We are at a critical juncture, as a backlash appears to be derailing action on climate change. If progressive groups want to address this threat, we need to understand the interests, strategies, and cultural politics at play.

Brian Flannery, chief climate strategist for ExxonMobil, recently circulated his rather depressing report from the UN climate August negotiations in Bonn regarding the future of the Kyoto Protocol. After the failure to reach agreement last December at Copenhagen, the plan was to encourage countries to sign up to the bare-bones Copenhagen Accord and build momentum for a treaty this December in Cancun, Mexico. But according to Flannery, “Governments and the Secretariat have been lowering expectations for a legally binding agreement, or even substantive progress, at CoP 16 in Cancun. Attendees were well aware of setbacks to climate legislation in Australia, Japan and the USA. The Bonn meeting continued to dampen expectations.” Flannery observed that the discussions continue to be deadlocked over fundamental issues, and that the consensus is that “Cancun at most will produce CoP decisions, not a legally binding treaty”. There even seems to have been some backsliding regarding REDD (forests) and the Technology Mechanism, while “the status of CDM going forward may be questionable”.

This news comes at the end of a summer that has seen record temperatures in the Eastern US and Europe, floods in Pakistan, and an iceberg four times the size of Manhattan breaking away from the Petermann ice shelf on Greenland. Global average temperatures in 2010 are on track to be the highest ever, and the Arctic is melting at an unprecedented pace, stirring fears of major shifts in the jet stream and global weather patterns. How can we square the ever-mounting evidence of climate change with national and global policy paralysis?

During the 1990s, it was easy to blame business lobbying and public misinformation campaigns for US inaction. But this explanation seemed less tenable after the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) collapsed in early 2000 (see my earlier post). Some former GCC companies have since joined more progressive organizations that espouse sustainability and support action on climate, such as the Pew Center Business Environmental Leadership Council and the US Climate Action Partnership (though there have also been some recent high level defections). I suggested that business had called a ceasefire in the carbon wars and was joining the grand “Carbon Compromise”. A weak carbon regime would not threaten core business operations in the short-to-medium term, leaving adequate time and resources for longer-term strategic repositioning as the climate issue plays out.

Even Exxon, historically the strongest opponent of mandatory carbon controls, has shifted its stance, and now calls for a carbon tax (instead of a cap-and-trade system) while investing heavily in biofuels. Flannery’s report from Bonn was not celebrating the political quagmire; at this stage, big business is looking some regulatory predictability, so that it can plan investments. Flannery commented that:

By and large business groups would like to see focus on some issues, such as the Technology Mechanism and Finance, if only to build trust and create some tangible progress.  Business is also involved in a dialog session… to explore establishing a recognized process for formal business input to the UNFCCC.

Conventional wisdom holds that the political stalemate over climate stems in large part  from the dramatic rise in populist climate denial and opposition to any policy measures that would raise fuel prices during a tough recession. Public opinion polls in the US and the UK show a dramatic jump in the last year in the percentage of people who don’t think that climate change is a priority issue. Climategate and last year’s unusually cold winter in Europe and the eastern US fired up the rhetoric of climate deniers, and their voices have been channeled to mass audiences through the tabloid press and talk radio.

The populist climate backlash is not, however, a purely organic movement driven from the grassroots. Rather, it’s been organized and nurtured through a carefully crafted and well funded strategy. This second wave of corporate opposition emanates more narrowly from the oil industry. As I discussed in Carbon Wars II: The Sequel, last year the industry front-group Energy Citizens contracted with a professional events management company to plan about 20 large rallies against carbon regulation during August 2009, with a focus on energy producing southern states such as Texas and Louisiana. Member companies encouraged their employees to join in. Energy Citizens’ website proclaims that it is “a nationwide alliance of organizations and individuals formed to bring together people across America to remind Congress that energy is the backbone of our nation’s economy and our way of life.” In fact, Energy Citizens was set up and financed primarily by the American Petroleum Institute (API), with support from the National Association of Manufacturers and other groups. This project complements a massive increase in lobbying efforts by the fossil fuel industry in the last six months.

