climate [change counter]movement? How do you define it?

What we mean by a countermovement is a movement against change. On one side, you have the climate movement that wants mandatory actions to deal with climate change, such as a cap and trade or a tax on carbon or something like that. In opposition to that you have a countermovement. The objective of [that] movement is to maintain the status quo and to not have change.

When you look at the climate countermovement, you can see a range of arguments that start out with just flat-out climate denial, that climate change is not occurring, it’s not real, the scientific evidence is just not true. So that’s kind of like the starting viewpoint.

That can range all the way up to, “Sure, climate change is occurring, but it’s not serious enough to merit action,” “Climate change is occurring, but we’re not quite sure how much is caused by humans,” “Climate change is occurring, but it’s too expensive to deal with,” or, “Climate change is occurring, but technology will fix it; we don’t need to worry about any kind of mandatory action; voluntary action will solve it.”

All of those arguments define the range of arguments that are used to delay action on climate change, and the end result is that 20 years after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we’re well on our way to exceeding 2 degrees; that is, [it’s] basically impossible to stay below 2 degrees. And we’re on our way to embracing dangerous if not catastrophic climate change.

So this movement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act in this area. I don’t think it’s the only cause why we failed to act, but I think it’s a significant cause in delaying action to address climate change.

How well funded is this movement?

This movement is fairly well funded. What’s interesting is that in comparison to the environmental movement, it actually doesn’t have as much money. The environmental movement actually has more funding, but it’s the nature of the spending that makes the difference.

When you look at what the environmental movement spends its money on, it actually tries to spend its money on developing solutions to climate change, such as developing a solar panel industry in China, making sure everybody in India has an appropriate solar oven to reduce CO2 emissions, things like that. And they spend hardly anything on political or cultural processes. The climate change countermovement spends all of its money there.

So you end up with this great difference between the two movements. As one movement is actually out there trying to develop technological solutions on the ground, the other is engaged in political action to delay any kind of action. …

When it comes to looking at the funding, what you find is that the organizations that make up the climate change countermovement are really for the most part already-existing conservative think tanks and organizations such as that. So when you do the analysis of the funding, all you can say is, “So many dollars went to this organization.” You can’t say how many dollars went from this foundation to this organization specifically for climate change, because most of the grants that come to the climate countermovement organizations have no conditions. They’re for general support, so we don’t know how much the organization is actually spending.

All we can say at this point with any kind of empirical credibility is that we know that this foundation gave this much money to this organization.

… My analysis of the funding flows shows that over the period from 2003 to 2010, there was about half a billion dollars went to the organizations that we defined as climate countermovement organizations. So it had varied that in the beginning, 2003, 2004, it wasn’t as much. You see a ramp-up of the funding in 2008 and 2009 and 2010. It increased greatly over that time period.

Who is the biggest single donor that you found for climate [counter] change?

… It is no surprise that the funders of the climate countermovement organizations are the same funders that fund the overall conservative think tanks across the board. …

The leading funders over that 2003-to-2010 time period have been, of course, the Koch Foundation — was a major player early on, not so much now — the Scaife Foundation and the Sierra Foundation.

What’s interesting and I think the most relevant is the rise of the two foundations, the Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, which have the same address, and I treat them as simultaneously the same organization, or “Donors.” They started out very low, 3 percent in 2003, and by 2009, about one-quarter of the funding of the climate countermovement is from the Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund.

What is Donors Trust?

Donors Trust and Donors Capital, which I’m going to just call Donors, are two foundations that are basically donor-directed foundations that the foundation receives money from an individual with the understanding that it’s going to a particular organization. So the money comes in to Donors as a contribution and goes out the door as a grant to a particular organization that the donor directed it to be. …

What do we know about Donors Trust?

… We don’t know a whole lot about the Donors foundations other than they do a lot of pass-through funding. We don’t know who their donors are, except in a couple of cases where we find information in the databases about who funds them.

