The Climate Industry’s Misdirection Campaign

How to delegitimize institutions in service of catastrophism

“If you could control someone’s attention,” asked the famous pick-pocket Apollo Robbins in a 2013 TED talk, “what would you do with it?”

Well, you may use it for misdirection — or the ability, as Robbins described it, to hold an audience’s attention intensely on one thing to distract them from some other thing. It is how a thief, as he demonstrated, can remove a watch from your wrist even as you focus on your hand.

Misdirection is as much a skill of the gentleman thief as it is of politicians and the media, which, in our era of short attention spans and constant flow of information, collude to create what journalist Mark Leibovich once called a “culture of distraction-mongering.” Our individual and collective attention has been artfully focused away from what is going on right in front of us.

We watch a constant flow of reporting on climate change: elite research publications drive media storms — and careers; the IPCC puts out reports with easily downloadable images and flashy movie trailers; weather-tainment channels offer a constant play-by-play on temperature stats; public tensions rise over insurance affordability; anxious youth plaintiffs take to the courtrooms; and the seasoned American political leader, John Kerry, decries the “demagoguery” that impedes progress towards net zero emissions and puts “the whole world at risk” of planetary destruction.

But what we don’t see — what most simply cannot see because it is too deep in the weeds of footnotes, methodological assumptions, and researcher professional networks — is how, behind all this noise, the climate industry is quietly pilfering the legitimacy of our institutions of knowledge and democratic governance.

What the climate political elite say, and what they do

In the summer of 2023, the U.S. Senate Committee on The Budget held a hearing on “Dollars and Degrees” to explore whether funding for research and media from the fossil fuel industry and conservative groups sow doubt about climate change and dampen perceptions of climate change risk.

The framing of the hearing was a masterclass in misdirection. During the proceedings, committee chairman Senator Whitehouse lamented the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which, he posited, led to growth in dark money spending (spending where the source of the money is not disclosed) meant to influence political outcomes, including to undermine efforts to reduce fossil fuel use.

The premise is one that Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has pressed for quite some time, but it stands on shaky ground. Researchers have found that the fossil fuel industry did not effectively manufacture doubt at scale. Rather, it was cues from Democratic elite, exactly the kind on display at the Dollars and Degrees hearing, that rabble roused and fed polarization on climate change as an issue.

The hearing rehashed a story that was made famous by historian Naomi Oreskes and her coauthor in the 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, and was further developed in her subsequent work. The work likened the efforts by the fossil fuel industry to reduce public concern about climate change to those practices by the tobacco industry to reduce concern about cancer risk. In response to the book, Whitehouse implied the government could try the fossil fuel industry under racketeering charges as it had the tobacco industry.

In 2014, Participant Productions, founded by billionaire Jeff Skoll, turned Oreskes’ book into a movie. Participant had previously produced An Inconvenient Truth, featuring former Vice President Al Gore, which fostered heightened views of climate change risk favorable to the climate industry. Skoll and Gore both run sustainable investment firms, Capricorn Investment Group and Generation, respectively. Skoll is straightforward about how his philanthropic and media efforts work in tandem with his commercial endeavors, “each of which is a distinctive lever for achieving transformational social change.”

“Climate change,” as this example illustrates, is as much an industry as it is a collection of scientific observations. It includes a distinct lobby that works to govern investment and technology activities, scientific research, activist litigation, and public relations campaigns. Heightened alarmism about climate change risk is useful for the climate change industry: it helps develop investment opportunities, promotes climate litigation, and shapes the court of public opinion.

The profitability is apparent. Perceptions of climate risk drove remarkable growth in the catastrophe bond market; encouraged venture capital investment into so-called climate tech; supported development of trading schemes in carbon credits, derivatives, and offsets; and created demand for expansion of the climate intelligence consultancies to support analytical interests of various types of financial activities.

And yet leading methods for estimating climate change risk have been developed using controversial methods. For instance, commonly used emission scenarios are outdated, extreme, and misused. Media stories attributing extreme weather to climate change are statistical sleights-of-hand. Where climate change has produced measurable impacts on extreme weather, these effects are marginal and regionally heterogeneous. Meanwhile, the most common concept used in emissions accounting, aggregate global warming potentials, is fundamentally misleading in relation to Paris Agreement goals.

And yet even faulty technical concepts and practices are difficult to move away from because of the climate industry that benefits from them — either directly or indirectly — from the heightened views of risk they support.

Artful maneuvering like Whitehouse’s and Oreskes’ keeps viewers’ attention focused on the fossil fuel industry so that they would not see the bigger truth: Industry’s influence on public understanding of climate change is not in production of reduced views of risk; it is in the production of inflated views of climate change risk.

Climate’s illuminati, and where to find them

Heightened views of climate change risk distract attention from the network of interests that block critique of those views.

Whitehouse 20232015
Whitehouse’s 2023 (left) and 2015 (right) presentations of work by Robert Brulle and coauthors. Spanning nearly 10 years, the images themselves are connected to a different shadowy network supporting heightened views of climate risk- representatives of which were present in the hearing room.

