Yale Study on Climate and Corporate Funding Confuses Policy Disagreement with Science Denial

Last month, Justin Farrell from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies released a report suggesting that “corporate funding” to more than 160 so-called “climate counter movement” institutions was largely responsible for skepticism about climate science.

One of the groups included on Farrell’s “denier” list was the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), of which Energy In Depth is a program. Readers of the EID blog would certainly agree that the charge of “climate denier” is misplaced, to say the least — unless “denier” means someone who disagrees with radical anti-energy policies that could actually undermine progress in addressing climate change (more on that in a moment).

Unsurprisingly, a closer look reveals that the research is just another part of a broader campaign by environmental activists to harass energy companies for supporting certain climate policies that differ from their own preferences. It’s not about climate science at all, but rather an attempt to impugn the motives of individuals and companies who have different policy priorities.

Here are the top five key problems with Mr. Farrell’s study.

#1: Accuses companies that helped reduce GHGs of denying climate change

In the supplemental section of the report, Farrell names the 164 so-called skeptical groups, which he claims were “identified by prior peer-reviewed research as overtly producing and promoting skepticism and doubt about [the] scientific consensus on climate change.”

IPAA is included on this list, even though the member companies that make up the association have played a major role in the significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

That’s not just an opinion, either. As Energy In Depth has noted many times, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the world’s most prominent body of climate scientists and researchers – has credited the fracking boom and U.S. natural gas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal-drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply and allowed for a more extensive switching of power and heat production from coal to gas (IEA, 2012b); this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (emphasis added)

The Paris-based International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook also pointed out that natural gas is a “valuable component of a gradually decarbonizing electricity and energy system.” In an earlier report, IEA noted that the “decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States in recent years has been one of the bright spots in the global picture. One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.” (emphasis added)

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), since 2005, natural gas has prevented more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted from power plants in the United States.  Meanwhile, by comparison, the use of renewable energy has prevented only 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the air.

#2: Accuses many groups of climate denial who have actually embraced climate mitigation policies

The supplemental section also singles out a number of other organizations for “denial,” but for many on the list, that label is demonstrably false.

Take, for example, the National Petroleum Council, which is an advisory committee to the Secretary of U.S. Department of Energy.  Farrell’s research labels the NPC as part of the “climate contrarian movement.”

In addition to its official status as an advisory body to the U.S. government, the National Petroleum Council has also conducted a number of research projects on climate change, including ones commissioned by Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s Secretary of Energy:

“In 2013, Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy, commissioned studies from the National Petroleum Council (NPC) on three topics – Natural Gas and Oil Infrastructure Resilience, Maximizing the Climate Benefits of Natural Gas, and Arctic Research. The Administration’s goal of moving toward a clean energy economy required in-depth analysis of how industry and the government could strengthen the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure, tackle the issues of climate change and protect the environment. In March 2015, the Arctic Research portion of that report, Arctic Potential: Realizing the Promise of U.S. Arctic Oil and Gas Resources, was published with a key section on the Ecological and Human Environment.” (emphasis added)

Is Farrell suggesting that Dr. Ernest Moniz – and by extension the Obama administration – is a climate denier?

Another organization labeled a “climate contrarian” is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). But that organization’s energy and climate experts have published research on the benefits of a carbon tax.

In a 2007 piece, AEI’s Kevin Hassett, Steve Hayward and Ken Green wrote,

“A program of carbon-centered tax reform, by contrast, lacks most of the negative attributes of cap-and-trade, and could convey significant benefits unrelated to GHG reductions or avoidance of potential climate harms, making this a no-regrets policy. A tax swap would create economy-wide incentives for energy efficiency and lower-carbon energy, and by raising the price of energy would also reduce energy use. At the same time, revenues generated would allow the mitigation of the economic impact of higher energy prices, both on the general economy and on the lower-income earners who might be disproportionately affected by such a change. Carbon taxes would be more difficult to avoid, and existing institutions quite adept at tax collection could step up immediately. Revenues would remain in-country, removing international incentives for cheating or insincere participation in carbon-reduction programs. Most of these effects would remain beneficial even if science should determine that reducing GHG emissions has only a negligible effect on mitigating global warming.” (emphasis added)