So a lot of it is just the mystery of who is funding it. But what you see is that as the contribution of Donors has increased over the 2003-to-2010 timeframe, the contribution of other foundations has declined. Koch went from a high of 9 percent of the funding flow in 2008 to 1 percent in 2010.

We do know that the Koch brothers have made significant contributions to Donors Trust through their foundation called the Knowledge and Progress Fund. They gave $1.25 million in 2007, $1.25 million in 2008, and then $2 million in 2010 to Donors. We don’t know where it went after it goes to Donors, because it’s not necessarily a one-for-one giving.

How do we know it came from the Koch brothers?

If you look at the board of directors of the Knowledge and Progress Fund, it’s the Koch family. It’s certainly no surprise that it’s all the Koch family running the board, and their executive director is a longtime employee of the Koch family, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is fairly dominant, the Koch Foundation.

What does this tell you?

What this trend shows me is that the funding of climate countermovement organizations has become more politically controversial. We see less and less attributable funding to these organizations and more anonymous giving through the Donors Trust or Donors Capital Foundation, so that people don’t necessarily want to be clearly identified with a politically controversial organization such as [the] Heartland Institute.

… I think that that’s problematic in that we really have anonymous giving and unaccountable power being exercised here in the creation of the climate countermovement; that there is no attribution, no responsibility for the actions of these organizations to their funders.

So if you want to protest what the Heartland is doing and write their funders, you don’t know who they really are. It’s the Donors Capital, Donors Trust, which is basically a black box as far as research goes. I mean, we have a little clue here and there, but we really don’t have a good understanding of how Donors Trust and Donors Capital operate other than it’s secret.

It seems to me that if we’re going to have democracy and public accountability of our institutions, we need to at least identify who these funders are so that we can understand who is really funding the different spokespersons in the climate countermovement.

So it’s a total mystery?

It’s not a total mystery. Donors Trust and Donors Capital are not a total mystery, but it is certainly a black box with a few little clues coming out here and there, but no real image that’s really reliable can be formed yet.

… It used to be Exxon funded all these organizations. …

There’s been a lot of focus on ExxonMobil as funding the climate countermovement. Our data shows that they’ve funded about, at their height, 4 percent of the total. And it also shows quite clearly that ExxonMobil got out of this business. By 2009, it was not funding any climate countermovement organizations.

… The American Petroleum Institute at the same time started a grant program funding climate countermovement organizations. Now, whether this is a coincidence or is not, I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to speculate on that. But what I want to say is that we see a shift in funding from ExxonMobil. … You see this shift from attributable funding to anonymous funding. And for me, that is as ExxonMobil caught more political heat, they did not want to be openly associated with these organizations. And so we see the Koch brothers actually becoming more anonymous in their giving through Donors Trust. …

After Donors Trust, what are the types of funders? Is it libertarians? Is it fossil fuel? … [Has] it really shifted more to an ideological thing? …

I think after Donors Trust and Donors Capital, the major funders of the climate countermovement are, as they’ve always been, ideologically driven foundations that are very much concerned about conservative values and worldviews. They really operate on a philosophy of neoliberalism, and they want to encourage market solutions to social problems and to keep the government intervention into the economy at an absolute minimum, if none at all.

So they are very much, I would say, neoliberal foundations. There are some libertarian foundations, but they are not anywhere near as prominent as what I would consider to be traditional conservative foundations. The funding of the countermovement organizations from the oil and gas interests is actually, when you look at the foundations of those organizations, fairly minimal. So it really is driven by these ideologically focused organizations, which is no surprise, because they’ve been building a conservative movement now for 40, 50 years, and they have these organizations that they’ve created and sponsored and helped develop over that period of time. So what they did was alongside of all of the other conservative issues — affirmative action, English as the official language, the Defense of Marriage [Act], these sorts of issues — they added on climate change as an additional dimension to the conservative movement’s issue agenda.

… This isn’t just a stray person here and there disputing climate change. It’s an institutionalized effort that we know about from documents that have leaked from planning sessions such as the American Petroleum Institute’s efforts in 1998. We know that this is a comprehensive institutional effort. It’s not just a few people here and there, but rather it’s part of a larger conservative movement.