In the 2023 Dollars and Degrees hearing, Whitehouse used graphics reproduced from a research article by the Brown University academic Robert Brulle and colleagues. Whitehouse cribbed similar graphs from an earlier work from Brulle in 2015 for one of his numerousTime to Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor. Both images are intended to depict what Brulle has dubbed the Climate Change Counter-Movement described through his work as a network of organizations that aim to “delegitimate the science that supports the necessity of mandatory limits on carbon emissions.”

The thing is, Brulle himself benefits from the very type of murky networking illustrated in his work and used in Whitehouse’s charts. Indeed, another witness testimony underscored the issue: be careful pointing the finger of dark money because it is “universal in politics.”

The Climate Social Science Network (CSSN), which is co-directed by Brulle and housed at Brown University, backs research to root out “climate obstruction.” CSSN received funding from the High Tide Foundation, a vested interest in methane and carbon credits, and the Sequoia Climate Fund, which branched off from the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund. Influence Watch describes Wellspring as, “an elaborate and secretive network of grantmaking organizations.” All three groups have made donations to organizations managed by Arabella Advisors, queen bee of the left’s dark money.

Of course, it is in the interest of those with businesses that benefit from carbon emissions limits to push for regulatory frameworks protecting their interests.

Just a few months after the Whitehouse’s 2023 hearing, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen gave Sequoia Climate Fund a shout out for banding together with its philanthropic brethren including among others, Bezos Earth Fund and Rockefeller Foundation, to shell out $340 million towards developing United States Principles of climate risk investing, and other related work.

The Principles make reference to a new collaboration between the U.S. State Department, Bezos Earth Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation to establish guidelines for accelerated phaseout of emission sources to create carbon credits. The credits will compensate developing countries for emissions reductions they make by, say, decommissioning their existing functional energy sources.

Although Brulle characterizes these climate activist funding networks as loose, disconnected and having focus only on individual research projects, this stretches credibility. One can see these groups work together again, again, and again to advance their business interests in emissions trading.

Meanwhile, Arabella Advisors organizations fund PR campaigns that create climate crisis messaging. For instance, in 2022 Bloomberg Philanthropies and Sequoia Climate Fund gave money to the Windward Fund, $1 million and $4 million respectively. In the same year, WindwardFund gave $13 million to the climate change marketing firm structured as a non-profit, Potential Energy Coalition. The firm runs the Science Moms campaign targeting mothers and promotes connecting extreme weather and disasters with climate change. Bloomberg and Sequoia both work to advance climate physical risk disclosure practices.

Rabble Rousing

Oreskes is thought to be an originator of the #Exxonknew online campaign aimed at establishing the fossil fuel industry as liable for “climate change damages.” She and her colleagues specifically targeted the court system as a tool of advocacy for their preferred energy policies. Part of doing so was the coordinated development of a cohesive and “compelling public narrative” around climate change to elicit dread in the message’s receiver.

Gore’s advocacy group, The Climate Reality Project, was a front runner in encouraging the news media to change its framing of climate change. The end of one blog and petition reads: “We’re calling on the major networks that bring us the news and help us understand the world to call this what it is. Call it a climate crisis.”

This was not a lone effort, of course. It was hatched at the Columbia University Journalism School and marked by the start of Covering Climate Now, a coordinated media campaign to heighten public views of climate change risk. One of CCN’s niches is a project supporting litigation against the fossil fuel industry.

Elsewhere, the advocacy group, Climate Central, works to spread heightened views of climate change in run of the mill television weather broadcasting. Climate Central organized development of weather attribution studies fit for media rather than science. The studies are now integral to climate litigation.

For their efforts, this mixture of scientists, public relations experts, and lawyers have established the climate litigation industry, for which Oreskes is called in as a consultant. The industry has grown from 884 cases in 2017 to 2,180 in 2022. Most of these cases are in the United States and some leverage children, enveloping them in a business enterprise as it parades them as the latest stars of the climate industry spectacle.

This has itself become a grotesque racket where climate change is introduced to children by “Science Moms” that have distilled their message into cartoon nuclear bombs; the climate alarm narrative leaves (at least some) children sad and anxious; lawyers and advocates use that faltering well-being to advance a political agenda; and leading psychological organizations encourage parents to engage their climate anxious children in litigation.

The most recent addition to this litigious affair is the vision to bring homicide charges against the fossil fuel industry. Maybe, the authors of that vision suggest, racketeering charges can also be brought with the evidence found using recent work co-authored by Oreskes.

Just what Whitehouse had long hoped.

Public, misdirected

Dark money may or may not be a problem the public wants to address.

Concerning however is the extent to which the sprawling empire of the multifaceted climate industry has managed to discredit critique of its methods.

Those who do are dubbed obstructionists, and in no insignificant part by the billionaires moving money around in opaque ways.

Policymakers unwilling to acknowledge this dynamic are also turning their back on genuine problems in scientific integrity, misleading policy, courts, public health research, and threatening food security and development. The public is left with a sea of technocratic propaganda and limited ways to engage because the expertise barrier is too high.

Robbins claimed that “it is not what you look at that matters… It’s what you see.” All around us we look at the massive influence of the climate industry on climate change science and public messaging. But what most see are flashy graphs, dire futures, and get rich quick investment opportunities.

All the while, the legitimacy of our democratic and scientific institutions are being snatched before our very eyes.