The groundwork for the climate backlash had been well prepared. Jane Mayer describes  in the New Yorker how the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch (pronounced ‘Coke’) have for decades funded organizations fighting regulation and taxes. Mayer’s article has caused quite a stir (see here and here), and anyone who wants to understand the flows and contours of power in the US and the rise of tea party politics should read the full version. Particularly remarkable is the Koch brothers’ focus on environmental regulation and climate change, and the way they have stitched this campaign into the broader right-wing agenda to attack the Obama administration.

The Koch brothers own Koch Industries, a Wichita, Kansas based private conglomerate  with annual revenues of around $100 billion, including a number of oil refineries and thousands of miles of pipelines. The brothers have a combined personal fortune of about $35 billion, a little behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, but more than enough to support a range of right-wing libertarian organizations. It was the Kochs who funded the 1977 launch of the Cato Institute, a think tank that has risen to prominence in the media as a source of anti-regulatory comment. According to Mayer, since 1980:

they poured more than a hundred million dollars into dozens of seemingly independent organizations. Tax records indicate that in 2008 the three main Koch family foundations gave money to thirty-four political and policy organizations, three of which they founded, and several of which they direct. The Kochs and their company have given additional millions to political campaigns, advocacy groups, and lobbyists….. So far in 2010, Koch Industries leads all other energy companies in political contributions, as it has since 2006.

The focus on the environment isn’t surprising, as a report earlier this year from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. A Greenpeace report from this spring provides details on the Kochs’ funding of climate denial organizations, and “showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups.” In addition to high profile think tanks such as Cato and Heritage, The Kochs have funded more obscure organizations, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, which Mayer states, “opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools.” Some of these groups have played a key role in hyping the “climategate” affair regarding leaked emails from climate researchers.

Other foundations such Olin and Richard Mellon Scaife, have been funding right-wing think tanks for years, helping to seed and legitimize these ideas in policy circles and the media. The Koch brothers were pioneers, however, in grassroots organizing, or at least the appearance of it. In 1984, they created Citizens for a Sound Economy, in 1990 Citizens for the Environment (which claimed that most environmental problems are myths), and in 2004 Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which has played a key role in the rise of tea party politics. To some degree, these organizations are astroturf front groups, run by lawyers and PR companies, with very few real citizens. But increasingly they are engaged in “grasstops” organizing as well, which involves recruiting and training thousands of people at the local level who are or can become leaders in their churches and communities. Mayer interviewed Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party advocacy group, who said the mission:

was to take these heavy ideas and translate them for mass America. . . . We read the same literature Obama did about nonviolent revolutions—Saul Alinsky, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. We studied the idea of the Boston Tea Party as an example of nonviolent social change. We learned we needed boots on the ground to sell ideas, not candidates.

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation has held more than eighty events targeting climate legislation, complementing the work of Energy Citizens, and similar actions against health care reform. According to Grover Norquist, also interviewed by Mayer, these events have had a cascading impact:

last summer’s raucous rallies were pivotal in undermining Obama’s agenda. The Republican leadership in Congress, he said, “couldn’t have done it without August [2009], when people went out on the streets. It discouraged deal-makers”—Republicans who might otherwise have worked constructively with Obama. Moreover, the appearance of growing public opposition to Obama affected corporate donors on K Street. “K Street is a three-billion-dollar weathervane,” Norquist said. “When Obama was strong, the Chamber of Commerce said, ‘We can work with the Obama Administration.’ But that changed when thousands of people went into the street and ‘terrorized’ congressmen. August is what changed it. Now that Obama is weak, people are getting tough.”

Tea party activism has elevated climate change to the status of a litmus test of cultural politics in the US, up there with abortion, guns, god, gays, immigration and taxes. A local Tea Party Group in Erie County, Ohio, recently sent candidates for this November’s elections a 15-point questionnaire to help identify the true believers, on which question 2 reads: “The regulation of Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere should be left to God and not government and I oppose all measures of Cap and Trade as well as the teaching of global warming theory in our schools.”