I think they often like to point out that coalition disbanded. So what makes it still an institutional movement?

Institutional movements really function through what we would consider to be informal arrangements and weak coordination. So in the case of the climate countermovement, what you see is that the conservative movement coordinates itself quite well, that when you look at the funding flows you can go and look at the dynamics of the Philanthropy Roundtable, which is where these sorts of issues of funding flows are discussed.

And I’m certain that there is informal talk among different components of the conservative movement, just as do the environmental movement funders have a similar kind of interaction at the Environmental Grantmakers Association [EGA]. These are not secret things. People talk to each other. They have conventions together. They know each other. They work loosely with each other.

So just because there isn’t a formal alliance doesn’t mean that there isn’t a coordination function going on. We know that Koch brothers organized an annual meeting where they strategize about political and foundation funding and different activities, and we know that [executive director of Donors Trust] Whitney Ball gets to go to that every year. We have evidence that she attended one year, so we know that there is a coordination function at that level, too.

It’s just like any social movement. It’s not a group of particular people, but it’s a number of people that have weak, informal links with each other that have a general coordinated strategy, or at least generally coordinated goals and values and things that they work on together, and so in that sense there is a conservative movement.

It is quite interesting to contrast this with the environmental movement and the climate movement, [which] has multiple strategies, multiple networks, and not a coordinated image whatsoever. It’s a much more disparate and fragmented movement than the conservative movement.

How so?

Well, the conservative movement has at least general adherence to clear goals about what they want, whereas the environmental movement ranges everywhere from Environmental Defense Fund, which wants to have cap and trade, to Earth First!, which wants to transform capitalism. And there is no real coordination or continuity in that movement itself in that it has multiple centers, multiple viewpoints, and there is not common adherence to goals or strategies whatsoever. …

So as a social movement scholar, you look at the contrast between the two, and you really have to be impressed by the scope, scale and capacity of the conservative movement in the United States. There is no doubt that this is [an] extremely well-organized, focused, well-funded and ideologically consistent social movement. And as a social movement scholar, you can’t help but be impressed.

What impresses you about it?

Just the general coordination and capacity is really quite extraordinary, and to be able to retain focus for this long of a period of time on clearly identified goals is very impressive. There is no counterpart on the left that’s equivalent.

… Overall, what’s the story of the shift of trends … and who funds, right? … Who funds Heartland? Who funds CEI [Competitive Enterprise Institute]?

… Donors Trust and Donors Capital aren’t the only sort of donor-directed funding. There’s also the Vanguard Charitable [Endowment Program] foundation, which is a donor-directed one. It’s small; it’s like 1 percent of the overall total.

But it’s not unusual to see that kind of donor-directed funding. … The Vanguard Charitable foundation must give to several thousand different organizations, so donor-directed is not unusual.

What’s unusual I think about Donors Trust and Donors Capital is the scale of the dollars and that it has grown as others have declined. And I think the growth of donors [coincides] with the publicity that Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace brought to the Koch brothers’ funding and ExxonMobil funding is that as those two organizations got more publicity, those organizations stop giving, and you see the rise [in] anonymous giving through Donors Capital and Donors Trust, which in a way insulates the giver from any kind of political fallout from their giving and removes actually an organizing target.

People were organizing around: “Oh, evil ExxonMobil. Oh, evil Koch brothers.” Now it’s Donors Trust, Donors Capital. Who are they? They get money; they give it out. It’s not connected to anything other than this kind of amorphous institution, not much more than a halfway house. The money comes in, it goes out, and it’s not connected to any kind of corporation or individual that you can say, “Oh, look at this evil person.”

So it removes the personalization or the ability to identify a concrete entity as creating and maintaining the climate countermovement. Politically, it’s a very skillful strategy.

… You looked at a larger scope than just the people who are expressing skepticism about the science. Why is that?

