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Brown Climate and Development Lab brings new wave of climate change countermovement research to DC

The CDL Shifts: Climate and Energy Influence Networks in the United States

By Timmons Roberts, Director, and the Climate and Development Lab

While at the United Nations climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany in November 2017, the Brown University Climate and Development Lab realized that the struggle for climate change action would have to be addressed at home first. President Trump had announced earlier in the year that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a climate diplomacy milestone whose painstaking negotiation we had witnessed two years prior. It was time to head back home, time to entirely revise the lab’s research agenda and strategy and focus on getting the United States moving on this problem that threatens our society’s very existence.

The lab’s new research focus is on the actors and networks who have successfully blocked our nation from taking adequate action on climate change. Popular understanding of who those actors are is limited: most people jump to the Koch Brothers and Exxon-Mobil as the leaders. The story is far more complex, as our Fall 2018 report titled Countermovement Coalitions showed-- and which our current work mapping the climate change countermovement, investigating the public relations and electric utility industries, and tracking state-level lobbying expenditures confirm. The goal of our current approach is to provide a roadmap to the public and policy-makers, parsing out the money flows, organizations, personnel, and strategies being mobilized to block action on climate change at the national and state levels.

In late October this year, we travelled to Washington, DC to learn from senators, congresspeople, and their staffs, as well as journalists, activists, and other experts in the trenches of climate action, about how public policy machinery in our country really works. In the process, we had the opportunity to brief our research findings to figures at the frontlines of shaping policy and discourse around climate change. What follows are brief summaries of the four projects we put in the hands of key actors, and which we are developing into briefings and articles for the peer-reviewed literature.


Networks of Opposition: A Structural Analysis of Climate Change Countermovement Coalitions

Visiting Research Professor Bob Brulle

To expand the map of key actors involved in stopping climate action beyond just the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil, Visiting Professor Robert Brulle examined a sample of twelve major anti-climate action coalitions from 1989 to 2015. While these coalitions involved over 2,000 organizations, a large majority of the organizations only belonged to one coalition. The 179 organizations which belonged to two or more coalitions form the core of the anti-climate action movement. This group of 179 organizations largely fell into three groups: coal, railroads, and electric utilities, the oil and gas industry, and the conservative movement. These coalitions have mobilized when efforts to act on climate change have gained political traction. There was a large effort to stop climate action surrounding the Kyoto treaty in 1997, around Senators McCain and Lieberman’s Climate Stewardship Acts of 2003-2004, and then again in 2007 and 2008 to oppose climate action leading up to the 2008 election. When the Republicans took control of the House in 2010, many of the coalitions disbanded due to a lack of threat of climate action.

What this analysis ultimately shows is that opposition to climate action is not just based on ExxonMobil or the Koch Brothers network. Rather, there are three communities, each working to shape climate policy in its own interests and to oppose mandatory carbon reductions. These are the major oil companies, working primarily through API, the conservative movement, centered on the Koch network and conservative think tanks, and coal, rail, and electric utilities, operating through large coalitions. To address this multifaceted effort requires a strategy that recognizes the complexity and diversity of anti-climate action efforts.


The Public Relations Industry’s Role in Shaping Countermovement Messaging

Cartie Werthman ‘21 (leader), Olivia Williams, Eve Lukens-Day, and Kimberly Collins

The coalitions identified above direct an enormous percentage of their spending towards public relations campaigns. Behind the scenes, leading public relations firms have largely reframed the discourse around climate action to benefit the climate change countermovement. In order to understand these long overlooked actors in the countermovement, this research team profiled twelve of the public relations firms most implicated in climate change denial and the delay of climate action.

The amount of money involved in these highly coordinated public relations campaigns was staggering. The American Petroleum Institute, which was identified in Brulle’s research as a key player in the countermovement, spent more than $50 million per year on public relations over the last decade. An analysis of energy trade groups’ 990 tax forms revealed that fossil fuel trade groups spent fifteen times more on public relations than the four largest renewable energy trade groups combined.

The highly lucrative contracts between the countermovement and public relations firms often last multiple years and entail a variety of tactics: astroturf front groups, greenwashing, and personal attacks against their opposition. In fact, several of the astroturf front groups profiled in the CDL’sCountermovement Coalitionsreport were run largely by large public relations firms. They can be effective opposition to climate legislation: on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute, the PR firm Edelman created the front group Energy Citizens, which presented itself as a citizens group when it organized 20 rallies around the country to protest the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act during the August congressional recess. When some of these public relations firms faced scrutiny for these climate denial campaigns, they quickly transferred the fossil fuel accounts to subsidiary firms in order to avoid public backlash. Without the work of these leading public relations firms, the climate change countermovement would not have been able to frame the climate action discourse around denial and delay to the extent it has.