The success of anti-climate politics illustrates the dynamic complexities of power in our society. Money is important, of course, but so is the effective molding of ideas. Crucial as well is building organizations and alliances that can mobilize people’s energies, generate resources, and influence policy. In my academic work, I’ve built on the work of Niccolò Machiavelli and Antonio Gramsci and developed the concept of ‘strategic power’, the ability to study a political arena and deploy resources in a way that integrates economic, cultural, and political forces to create real change. For Gramsci, political struggle takes place largely in the realm of ideas and culture, which in turn are rooted in the mass media, people’s daily lives at work and play, and civil society organizations such as the church and community groups. Ideas become powerful when they become part of “common sense”, when they are linked together in a way that appears coherent and to carry moral and intellectual authority. This linking together of ideas as part of a broader ideology also helps to glue political alliances together.

The Koch brothers obtain their legitimacy, in part, through their generosity to cultural and medical causes, particularly in New York. David Koch recently donated $2.5 million toward the upcoming season of the American Ballet Theatre, and in 2008 gave $100 million to modernize and rename Lincoln Center’s New York State Theatre building. Illustrating Gramsci’s point that culture and politics are inseparable, David Koch has given $20 million to the American Museum of Natural History, on which he also serves as a trustee. According to Joe Romm, the David Koch Hall of Human Origins spins climate change as a purely natural phenomenon that has stimulated the evolution of humans into the smart, adaptable strategists we are. This might be amusing were the human race not displaying such collective inertia in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change.

Perhaps the greatest success of anti-climate politics has been to weave a discourse that resonates with broader cultural-political themes dominant in the US, such as individualism and consumerism, suspicion of government and foreigners, hostility to taxes, and antagonism toward scientific, political, and financial elites. Especially in the current recession, there is good reason for many people to feel angry about bank bailouts and nervous about higher fuel prices when they are losing jobs, even their homes. But as Thomas Frank has explored in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the right have been able to reframe blue-collar concerns in ways that support a low-tax, anti-regulation agenda, despite the most glaring contradictions.

Americans for Prosperity has been training tea party activists do the same thing with climate. Mayer describes how a training session for Tea Party activists in Texas was shamelessly cast as a populist uprising against vested corporate power. “Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests,” it said. “But you can do something about it.” Tim Phillips, the head of Americans for Prosperity, went to the UN climate summit at Copenhagen in December 2009 to stage a protest, where he declared: “We’re a grassroots organization. . . . I think it’s unfortunate when wealthy children of wealthy families . . . want to send unemployment rates in the United States up to twenty per cent.” These messages are amplified and endlessly repeated through the Murdoch media empire, from Fox News to the New York Post, Wall Street Journal, and Glenn Beck.

Politics is a complex and uncertain multi-level chess game, and Koch’s money does not assure a victory for groups opposing climate regulation. The tea party is a tiny and extreme movement, though it seems to inspire fear as the vanguard of a much larger populist backlash. The alliance among elements of the oil industry, the tea party, and the religious right on climate change is somewhat tenuous and full of contradictions. The oil sector is largely owned and managed by wealthy elites, relies heavily on science and technology, receives huge governmental subsidies, and depends on open borders for trade and investment.

Environmental and progressive business groups have also been active trying to stitch together their own ideas and coalitions, not without some success, around win-win approaches to sustainability. The appeal to mobilize innovation, entrepreneurship, venture capital and carbon markets as a means to reduce carbon emissions, revitalize the economy and generate ‘green jobs’ has proven attractive, helping to forge a loose alliance of business, regulatory agencies, scientists, and the financial sector. We are now at a critical juncture, as this alliance appears in danger of collapsing. Perhaps the elements of US business that have tentatively embraced the clean energy economy now see a larger opportunity to roll back the regulatory state. It’s now more important than ever to develop a climate strategy that reconnects with the needs and fears of business as well as ordinary people battered by the recession.