Two secretive trusts funneled nearly $120 million dollars from conservative billionaires to a huge and growing network of climate-denying think tanks and advocacy organizations between 2002 and 2010. The trusts, Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, granted 46% of their donations towards one purpose: “to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to highly polarizing “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives,” The Guardian uncovered in a multi-part report. These wealthy climate deniers have been wildly successful in distorting our national debate, judging by the current political polarization of climate issues and the disproportionate media coverage given to climate deniers in the U.S.
Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, the latter of which is reserved for those giving an initial “gift” of $1 million or more, are in a class of trusts called donor-advised funds. These funds are common in America for a number of reasons; they offer contributors a high degree of control over where their money goes, and are “convenient, cheaper to run than a private foundation, offer tax breaks and are lawful.” Most importantly, at least in the case of Donors Trust, they protect their donors’ anonymity from the public and even the organizations who receive the money.
The identity of these donors has been exposed by a Center for Public Integrity report, published the same day as The Guardian’s report. They use IRS data to reveal the names of the major donors, presented with informative interactive graphics. The 192 contributors to Donors Trust are mostly individuals spanning the gamut of conservative opinion; according to The Guardian’s interview with Whitney Ball, the CEO of Donors Trust, they have found common ground in opposing action on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
The infusion of cash provided by these wealthy conservatives went to 102 organizations which all have a “record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations,” including The Heartland Institute, described by the New York Times as “the primary American organization pushing climate change skepticism.” The Institute has received $13.5 million from Donors Trust, an astounding amount given its annual budget of $6 million. The Heartland Institute is not alone in this respect – 12 of these organizations owe 30 to 70% of their 2010 funding to Donors Trust. It is, in effect, the lifeblood for this network of climate change deniers.
Robert Bulle, a sociologist at Drexel University who researches such networks of conservative donors, told The Guardian that he believes that “Donors Trust is just the tip of a very big iceberg” of conservative ‘dark money’ flowing to such causes. The Koch brothers, reviled in the liberal media for using their money to influence everything from climate policy to the election, are outspent six-to-one by Donors Trust when it comes to climate issues. Who knows how much money flowing to these organizations has yet to be uncovered, or who is providing it? Greenpeace director Kert Davies told The Guardian:
"'The funding of the denial machine is becoming increasingly invisible to public scrutiny. It's also growing. Budgets for all these different groups are growing These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There is no transparency, no accountability for the money."
Donations like those from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund pose a threat to our democracy and our democratic dialogue for three interwoven reasons; the influence over public debate they grant to a few wealthy individuals, the lack of transparency of these funds, and the ethically questionable means employed by some who receive them. The lack of transparency hinders the public’s ability to see how much these organizations’ actions, research findings, and activities reflect the preferences of the wealthy donors who support them. Instead, their conflicts of interest remain hidden, leaving only a mysterious and powerful force controlling our national dialogue.
Climate denying think tanks and advocacy organizations funded by Donors Trust moreover are known to employ ethically questionable methods to control our policy discussions. For example, Steven Hayward, a Donors Capital Fund board member and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, offered $10,000 to any scientist who would write a “scientific review” of the IPCC Fourth Assessment discussing the “limitations of climate model outputs.”
It's clear that AEI, another Donors Trust grant recipient, is looking for something "scientific" they can cite against the IPCC’s warnings. Such actions are enough to condemn funding such organizations, without even mentioning the ethical issues of arguing against climate action that could save lives, species, and ecosystems.