_Who’s Funding the Climate Change Debate?

The first peer-reviewed, comprehensive analysis of the donors funding the climate change countermovement has documented a rise in “dark money.”

_Robert Brulle

Brulle is a professor of sociology and environmental science in the College of Arts and Sciences who studies the mechanics behind social movements.

Follow the money. It may have worked well enough for reporters prying into the Watergate scandal, but when it comes to 21st-century social and political movements, following the money is easier said than done.

This was the major lesson Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science in the College of Arts and Sciences, took away from his analysis of the climate change countermovement, published in late 2013 in Climatic Change.

The climate change countermovement is an effort by well-funded organizations to shape public opinion on the highly charged topic of climate science and to oppose actions to regulate carbon emissions.

Brulle examined financial data of 118 U.S. organizations involved in funding the climate-change countermovement from 2003 to 2010. His final sample consisted of 140 foundations making 5,299 grants totaling $558 million to 91 organizations.

About a quarter of the money backing the countermovement comes from a number of well-known, politically conservative foundations, Brulle found.

But what was most notable was what Brulle was unable to discover. Though he sifted through all the information publicly available, he was unable to identify the source of about 75 percent of the countermovement’s income. Many contributions are simply untraceable — so-called “dark money.”

One foundation in particular, Donors Trust, provides about 25 percent of all the funding Brulle tracked. It’s a donor-directed organization whose donors cannot be traced, and its share of the countermovement’s funding has risen dramatically, he found.

Climate Change Graphic


Percentage of donations contributed to U.S. climate change countermovement organizations between 2003 and 2010.

At the same time, funds from formerly well-documented sources have declined. For instance, money attributable to the conservative Koch Affiliated Foundation and ExxonMobil Foundation fell to little or none, respectively, in 2008. Brulle notes in his study that this change happened after the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace began publicizing the foundations’ support of the countermovement.

Brulle doesn’t suggest that the presence of dark money in the climate change issue is unique among American social movements. And that gets at the heart of the matter. Brulle’s concerns extend beyond climate change.

“This actually expands out to a concern for democracy,” Brulle says. “If our social movements are controlled by foundations and wealthy individuals, what does that mean for social change?”

The study was just the first of three parts in a larger project. Next, Brulle will examine who’s funding the other side of the climate-change debate, the movement that believes man-made climate change is a real threat and requires action. A third study will compare the two movements and analyze the money flowing on both sides of the coin.

He also hopes to learn more about the connections between the people involved in the powerful foundations through which so much money flows.