Coal Companies’ Secret Funding of Climate Science Denial Exposed
Peabody Energy—the nation’s largest investor-owned coal company—declared bankruptcy Wednesday. Among the many consequences: the company’s court-ordered disclosures are likely to yield hard evidence of Peabody’s direct links to climate science denial.
After all, that’s what we learned from the bankruptcy filings of two other major U.S. coal companies, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources. The companies’ lists of creditors accompanying their chapter 11 bankruptcy filings both cited known climate science deniers. So far, the bankruptcy cases have not revealed the details of these financial relationships. But there is now no doubt the coal companies contracted with these groups and individuals to either make a donation or pay for services.
This new evidence is important at a time when coal and oil and gas companies are under increased scrutiny about their ongoing climate science disinformation campaigns. ExxonMobil, for example, currently faces state and possibly federal investigations into whether the discrepancies between what the company knew about climate science and what it told their shareholders and the public amounted to fraud.
Of course, there’s no shortage of historical evidence of the coal industry’s track record of deceiving the public about global warming. In 1991, for example, coal trade associations formed a short-lived front group called the Information Council on the Environment that ran a national public relations campaign downplaying the known risks of climate change. All through the 1990s, coal trade groups also were members of the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of companies and business groups that disputed the findings of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and, later on, helped scuttle the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty. And, more recently, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity paid a lobbying firm to send forged letters to members of Congress from actual nonprofit groups, including the NAACP and the American Association of University Women, espousing fabricated opposition to a 2009 climate change bill.
But such coal company connections have been harder to pin down in the current era of so-called dark money. That’s what makes the latest disclosures so noteworthy: They indicate that coal industry disinformation campaigns have continued even as the scientific evidence that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change has only become stronger.
Revealing Creditor Lists
The creditor list for Alpha Natural Resources—which filed for bankruptcy last August—indicates that the company has been especially active in supporting the denier network. As first reported by The Intercept, Alpha—the fourth largest U.S. coal company—has financial ties with a half dozen denier organizations, some which have direct links to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries. The Koch-affiliated groups include Americans for Prosperity, the Institute for Energy Research and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a de facto Koch bank that disburses donations from anonymous, wealthy conservatives to groups that advocate rolling back public health, environmental and workplace protections.
Other Alpha creditors include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which questions the legitimacy of climate models; the Heartland Institute, which is probably best known for its billboard likening climate scientists to the serial killer Ted Kaczynski; and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which convenes conferences for its state legislator members featuring speakers who distort climate science and disparage renewable energy. One of the speakers at a summer 2014 ALEC conference, for example, was Heartland Institute President Joe Bast, whose slide presentation falsely claimed: “There is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change” and “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ... is not a credible source of science or economics.”
The Alpha creditor list also includes at least two individuals with links to denier groups. Particularly noteworthy is Chris Horner, an attorney who is closely associated with a number of nonprofit denier groups, including ALEC, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), the Heartland Institute, the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute (E&E Legal), formerly the American Tradition Institute, and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, another Alpha creditor.
Arch Coal, the second largest U.S. coal company, listed ALEC and E&E Legal in its list of creditors when it filed for chapter 11 protection in January. Just last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company donated $10,000 to E&E Legal in 2014. E&E Legal’s executive director, Craig Richardson, told the Journal the contribution was for “general support.”
Chris Horner’s Coal Ties Disclosed
The exposure of Horner’s financial ties to coal companies is significant because he is a regular guest on Fox News Channel, which identifies him by his affiliation with CEI or E&E Legal but not by his connection to the coal industry.
Despite his lack of scientific expertise, Horner routinely critiques scientific findings, has called for spurious investigations of climate scientists affiliated with the IPCC and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and has harassed scientists by filing intrusive open records requests with the universities where they work. As legal counsel for the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic—which work in tandem—Horner has targeted a number of leading climate scientists, including James Hansen and Katharine Hayhoe. Perhaps his most notorious lawsuit was against the University of Virginia to obtain emails, draft research papers, handwritten notes and other documents related to the work of Michael Mann, lead author of the famous “hockey stick” study demonstrating the link between increased fossil fuel use and rising global temperatures. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the university and Mann, affirming the school’s right to protect the privacy of its researchers from overly broad open records requests.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Alpha paid Horner $18,600 before it declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic—an Alpha creditor—paid him $110,000 in 2014, $115,865 in 2013 and $60,449 in 2012, according to the clinic’s tax filings.
Besides Alpha and Arch Coal, Horner has ties to other coal companies. Last summer, he was a featured speaker at a private $7,500-a-person golf and fly-fishing retreat sponsored by Alpha, Arch Coal and four other coal companies: Alliance Resource Partners, Consol Energy, Drummond and United Coal. After the event—the 2015 annual Coal & Investment Leadership Forum—attendees received an email from the coal company CEOs praising Horner, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonpartisan political watchdog group that first reported the connection between Arch Coal and E&E Legal. “As the ‘war on coal’ continues,” the email stated, “I trust that the commitment we have made to support Chris Horner’s work will eventually create a greater awareness of the illegal tactics being employed to pass laws that are intended to destroy our industry.”
Given the recent spate of bankruptcies, the companies’ commitment to Horner likely will create a greater awareness of something quite different: that the coal industry—along with the likes of ExxonMobil and Koch Industries—is still funding denier groups to spread disinformation about climate science and delay government action. It is time we held these companies accountable.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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