Countermovement Utilities: An American Industry in Flux

Cole Triedman ‘21 (leader), Jessie Sugarman, Andrew Javens, David Wingate

The coal-rail-utility cohort identified in Professor Brulle’s research is not necessarily surprising: they represent three carbon-intensive industries that have driven the extraction, transportation, generation and distribution ofAmerica’s primary historical source of energy. This project focuses on this cohort, profiling ten electric and natural gas utility companies historically active in the climate change countermovement. It investigates business and political relationships with coal and rail companies and interrogating their future energy generation plans. Our research found that many of the same coal companies (Peabody Energy, Murray Energy, and Alliance Resource Partners, among others), and almost exclusively the same four rail companies (BNSF, CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern), were doing business with the profiled utilities-- again and again. Furthermore, through the membership, leadership, and funding of the same business associations, think tanks, and climate denial coalitions, this elite cohort of companies have coordinated on anti-climate efforts for decades. Several of the country’s most formidable climate denial groups, including active denial juggernaut America’s Power, are in fact dominated by this industry trio.

In 2019, ignoring the threats of climate change is no longer economically viable for even the most carbon-intensive industries. To that end, each of the ten utility companies profiled have recently published seemingly ambitious emissions reductions plans, many planning to reduce emissions by 80% or more by 2050. Our analysis of these documents find: 1) Each company plans for reduced coal use, 2) Each plans for aggressive investment in natural gas infrastructure, 3) Most plan for greater shares of natural gas-fired electricity generation compared to renewable energy, and 4) Most cite not-yet-marketable technological innovations in their emissions reductions plans. While the utility industry’s departure from coal may point towards a fracturing of the historically well-coordinated coal-rail-utilities cohort, its demonstrated future reliance on natural gas infrastructure and innovation calls their decarbonization commitments into question.


Discourses of Delay In Massachusetts Climate Lobbying and Testimony

Professor Timmons Roberts and Galen Hall ‘20 (leaders), Trevor Culhane, Dana Kurniawan, Derek Russell

Research on climate and energy politics in Massachusetts revealed a microcosm of the same dynamics that play out at the national level. Massachusetts once led the pack of states addressing climate change through legislation with its passage of the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, but progress has stagnated in recent years. This delay comes at a critical time for climate action, and despite multiple popular campaigns for more ambitious clean energy legislation from citizens’ groups. In that context, this group’s study asked: Who are the actors pushing for and against more ambitious climate policy in Massachusetts? How do they make their case in public? And what tactics do they employ privately?

This group analyzed the public testimony that environmental groups and others gave at hearings for climate and energy legislation over the past six years, as well as testimony given by opposition groups. This testimony was categorized into different discourses, such as appeals to social justice or economic efficiency, which we used to qualitatively describe the way different coalitions advocated in public. Using a public database of lobbying activity in the state, the group compared the prominent actors who submitted public testimony to those who engage in the most lobbying. While environmental groups publicly testify far more than utilities and energy companies, the latter vastly overshadow environmental groups in terms of lobbying. The three largest utilities in the state each spend over $50,000 per year at the State House, for instance. These findings, combined with information from multiple expert interviews, paint a picture of political stagnation caused by entrenched utility and energy companies operating behind closed doors.


ExxonMobil Charitable Giving Practices

Visiting Research Professor Bob Brulle (leader), Brett Cotler, Celia Hack, Finn Lowden

While Robert Brulle’s work has found that the climate change countermovement involves far more actors than just the Koch network and ExxonMobil, it is undeniable that ExxonMobil has been a leader of the countermovement. Since the 1980s, one of the primary mechanisms that the multinational oil giant has used to push climate denial is charitable giving. This research group is working to build a comprehensive database of Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil’s charitable contributions from 1980 to the present, and plans to examine the charitable giving practices of other major fossil fuel corporations in the future. The preliminary report specifically analyzed Exxon and Mobil contributions to institutions of higher education from 1980 to 1988, the year when James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gave his public testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the dangers of climate change-- the first such testimony to draw national attention.

Although fossil fuel corporations’ efforts to sow seeds of doubt extend far beyond university campuses, their efforts to build relationships with the nation’s premier institutions of higher education have profound consequences. Some instances of the consequences of ExxonMobil’s donations include the ability to influence what topics and technologies are researched at universities. If universities attempt to advance unfavorable research, ExxonMobil can withhold decades-long donations that departments depend on to function. In addition, funding for research programs on marine or atmospheric sciences in the 1980s indicate that fossil fuel producing corporations may have been aware of anthropogenic climate change prior to Dr. Hansen’s testimony in 1988. Their donations also could have been used to influence department heads, scholars, and utilize school resources to conduct potentially-biased advanced research in the climate and atmospheric sciences, geology, policy, and Middle East studies departments.


The CDL Looks Ahead

October’s trip was stunningly successful, especially for just our second year traveling to Washington. Our highlights were briefing members of Congress, watching a Congressional hearing titled “Examining the Oil Industry's Efforts to Suppress the Truth about Climate Change” in person, and cooking feasts each night for experts and advocates that quickly became friends. We were effective in raising some awareness of the complex network perpetrating climate denial and delay, but our work has only begun. We will continue with these projects, polishing results, preparing policy briefings, building up our outreach capacity, and distributing our work. The bigger project remains to be done, but it has begun.


The 2019-20 CDL:

Timmons Roberts, Director, Robert Brulle, Visiting Research Professor, Cartie Werthman, Undergraduate TA, Cole Triedman, Undergraduate TA, Kim Collins, Brett Cotler, Celia Hack, Galen Hall, Andrew Javens, Dana Kurniawan, Finn Lowden, Eve Lukens-Day, Derek Russell, Jessie Sugarman, Olivia Williams, David Wingate.

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