Another group listed in the study is the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  In the fall of 2007, CSIS linked up with the World Resources Institute’s Climate and Energy Program to work explicitly on climate change issues.  With the announcement of this program, CSIS explained,

“On the environmental front, climate change threatens to put millions at risk from rising sea levels, disease, water and food scarcity, and instability resulting from mass migration.” (emphasis added)

Experts from CSIS have also published research that describes how a cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax should be developed, and that either policy “is likely to generate a significant amount of money.”

Other organizations accused of pushing climate science “denial” include the Hoover Institution and the George C. Marshall Institute, both of whom have published research describing the benefits of a carbon tax.

Also listed as “climate contrarians”: broadly-focused industry trade associations, such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).  NAM expressed concerns about the costs and feasibility of the infamous Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill in 2009, legislation that was also opposed by Greenpeace.

#3: Author’s data contradict author’s assertions

According to Farrell’s study, there are two main findings from the research:

“First, that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue. Second, and more importantly, that corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time.” (emphasis added)

The author focused on several phrases, looking at organizations that had “corporate funding” versus those that did not. The study emphasizes contributions from “ExxonMobil (EM) and the Koch family foundations (KFF).”

But the trends presented on several of the terms show that the trend of “corporate funded” organizations using those terms was consistent with what Farrell determined to be non-corporate funded. (The black line indicates no corporate funding, and the red line reflects organizations who received corporate funding; charts are taken from the study’s Supplemental Information):

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There were examples where the trends diverged, which largely occurred around 2006 to 2007. That’s an important point, because in its 2007 Corporate Citizenship Report, Exxon announced that it would begin discontinuing its contributions to so-called “climate skeptics.”

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In other words, the use of the terms that Farrell links to climate denial were used more prominently by organizations after Exxon publicly announced it was pulling its funding from those types of organizations.

#4: Yale Forestry School funded by same groups bankrolling #ExxonKnew

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) and the Energy Foundation – two groups that are bankrolling the campaign to investigate policy differences on climate – are major funders of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  The former Dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Gus Speth, is on the board of Bill McKibben, the co-founder of and one of the leading voices calling for government investigations of dissent on climate policy, has called the Rockefeller Brothers Fund a “great ally.”

The Energy Foundation, meanwhile, has given the Yale program at least $400,000 over the past two years to promote “education and outreach to build a clean energy future.”

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Michael Northrop, who is on the Board of Directors at InsideClimate News – another activist group behind the current climate campaign – also teaches at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

#5: Study author, editor have personally attacked opponents of costly climate policies

Justin Farrell, the author of the recent study, has done some pretty eyebrow-raising research in the past, including another study that uses computer models to suggest a link between the Ku Klux Klan and Republicans winning elections in the southern states.   

Farrell’s latest study focused on the attitudes of “Americans who self-identify as politically conservative” as part of its attempt to define what he deemed “climate contrarians.”

The study was edited by Theda Skocpol, a political scientist from Harvard University. Ms. Skocpol released a report in 2013 – sponsored by the Columbia School of Journalism and commissioned by the Rockefeller Family Fund –  that compared opponents of certain climate policies to “extremists.” In the same report, however, Skocpol referred to climate activists approvingly as “highly educated people” who have “invested in a logical, rational-minded approach to governance,” and who are “devoted to spreading scientifically backed messages.”

In that same 2013 report, Skocpol cited research by Naomi Oreskes to help her capture the “role of dissident scientists” in “manufacturing doubt” about climate change. Ms. Oreskes has recently attempted to link policy disagreement with science denial, going so far as to claim that companies or individuals who oppose certain climate policies are “like the tobacco industry.”

In 2012, Oreskes played a key role in a conference organized by other RBF-backed entities, which was entitled: “Establishing Accountability for Climate Change Damages: Lessons from Tobacco Control.”


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