Skepticism about climate science is only one of many different rhetorical strategies you can employ to delay action, and it’s becoming increasingly unviable. Recently one of the climate skeptics did a study funded by the Koch brothers and came to the conclusion that climate change was real.

The scientific evidence is pretty overwhelming, so if you want to delay action, you say, “OK, climate change is real, but…” Fill in the blank: It’s too expensive. It’s really not all that serious. The voluntary action will solve it.

There is a whole range of other ways that you can accept the basic premises of climate science but still try to argue for delaying action, and so the countermovement actually sort of does them all.

Simultaneously you end up with the Heartland Institute or [a] hard-line climate denier saying climate science is just not true, others saying, well, we’re not quite sure how much is climate change versus natural climate change. That’s Romney’s position. Other positions, George Bush wanted to create the hydrogen economy; you know, we’ll have technology fix [it] sometime down the road and not have to address real actions now. So there is a range of strategies, a range of rhetorical approaches that the countermovement can deploy.

… I think the outright climate-denier component is probably atrophying, but you’re going to sort of see more of the technology-can-fix-this approach rhetoric, and a voluntary action through technological innovation or some sort of things like that will replace the outright climate denial as that becomes less and less viable.

But again, the result is still the same: We don’t do anything. So you have no legislative change, you have no mandatory requirements, and CO2 emissions continue to build up in the atmosphere.

The end result is the same, which is what the countermovement is all about, is to delay action. And they have been enormously successful. It’s been 20 years since we signed the treaty saying that we were going to try to prevent — that we’re going to go over 2 degrees. Well, as Dr. Phil says, “How is that working for you?” It’s not.

You mentioned that the fossil fuel organizations are still involved, but they’re taking a different approach in terms of changing the frame with the advertising.

I think what’s very important to recognize is that not all of the activities of the climate countermovement take part through these think tanks. But that takes place actually more directly. If you look at the American Petroleum Institute, they spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns. Then if you turn on CNN any day, you’ll see two or three commercials extolling the virtues of increased energy production and using all of our energy resources to create American jobs.

This is a really clever rhetorical approach. What you’re trying to do is you never mention the words “climate change.” You never mention denying the science or anything like that. You just change the frame to focus on something that all Americans would generally support — and of course they’ve tested these through focused groups — is energy development and more economic growth and more jobs.

It’s kind of hard to be against economic growth and more jobs when you’re in the middle of a recession, and what they say is we need all of America’s energy resources. Oh, they don’t say the “tar sands”; they say the “oil sands.” So you get this very convincing argument that what we need to do is develop all of our energy sources simultaneously, including coal, gas, petroleum so that we could have economic growth.

And that’s a well-developed, focus group-tested approach to convince people that we really don’t want to mess with the energy mix except to have more development of all of these energy resources. So it’s interesting that the Obama administration has kind of adapted that rhetoric and that its energy strategy is all of the above. They’re adding renewable to the regular carbon products, but their energy strategy is all the above.

So it’s a very clever way, and the end result is that if you’re developing all of the above, you’re not doing anything about climate change, because if you’re developing coal, if you’re developing tar sands, if you’re developing more natural gas, those all emit more carbon. … It’s a redirection rhetorical approach. …

So they are part of the climate change countermovement?

Yeah, so they are part of the climate change countermovement, and so the American Petroleum Institute hires advertising firms to carry this out, and you see it every day on your TV. And those have an effect on the public concerns and the issue agenda of Congress.

What we see now is that climate change is virtually unspoken in both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign. Neither of them can bear to say the words “climate change.” And Obama says he’s worried about climate change, but his energy strategy actually contradicts that. It’s that [the] actions of his secretary of the interior [Ken Salazar] have been to open up more areas for drilling. … What he says and what he does are contradictory. …

“Climate change is virtually unspoken in both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign. Neither of them can bear to say the words ‘climate change.'”

