4 min read

Back in the 1980s right-wingers used to daydream about how the Commies were paying off the Institute for Policy Studies, then as now a hard-left think tank. We thought there had to be some Soviet paymaster who would periodically dole out the gold rubles from his faded Gladstone bag.

The left has similar daydreams today about donations to free-market organizations that cast doubt on the prevailing wisdom on climate change. They want to find the special color-coded checks that show that a grant comes with marching orders.

(The checks, of course, are black from an oil company, grey from a coal company, and bright orange from supporters of nuclear power. The natural gas companies prefer to wire the money.)

So when not coming up with lunatic ideas like sending climate skeptics to prison, the greens keep coming up with papers proving corporate control of organizations promoting climate skepticism. The latest one can be summarized this way: What if you took tens of thousands of pages of material written by climate skeptics, dumped it into a supercomputer, turned everything into word salad, and started looking for patterns?

That’s what Yale sociologist Justin Farrell dutifully did in a paper published in a November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Hacks treated the release of the paper as an event comparable to the discovery of the Holy Grail. The paper, said the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick, “sheds light on the role played by corporate money” in funding free-market environmentalism. The liberal website Think Progress’s headline says that Farrell’s paper provides “Scientific Proof That Exxon and the Kochs Distorted The Public’s Understanding of Climate Change

Science! Who could be opposed to a peer-reviewed paper full of science!

Let us look at what Farrell did.

He began by gathering a list of 118 “climate counter-movement organizations” (including the Capital Research Center). Where did he get this list? From Robert Brulle, the Drexel University sociologist whose dubious research I debunked last year. Farrell then added 46 other organizations he unearthed, for a total of 164.

Then he began harvesting all the names of everyone associated with these organizations. For example, every year the Heartland Institute has a large conference about climate change. Farrell tracked down all the speakers and got all their papers and put them into his big database. Ultimately, he says, he found 4,556 people who he says were part of the “climate counter-movement.”

Then he decided to track down funders. He writes “academic researchers have had a very difficult time tracking flows of economic resources from members of this network, especially because of foundations like DonorTrust, which enables contributors to give to specific causes while at the same time shielding the identity of the donor.”

Well, I didn’t go to Yale, and I don’t own a supercomputer. But I do know that DonorsTrust is not “DonorTrust” and it is a donor-advised fund and not a foundation. Moreover, DonorsTrust fully discloses all of its grants on its Form 990. Moreover, a comparable analysis of environmental groups would certainly include the Tides Foundation, which was a model for DonorsTrust and which is about ten times larger than DonorsTrust.

What Farrell decided was that “corporate funding” could be measured by looking at grants from Exxon/Mobil and the various foundations funded by the Koch family. He then dumped all the papers by all the organizations he decided to write about into a giant database totaling 39 million words. He then started to draw conclusions.

I question that ExxonMobil is an appropriate metric from which to draw conclusions. This is an informed guess, but I strongly suspect that ExxonMobil’s contributions to free-market environmental groups have declined substantially in the past five years. I don’t know that measuring ExxonMobil’s grants are an appropriate method for determining “corporate control.”

Farrell then produced a series of charts showing his conclusions. Here is his summary of his conclusions:

“The plot in the top left demonstrates that temperature trends became much more salient between 2007 and 2013 for organizations that received funding, whereas they became less salient for organizations who did not. Similarly, the issue of energy production (top right), the positive benefits of CO2 (bottom left), and climate change being a long-term cycle (bottom right) all showed distinctly positive trends over time for organizations who received corporate funding, whereas those who did not receive corporate funding remained constant over the same time period.”

Here are the problems with Farrell’s database:

  1. Several of the organizations in the database—Canada’s Fraser Institute, the Australian Climate Science Coalition, Britain’s Global Warming Policy Foundation—are foreign entities that may or may not have the same ability to accept grants from American organizations than do their counterparts in the United States.
  2. The database also includes corporate lobbies (the American Coal Foundation, Edison Electric Institute, Intermountain Rural Electric Association) whose press releases and studies are not really comparable with those produced by think tanks.
  3. The database includes many organizations that are conservative or libertarian, but whose primary activity is not dealing with environmental matters. For example, one entry in the database is for the International Republican Institute, which is an entity affiliated with the National Endowment for Democracy whose primary activity is passing through government grants to promote democracy. The Institute for Humane Studies primarily deals with efforts to enhance the education of undergraduate and graduate students. These groups may occasionally deal with environmental matters, but not consistently in a way the Competitive Enterprise Institute or the Heartland Institute do.
  4. The database includes several large think tanks—AEI, Heritage, Cato, Hoover—which try to look to the long term rather than the short term. They may not address some of the topics that Farrell says are a priority of the petroleum paymasters. They might also have fellows permanently on payrolls who decide to shift from one issue to the next, rather than receiving grants for a particular issue.

Farrell recognizes that his database has limits. “The strong correlational events provided here cannot untangle with certainty all of the microlevel causal processes.” I translate “microlevel causal processes” as “how grants were given.”

Justin Farrell’s paper provides a new way to look at grantmaking, but that doesn’t mean it’s persuasive. What is the evidence that the International Republican Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the Fraser Institute ever marched in lockstep on anything?

Liberals would be more persuasive if they looked on the ideas produced by climate skeptics, rather than endless theorizing about hidden manipulation, which may or may not be occurring.

P.S. I note that Farrell’s editor for this article is Theda Skocpol, a distinguished historian of welfare and an unapologetic democratic socialist. What is she doing editing social science research?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *