February 9, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Dark Money and Climate Denial

Madam President, investigative author Jane Mayer has written an important piece of journalism–her new book, “Dark Money”–about the secret but massive influence-buying rightwing billionaires led by the infamous Koch brothers. Jane Mayer’s book catalogs the rise and the expansion into a vast array of front groups of this operation and the role in it of two of America’s more shameless villains: Charles and David Koch. Some have called this beast they have created the “Kochtopus” because it has so many tentacles.

The Presiding Officer may be wondering why I am talking about secret influence-buying in my climate speech.

The reason is that the story of dark money and the story of climate change denial are the same story–two sides of the same coin, as it were.

Two strategies of that Koch-led, influence-buying operation particularly bear on climate change. Indeed, they are probably the major reason we don’t have a comprehensive climate bill in Congress and instead have this present little mouse of a bipartisan energy efficiency bill.

“Oh, there goes Whitehouse,” I am sure some listeners are saying, “off his rocker, trying to connect the Koch brothers to this climate change.” Well, it is not just something I am saying; it is what the Koch brothers’ own operatives say when they are crowing about their influence-buying success.

I will get to that later, but first the two strategies.

One strategy is to mimic real science with phony science. Real science wants to find the truth. This phony science has no interest whatsoever in the truth. It wants to look like science, sure, but it is perfectly content to be wrong. There is an apparatus, a whole array of front groups through which this phony science is perpetrated. This machinery of phony science has been wrong over and over. It was wrong about tobacco, wrong about lead paint, wrong about ozone, wrong about mercury, and now it is wrong about climate change.

They are the same organizations, the same strategies, the same funding sources, even in some cases the same people–always wrong. You would think that if they cared a hoot about right from wrong, they would change their methodology after such an unblemished record of being wrong every time.

But they don’t care. Truth is not their object; truth is actually their adversary. This isn’t science; it is public relations dressed up in a lab coat. It masquerades as science. But, as a visiting university president from Rhode Island recently said to me, “it uses the language of science, but its purpose is to undermine actual science.”

To pull off this masquerade, you have to trick people. You have to do what Ms. Mayer describes a Koch brothers associate saying as this whole scheme was being developed. It is perhaps the most telling quote in her book. Here is what the man said. “It would be necessary,” he said, to “use ambiguous and misleading names, obscure the true agenda, and conceal the means of control.”

The next quote in her book is this: “This is the method that Charles Koch would soon practice in his charitable giving, and later in his political actions.”

Did he ever. Misleading names. How about the John Locke Foundation, the Ethan Allen Institute. The pages listening will know these names from history: the James Madison Institute for Public Policy; the Thomas Jefferson Institute; the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, with a little profile of old Ben Franklin on its letterhead; the George C. Marshall Institute, named after the hero of World War II and the European recovery that followed. None of them have a thing to do with their illustrious namesakes; they just took the famous names to put on a veneer of legitimacy.

The George C. Marshall Institute–it sounds impressive. You might fool the occasional editorial page editor. Who does that? Maybe someone trying to hide something, “obscure the true agenda.”

Take the Mercatus Center, which the Washington Post described as a “staunchly anti-regulatory center funded largely by Koch Industries Inc.”

In “Dark Money,” journalist Jane Mayer wrote that Clayton Coppin, a professor at George Mason who reviewed Bill Koch’s political activities, concluded Mercatus to be “a lobbying group disguised as a disinterested academic program.”

And conceal the means of control–a large portion of the funding behind this special interest apparatus is simply not traceable. Why? Because money is funneled through organizations that exist to conceal donor identity. That is their purpose. The biggest identity-laundering shops are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. Indeed, they are by far the biggest sources of funding in the web of climate-change front groups that have been stood up.

Dr. Robert Brulle of Drexel University, who studies the network of fossil fuel-backed climate denial, reports the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund operations are the “central component” and “predominant funder” of the denier apparatus; and at the same time he continues it is the “black box that conceals the identity of contributors.”

Jane Mayer reports in her book: “Between 1999 and 2015, Donors Trust redistributed some $750 million from the pooled contributions to myriad conservative causes under its own name.” There were $750 million laundered into anonymity with no telltale fossil fuel fingerprints.

This is no small operation. There are over 100 groups involved, all beholden to the same master: the fossil fuel industry. Setting up or supporting over 100 front groups may seem unduly complicated, but remember, an internal combustion engine has more than 500 parts, and we are totally comfortable with that mechanism.

According to the International Monetary Fund, this apparatus is defending a $700 billion–billion with a “b”–effective subsidy, just in the United States of America, every year. How much work would you do–how much complication would you be willing to create–to defend $700 billion per year? To use Jane Mayer’s telling phrase, this is a new device. Put it all together and what do you have? “The think tank as disguised political weapon.” Who is behind this elaborate scheme? I will quote from “Dark Money.”