… I think it would be really interesting to see who actually contributes to Donors, and I actually believe that in the interest of having open public debate in a democracy, we really do need to know who is funding these organizations. …

We have really unaccountable funding flows to these organizations from unknown sponsors trying to influence public policy in an enormous way, and that really runs counter to the whole notion of democracy and open debate.

Instead we have sort of secret plutocratic funding of the climate countermovement, and [we need] at least a little bit of transparency, at least to get us to understand what’s really going on here with these countermovement organizations.

… And the secret plutocracy is what, a knowledge of trust?

It’s the whole process. Plutocracy is government by the rich, and so you have a whole process here where vested interests with large amounts of money fund and try to direct public policy in accordance with their particular interest.

Now, they have every right to do that. This is —

Free country?

Yeah, it’s a free country. But the question of really seeing the transparency of who’s trying to do what openly so we can actually evaluate the credibility of the arguments coming from these different organizations, I think it would be a crucial part in a democratic dialogue.

Instead, we have this money influencing the political process in ways that really have blocked action in the face of what I consider to be one of the most robust scientific conclusions that I’ve ever seen.

There really is absolutely no doubt about climate change in the refereed press, and the stakes are very high involved with climate change. And to see that delayed really through the exercise of what I consider to be private economic power for vested interest over the collective good of humanity for the next thousand years, it’s really quite problematic, in my viewpoint, at best.

We really need to be able to get to understand what’s going on here so that we can try to shape our public discourse about climate change in a much more open and democratic way, and that’s not what I see happening. I see private, secret economic power being used to direct us away from any action.

What is the significance to you of so many of these different organizations, like the Heartland climate conference [International Conference on Climate Change] has all these free-markets sponsors? What’s the significance of having so many different organizations instead of just one big organization, from a sociological standpoint as well?

What you see in the number of sponsorships in the Heartland conference is the attempt to build a worldwide climate countermovement. So you see a lot of organizations from different countries: Italy, New Zealand, Australia. You see a lot of sponsorships from those kinds of countries, and the more organizations you have, the more legitimate the conference looks.

Instead, if you just have one big funder, you know, it’s the Donors Trust Foundation funding X. When we’ve got 500 organizations all contributing to our effort, it’s a large-scale effort by all of these people. So the more organizations you have, the more legitimate you look.

So you want to have a whole lot of sponsors even if they only give a little bit. It makes for, I think, good political theater. … This is sponsored by these 25 organizations. Wow, 25 organizations got together to sponsor this; they must be significant. Two organizations got together, one organization got together, not anywhere near as politically legitimate.

So you can try to create the impression that you have a movement going here because you’ve got all these new organizations spring[ing] up all over the world. Look at all this! Why, we’re really growing.

The environmental movement does the same thing. … They’re both social movements, and they have a lot commonality in their strategies and what they actually try to do. Their end results are quite different, but they try what’s [within the] allowable parameters of political action in our society, and so they are sort of constrained and forced into the similar patterns of action. So it’s not surprising that you can change out the goals and you see some very similar sorts of processes going on. There’s still a social movement.

… In 2008, you had two candidates that were saying we’re going to take action, and today … [there’s] tremendous polarization. What does your research find? What’s the reason for that? What’s going on here?

First you have to understand public opinion on climate change. This is a peripheral issue. This is not one of the burning issues in the American public’s mind. It’s that the Gallup poll goes around every month and asks, “What’s the most important problem facing the United States right now?” And of course, 80 percent [say] the economy, jobs, maybe war. Somewhere down around 1, 2, 3 percent, in comes environment, crime, things like that.

So these are very peripheral issues. They are not what most people worry about on a constant basis, OK? …

The other thing that the literature on public opinion chose is that when you call up people and ask them for their opinion on a peripheral issue, they will search their memory to try to come up with an answer, and they will probably go to the most recent thing they saw on TV, or the most recent thing they read in the newspaper or something in the media and say, “Oh, yeah, this,” and they’ll come up with an opinion about it.

