Research finds broad array of groups fighting climate policy

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Utilities, coal companies and railroads are the most significant players pushing climate denialism and working to undercut federal climate regulations, beating out even the oil and gas industry, a new study has found.

Leading corporations from each of those industries, as well as trade organizations to which they belong, are fighting national and state-based efforts to address climate change, the Brown University study published yesterday found.

While Exxon Mobil Corp. and groups linked to Koch Industries Inc. receive much of the attention for their years of fighting against climate regulations and funding groups that attack climate science, most of the influential groups in the larger web of the climate change countermovement come from more unexpected sources, said Robert Brulle, a Brown environment and society professor who studies climate denial groups.

The research shows a massive effort, from a varied group of industries, to distort climate science and weaken any attempts to mitigate carbon emissions, he said.

“The opposition to climate action is not just a few rogue actors. It’s not Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers sitting in a room and a couple bad guys at conservative think tanks,” Brulle said. “This really engages a large cross-section of industry actors in a sector that is carbon intensive, and so any manipulation of carbon prices or anything that affect carbon in a big way and they’re going to get organized to oppose that kind of action.”

The research examines more than 25 years of efforts to block and weaken climate policy, finding that thousands of groups are involved, many extending far beyond the most obvious players.

Brulle identified more than 2,000 groups involved in the climate change countermovement, but only 179 form the organizational core and participate in multiple coalitions that attack scientific certainty and regulations. Those groups are among the most influential and include a number of major corporations as well as trade groups that often do the more visible work to lobby and wield power and influence that reduces efforts.

The oil and gas industry typically turns to the American Petroleum Institute to act on its behalf, while utilities, railroads and mining companies use multiple groups to help enact its policy priorities.

The climate change countermovement, as Brulle describes it, is a well-funded and organized effort to undermine the public’s understanding of climate science and to block regulations that seek to reduce carbon emissions. It includes a wide variety of organizations — including conservative think tanks and foundations, advocacy groups, and trade associations that have strong links to conservative media outlets — as well as politicians, according to the peer-reviewed study published in the journal Sociological Inquiry and supported by the National Science Foundation.

“In conjunction with their allied trade associations, these coalitions have served as a central coordination mechanism in efforts opposed to mandatory limits on carbon emissions,” Brulle wrote. “These coalitions pool resources from a large numbers of corporations and execute sophisticated political and cultural campaigns designed to oppose efforts to address climate change.”

The top players in the overlapping world of think tanks and grassroots groups have a direct financial stake in preventing limits to carbon emissions, the research found.

The rail industry makes a significant portion of its revenue from the transportation of fossil fuels, including coal, oil and liquefied natural gas. Utilities also profit from fossil fuels, particularly from the continued use of aging facilities, such as coal-fired power plants, that could be shuttered by more stringent pollution regulations.

Some of the groups including the National Mining Association and the Association of American Railroads, along with Norfolk Southern Corp. and Peabody Energy Corp., were “highly influential,” the study found.

In addition, in the utility sector, trade groups such as the Edison Electric Institute and companies including Southern Co. and DTE Energy Co. were most active. Other influential trade groups include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau, United Mine Workers of America and National Association of Manufacturers.

“Viewing the political contest over climate change as a field framing dispute enables us to move beyond just seeing the effort to stop climate action as centered on attacking the credibility of climate science,” Brulle wrote. “The picture of the [climate change countermovement] that emerges is one of great organizational complexity, with coalitions and trade associations playing a central role in the development and coordination of oppositional efforts.”