Future Tense

Researchers: Exxon, Koch Family Have Powered the Climate-Denial Machine for Decades

An activist holds a banner as she takes part in a global climate march outside City Hall.
An activist holds a banner as she takes part in a global climate march outside City Hall, Nov. 29, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Right now, nearly every leader of nearly every country in the world is gathered in Paris for perhaps the most ambitious and meaningful negotiations humanity has ever undertaken. But if you haven’t heard much about it, you’re not alone. Summing up the climate change conference’s first day for the New Republic, Jonathan Katz was understandably dispirited:

That the build-up to these negotiations to assure humanity’s continued survival on Earth were overshadowed in the U.S. by the latest battle between jihadists and everyone else, the interminable presidential primary, Thanksgiving, the college football playoff draw, and on and on tells you a lot about how we got to this point.

Of course, a major reason the world has delayed meaningful action for 21 years has been a single political party in a single country: the GOP.

It wasn’t always this way. Speaking in 1990 at Georgetown University, President George H.W. Bush said, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways.” Even today, a majority of conservative Republicans believe that climate change is happening and humans are at least partly responsible. 

And yet, you have virtually all the current crop of Republican presidential candidates furthering a message of denial and delay and uncertainty. The latest line, which Marco Rubio professed in a recent debate, is that, somehow, saving the planet isn’t a good return on investment. Why are all these smart people professing such an irrational and flawed belief?

One sociologist thinks he has the answer. Justin Farrell, a professor at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has published two sets of results this week from an analysis of “all known organizations and individuals promoting contrarian viewpoints, as well as the entirety of all written and verbal texts about climate change from 1993–2013 from every organization, three major news outlets [the New York Times, the Washington Times, and USA Today], all US presidents, and every occurrence on the floor of the US Congress.”

By machine-reading this massive amount of information—more than 39 million words—Farrell was able to link a significant amount of the most resonant denialist rhetoric over the last two decades directly to two entities that have derived a significant amount of their wealth from exploiting fossil fuels: ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundations.

To conduct this research, Farrell constructed a comprehensive social network of the producers of contrarian climate information—some 4,556 individuals and 164 organizations—and tracked the most common phrases shared among them, like “CO2 is good” or “Al Gore.” He then examined the funding ties between companies and compared them with the use of common phrases. After analyzing them all, he found that donations to organizations from ExxonMobil and the Koch foundations were “the most reliable and theoretically important across-time indicators of corporate involvement”—including the ability to influence the mainstream media and the president.

Chart of organizations that have received oil donations
Farrell’s analysis of the climate change contrarian network shows that organizations that have received funding from ExxonMobil or the Koch family foundations clustered in green near the center.

Justin Farrell/Nature Climate Change

Farrell’s work finds that Exxon and the Koch brothers and other entities like them form the heart of the American climate denial machine. Interestingly, Farrell found that it didn’t matter how much money organizations received from Exxon or the Koch brothers. Instead, donations of any amount boosted that organization’s “network power”—and its subsequent influence on the overall promulgation of climate change denial rhetoric.

Frequency of occurrence of climate denialist memes for organizations with corporate funding (red) and without corporate funding (black).

Justin Farrell/Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences

ExxonMobil has refused to publicly acknowledge its role in funding climate change denial. Last month, after a series of high-profile journalistic reports, the New York attorney general launched an investigation into Exxon’s public statements under the premise that it may have violated the law by downplaying the risk of continued fossil fuel burning. As reported in Politico on Monday, Exxon has begun to harass some of those journalists and sent a letter to the president of Columbia University in which it seemingly threatened to withdraw its support for the school. In a tweet Tuesday, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the letter an “absurd” example of corporate intimidation. Update, Dec. 2: The dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism has responded to Exxon’s letter, saying the Exxon’s allegations of journalistic misconduct “are unsupported by evidence.” 

Farrell says that, so far, no one from Exxon or the Koch foundations have contacted him. “In all honesty, I suspect that they might be pleased to see that their seed money was effective. From their perspective, their actions are not all that surprising, and are even financially rational, given what they stand to lose.”

In emails to Slate, other researchers whose work focuses on analyzing climate denial corroborated the importance of Farrell’s new research. Naomi Oreskes called Farrell’s results “a very full and definite picture” of the connections between organizations that create climate denialist rhetoric and their corporate sponsors. “It proves beyond any doubt that ExxonMobil has not been a good corporate citizen, simply giving us the energy that we want, but that they have actively worked to spread disinformation and undermine the sensible climate policies that they claim, disingenuously, to support,” Oreskes said. John Cook, whose website skepticalscience.com has become a de-facto clearinghouse for exposing climate denial memes, called Farrell’s research a “crucial piece of the puzzle.”

Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, has examined the conspiratorial overtones of climate denialist bloggers and rhetoric around global warming. In calculations for Slate, Lewandowsky figured that, assuming a social price of carbon of $40 per ton, the denial movement may have cost the global economy a minimum of $2 trillion in the last decade alone.

It’s not more or better science that will challenge this sort of vicious cycle of misinformation—it’s public outrage. Like the tobacco industry decades ago, the fossil fuel industry is living in a world where it feels like it can operate largely unchecked, to the detriment of most everyone else. Until burning oil and coal become as utterly repulsive as smoking cigarettes is now, there’s reason to believe global emissions will keep inching up, putting the future climate further in peril.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Paris climate talks.