So what you find is that the public opinion on climate change is largely driven by media coverage. … And there’s actually a pretty quick decline function, [which means] that if people don’t see it week in and week out, something else is going to pop into their mind, and the concern about climate change is going to [be], “Oh, I saw a FRONTLINE last night; I’m concerned about it today,” and next week, “Oh, Kim Kardashian got divorced; you know, I’m all about that.”

It’s replaced. You have this decay function, very quick. Some people say it’s about 30 days. You know, it depends. Certainly quarter to quarter that we were testing, there is no carryover; it’s gone in a quarter for sure.

So what that means is that in order to have levels of concern about climate change high, you have to have a lot of media coverage of it, and it has to be constantly repeated over and over again, and that will raise levels of concern in public opinion.

So what gets media coverage? Well, fights among elites usually bring a lot of media coverage. So if you have a presidential [candidate] debate one side on climate change, the other side against climate change, you get a lot of media coverage. You have disagreeing elites, you’re going to get more media coverage.

What has been the media coverage? What did you find?

Media coverage on climate change peaked in 2007 and 2008, and it’s been declining back to about 2002 levels in the current time. So you see a great big sort of hump as public opinion went up, media coverage went up.

What we were able to explain is, what drives media coverage? And we looked at a number of factors. Weather disasters, nope — doesn’t affect public opinion at the national level. It might affect that locality, but you’ve got a lot of weather all over the place in the United States, so weather has had no significant impact on climate change public opinion.

Scientific information promulgation about climate change has done nothing but go up and up and up, and climate change public opinion has gone up and down. So while information increases, public opinion goes up and down. There is no statistical relationship between providing information about climate change and levels of public concern.

I know that that’s a big blow to a lot of people in the climate change communication field, but that’s what we found: no relationship.

… One major factor that drove a lot of concern about climate change was Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. That really got a lot of media coverage. It put it into the public agenda in a very big way.

It wasn’t the number of people that saw it, that actually went to the movie theater, but it was the media coverage pump that climate change got in response to Al Gore’s movie. We know that Al Gore’s movie drove that pump, and so we know that that movie had a really significant impact on climate change concern in the United States.

The other thing that has a lot of impact are what we call “elite cues.” People have certain ideological beliefs, and they look to opinion leaders on matters that they don’t have direct experience [with] for guidance. So people that trust and listen to Rush Limbaugh hear [him] say that global climate change is a hoax. “Well, I trust Rush; I believe him.” And so their opinion follows it, and you call them up and you say, “What do you think about climate change?,” and they say, “I think it’s a hoax.” Or they believe Al Gore and know it’s real. They follow their ideological leaders, or their thought leaders have this big, big impact, so what we call elite cues.

The president stands up and says, “Climate change is real, and we have to do something about it,” and several senators stand up and say, “We have to do something about it,” [that] has a big impact on public opinion.

What was especially impactful is when Republicans would stand up and say, “We have to do [something] with climate change,” because you get a [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] standing up and say[ing], “Climate change is real, and we need to deal with it,” suddenly the Republicans are like, “Oh, he is our party leader; I guess this is true,” and it overcomes. The elite cue is, “Climate change is real; we need to get onboard with this,” and people’s opinions follow.

Now, what can drive it down? Elite cues going the other way. … Other things drive it down, things like our economy collapses, … like the Great Recession that drove it way down; the number of war deaths, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan. We’re having all these wars; we have all of these people dying in these wars. That replaces and pushes out climate change concern.

So what we see is this dynamic that really tells us that we need to focus on having elite cues, or the elites coming to some sort of agreement that climate change is real, that we need to address it, before you’re going to see public opinion is going to change. …

In a nutshell, media coverage has fallen off, and people are talking about it. If they had to sum it up, what would you say?

… What we have now, since the media isn’t covering it and the elites aren’t talking about it, is we have levels of concern that approach a similar period around 2002-2003. Now it goes up and down and bounces around a little bit, and everybody jumps on these little blips, but statistically it’s pretty much the same thing.