[T]he director of research at Greenpeace ….. spent months trying to trace the funds flowing into a web of nonprofit organizations and talking heads, all denying the reality of global warming as if working from the same script. What he discovered was that from 2005 to 2008, a single source, the Koch [brother]s, poured almost $25 million into dozens of different organizations fighting climate reform. The sum was staggering. His research showed that Charles and David [Koch] had outspent what was then the world’s largest public oil company, ExxonMobil, by a factor of three. In a 2010 report, Greenpeace crowned Koch Industries, a company few had ever heard of at the time, the “kingpin of climate science denial.”

By the way, I should say that ExxonMobil has been actively involved in this as well, as a lot of very good recent reporting has showed. But they were outshone and outdone by the Koch brothers.

I will quote again from “Dark Money.”

The first peer-reviewed academic study on the topic added further detail. Robert Brulle, a Drexel University professor of sociology and environmental science, discovered that between 2003 and 2010 over half a billion dollars was spent on what he described as a massive “campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change.” The study examined the tax records of more than a hundred nonprofit organizations engaged in challenging the prevailing science on global warming. What it found was, in essence, a corporate lobbying campaign disguised as a tax-exempt, philanthropic endeavor. Some 140 conservative foundations funded the campaign, Brulle found. During the seven-year period he studied, these foundations distributed $558 million in the form of 5,299 grants to ninety-one different nonprofit organizations.

It is quite a “Kochtopus.”

“The money went to think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations, other foundations, and academic and legal programs. Cumulatively, this private network waged a permanent campaign to undermine Americans’ faith in climate science to defeat any effort to regulate carbon emissions.”

The bottom line is if your faith in climate science is undermined, you have been had by a well-funded, complex, sophisticated scheme of disinformation.

Back to “Dark Money” again.

The cast of conservative organizations identified by Brulle was familiar to anyone who had followed the funding of the conservative movement. Among those he pinpointed as the largest bankrollers of climate change denial were foundations affiliated with the Koch and Scaife families, both of whose fortunes derived partly from oil. Also heavily involved were the Bradley Foundation and several others associated with hugely wealthy families participating in the Koch donor summits, such as the foundations run by the DeVos Family, Art Pope, the retail magnate from North Carolina, and John Templeton, Jr., a doctor and heir to the fortune of his father John Templeton, Sr., an American mutual fund pioneer who eventually renounced his U.S. citizenship in favor of living in the Bahamas, reportedly saving $100 million on taxes. Brulle found that as the money was dispersed, three-quarters of the funds from these and other sources financing what he called the “climate change counter-movement” were untraceable.

Brulle’s conclusion, as reported by Ms. Mayer, is this:

“Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts.”

But it wasn’t enough for the Koch brothers to have the paid-for, phony science masquerade. You also had to drive politicians to accept the phony science. You had to make politicians willing to participate in the masquerade and put on the phony science costume. To do that, they turned to the mother’s milk of politics: money.

The money was set loose by five Republican justices on the Supreme Court when they decided Citizens United. Citizens United is described in “Dark Money” as “the polluters[‘] triumph.” Mayer quotes a defeated candidate the Kochs went after:

There was a huge change after Citizens United, when anyone could spend any amount of money, without revealing who they were, by hiding behind amorphous-named organizations, the floodgates opened. The Supreme Court made a huge mistake. There is no accountability. Zero.

The money got loaded into political organizations like Americans for Prosperity, the leading Koch brothers-backed political front group. They waved that money around like a club, touting how they were going to spend $750 million just in this 2016 election. They told Republicans they would be so “severely disadvantaged” if they crossed them on climate change that they would be in political peril. Do the math. How much more obvious could you get?

Here is how Jane Mayer quotes their own official crowing about their victory. Remember what I said earlier? This is not me making wild allegations. This is them taking credit for what they did.

Tim Phillips gladly took credit for the dramatic spike in expressed skepticism. “If you look at where the situation was three years ago and where it is today, there’s been a dramatic turnaround,” he told the National Journal.

We’ve made great headway. What it means for candidates on the Republican side is “if you ….. buy into green energy or you play footsie on this issue, you do so at your political peril. And that’s our influence. Groups like Americans for Prosperity have done it.”

That is what they say about what they are doing. And don’t think we don’t see that effect in this Chamber.

The Koch brothers have had their day, doing their dirty work in the dark. I will give them that.

It has been quite a racket, but the truth will come out. It always does.

Jane Mayer is not alone. Academic researchers like Robert Brulle at Drexell, Riley Dunlap at Oklahoma State University, Justin Farrell at Yale University, and Michael Mann at Penn State University are exposing the precise dimensions and functions of this denial machine. Investigative writers like Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, Naomi Klein, and Steve Coll are on the hunt. “Merchants of Doubt” is already a movie. Jeff Nesbit’s forthcoming book, “Poison Tea,” about how these big money boys suckered the Tea Party down this road, should be illuminating. On the official side, two attorneys general appear to be looking into Exxon’s role in this climate denial scheme. In short, what could well be the biggest scam to hit politics since Teapot Dome and Watergate is being unraveled and exposed.

The dirty fossil fuel money has deliberately polluted our American politics, just as their carbon emissions have polluted the atmosphere and oceans. Justice cannot come too soon for these people.

I yield the floor.