… [The] 2009 levels of concern aren’t any different than 2010 levels of concern; they are both about statistically the same, which is to be expected, because we’re not talking about it, and so we’re not having factors that are going to change.

You have the committed populations on both sides of the issue that are attentive publics that have their core beliefs, that it’s real and we have to do something about it, or it’s not real or it’s a hoax, so we don’t have to do something about it. And those remain relatively stable.

But the people in the middle that are going to change their opinions are basically just, “Huh?” They are not paying attention to it because it’s not a major issue, and so when you call them up, you just get a random distribution, so you end up with no change.

So you end up with pretty stable public opinion on climate change now. … The sociology term is, our political science stream is punctuated equilibria [until] we have some event that shifts the whole nature of the debate. I … expect that it will remain pretty much where it is for a while unless we have unexpected events or something like Al Gore’s movie comes along again.

But I think that was kind of one out. I don’t think [you’re going] to get a climate change movie that gets that kind of attention anymore.

… The media coverage is what, off the mat?

I’ve been charting television coverage of climate change in the major news networks — NBC, ABC, CBS — since 1980, and what we’re seeing in 2011, which is the last four years, I have it back at the levels that it was in 2002. It’s almost virtually no coverage or very, very little coverage of climate change in the major news media, and that’s pretty much paralleled in The New York Times, the major press media and the major magazines.

… The mass American public [is] really just not thinking about it. It’s not in the media. It’s not in the presidential campaign. So it’s really gone back to its very peripheral status and will remain there until some sort of factor changes it. Now, it could be an intervention by social movement; it could be actual physical events. It could be the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] report that’s due out in 2014, [which] will refocus attention on it.

Historically those haven’t worked; they get kind of a media blip and then it goes away. The scientific information argument is really quite thin, so that I don’t expect that that’s going to have this major impact. Maybe if the Arctic Sea completely melts or the Arctic Ocean ice pack completely melts, maybe that will have an impact. But we really don’t know, and the sociology is not very good at predicting those kinds of events.

… What is the function really of CEI and Heartland and all of these different think tanks?

A good social movement or countermovement needs to develop effective rhetorical approaches that resonate with the public. So what a lot of these think tanks do is these are the places where they develop new ideas, new approaches and test them out. This is basically intellectual research and development where they test out the themes, they run focus groups, they see how they fly in different political debates, political forums.

This is where these ideas are developed and guys like Frank Luntz work with his little dials and work the best arguments. They test these things out in focus groups, and they get the message developed that they then promulgate through either new climate change books — which a lot of these think tanks print — the magazine articles that they print, or op-eds that they write to try to get into the major media. So these people do a lot of media outreach.

But then also you have to have the mass marketing of these things, so these ideas then can get picked up by advertising agencies and promulgated in a mass-message format, like in the advertisements that we spoke of earlier about the framing. You don’t talk about climate change; you talk about jobs, energy and economic growth in the same sentence, and we need all of the above. That’s a well-developed, focus group-tested message that resonates a lot with current American concerns, obviously. And that forms the basis for these multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns that you see every night on your TV if you turn on any of the news channels.

So it’s the intellectual development and then mass marketing of these kinds of ideas that’s a real political genius of the conservative movement. It’s been that development and ability to do that in a consistent way over and over and over and over again, and consistently sending out the same message that’s going to have an impact on public opinion, and that if public opinion decays as quickly as it does, you need to keep every night being reminded of how good the American Petroleum Institute and energy development is. Every night you see those ads on CNN. They don’t let up.

So you have this really well-developed, well-funded countermovement messaging strategy, and the counterpart of the movement strategy is Al Gore ran a few commercials I remember back in 2008, but you don’t see commercials talking about climate change at all. They are just not there.

So you have this really one-sided debate. It’s that you end up having a news story, let’s say about natural gas, and you have, “Well, natural gas is not as bad as coal.” Oh, no, it’s as bad as coal. And you have competing experts brought to you by America’s Natural Gas and how wonderful that is, and they will run more commercial time about how wonderful America’s Natural Gas is than the news itself.

So the effect on public opinion, nobody measures this. This is one of the great problems in the public opinion thing is nobody measures this whatsoever. I’ve searched high and low for papers on this. Nobody knows. …

… The top donors of the climate change [counter]movement, describe what they are.

The top donors of the climate countermovement are the traditional conservative foundations that have built and maintained the conservative movement in the United States. And this is just one more dimension of that activity. …

It’s ideologically motivated giving by these family foundations, and it’s their particular predilection to give to conservative causes, just as George Soros gives to liberal causes.

So it’s the same type of giving, but what you see is that the preponderance of the climate change countermovement funding comes from exactly those kind of people, … and that the petroleum industry, I guess I would say the carbon industry foundations are really not where the real money is. …

The majority of these think tanks are tax-deductible institutions. They are charitable institutions that you can deduct your contribution to them. What’s interesting is that there have been some cases where the rules for what constitutes a charitable organization have been brought into question; that if you are a charitable organization, you are supposed to comply with certain IRS guidelines to maintain your tax-free charitable donation status, such as you tell the truth in your educational outreach efforts, that you don’t slander particular individuals, that you don’t engage in openly political activities.

The Sierra Club lost its tax-exempt status in 1970 because it was seen as being too overtly political. If you apply the criteria that were applied to the Sierra Club to some of these organizations in the climate countermovement, I think you would end up with similar results.


I don’t think that you can claim that, for instance Climate Depot, run by the charitable institution the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow [CFACT] and [Director of Communications] Marc Morano, is engaged in honest, nonpartisan, objective reporting of scientific fact.

I think that a good case could be made quite the contrary. Yet they’re tax-deductible. They have every right to say what they’re saying, but they don’t have the right to be designated as a tax-deductible charity engaged in nonpartisan educational activities. …

I turn on the TV, I’ll see a very sort of touchy-feely Chevron commercial, a guy with a very tender voice talking about how they’re working with local communities to solve this and that. Is that part of this operation and this countermovement by them describing all of the different things that they are up to? And what are we to make of those [ads]?

One of the key components of preventing climate change legislation is how the public perceives the image of the corporation, is that if the corporate image is one of being environmentally irresponsible, culturally irresponsible, exploiting their own workers, the probability of legislation to change the activities of that corporation increases.

So the more a corporation can foster its image as a socially responsible actor, it decreases its potential for legislation. Walmart has done a great deal to green its image and also to say that it’s a good employer of people. BP had its whole big campaign about Beyond Petroleum, but it never really actually changed its practices. It just talked a lot about these changes in practices.

So what they’re trying to do with those kinds of corporate relations commercials is to foster their corporate images as a good, trusted, socially responsible corporation that can be trusted to do the right thing, that we don’t need legislation. We don’t need to have these impositions on these already good people.

And they try to provide evidence that they are indeed acting in that way, and so their corporate profile increases and their brand value goes up where people feel good about this company, and they are much less likely to have punitive legislation against them. The expenditure of corporate funds for basically corporate image development and expansion is a well-developed field of public communications and corporate PR.

And they know exactly what they’re doing. There’s actually data that’s given out about the best ranked corporations in America, and you certainly don’t want to be on the bottom of that as the worst ranked corporation in America, because [of] the possibility that it’s much easier to mobilize people to take action around a corporation that’s seen as irresponsible and callous to the different social issues than it is to mobilize around issues that, “Oh, look, they’re really good actors.”

It’s a calculated business decision to fund those kinds of advertising. … You certainly will spend millions and millions of dollars to foster and improve your corporate image. And that’s what brings us CNN.

Now, there’s been some interesting discussions as to whether the fact that CNN is sponsored by these same corporations affects their news operation. Do they bite the hand that feeds them? I haven’t seen any real periodical literature on that, but there’s been some very interesting discussions about whether that’s going on or not.

I don’t think that we know, but that’s kind of another interesting question is to see, do they change their coverage of an issue if they have sponsorship by that company? We have no clue. …

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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