Response to Joe Romm’s Statements on Climate Shift Report Analysis of Spendingby Matthew Nisbet on Apr 22, 2011 • 9:07 am 6 Comments
Based on the analysis in Chapter 1 of the Climate Shift report, it is no longer tenable to assert a David vs. Goliath narrative when it comes to comparing the financial resources of the major national environmental groups and their opponents among conservative groups and industry associations. Greens bring in vastly more in revenue, spend more on all programs, and spend more on all activities specific to climate change and energy than these longstanding opponents.
The main story of this chapter (1 of 4 in the report) is how environmental groups, despite a history of differences, came together to coordinate their activities in support of cap and trade and how their composition, strategies, restrictions and activities compared to the longstanding alliance of groups opposed to the legislation. The comprehensive financial aggregation and analysis found in Chapter 1 had not previously been attempted; it is my firm belief that this rigorous examination and synthesis of scholarship, evidence and data is a worthwhile contribution as environmentalists, scientists, policymakers, philanthropists and leaders determine the next steps in making progress on climate change.
The report and its research across dimensions of the climate change debate have been acclaimed by a variety of authoritative and respected outlets. The report has been deemed “essential reading” in an Editorial at Nature and a “fascinating dissection” by the New Republic. Of the media analysis in Chapter 3, the MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker urges that “journalists on the beat need to read this chapter.”
New Understanding of Coordination, Strategy, Revenue, Spending, and Limits
In Chapter 1, reviewing tax returns and annual reports, I collected revenue, overall spending, and climate and energy specific spending for 87 different organizations, 42 on the conservative/industry association side and 45 on the environmental side for 2009, the year for which data is most recently available. These groups were identified relying on previous studies and investigations.
Drawing on dozens of scholarly and journalistic sources, I provide context to these figures by reviewing:
- The diverse composition of national environmental groups in terms of their own ideological outlook and their specializations relative to issue-based activities and efforts at advocacy.
- The nature of conservative think tanks and their effectiveness and efficiency in influencing debate. Conservative groups, for example, could easily fold discussion of climate into a larger narrative about big government, regulation, and taxes.
- The advantages that the conservative side held given a uniformly opposed Republican membership in Congress and a split Democratic membership.
- The limits that the environmental movement – as mostly 501C3 organizations – has on what they can spend on direct grassroots mobilization and lobbying.
- The areas where they can spend unlimited sums such as public education.
- The efforts of the environmental movement to off-set their lobbying limits by forging an alliance called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) with more than two dozen of the world’s largest corporations;
- The pooling of resources and activities by Greens through Clean Energy Works, a coalition of more than 50 environmental, labor, religious, national security and other organizations that employed hundreds of organizers across states and were able to hire the best and the brightest among the country’s political consultants, including Obama’s 2008 pollster and field director, respectively.
- I also note in the introduction to the chapter that despite the tendency to focus heavily on spending, studies show that is only one factor among many that determine the outcome of a legislative battle. As I describe, timing, competing issues like health care, decisions by key leaders, the economy, and the overall cohesiveness of the coalition mobilized in support of the bill all likely played a role in the outcome.
In the chapter, I also review several areas of specific types of spending. In these areas, data only exists based mostly on secondary sources, which are all noted. In each, I am careful to describe where a conclusion can be made about a clear advantage to one side or where too much uncertainty exists to estimate an advantage. These include:
- Lobbying (not possible to determine based on available data, but through their alliances, greens had the potential to dramatically close the gap over past legislative battles.)
- Advertising (not possible to determine)
- General campaign expenditures (conservative side)
- Donations to election officials (groups/orgs supporting cap and trade)
- California’s Proposition 23 campaign (enviro groups and allies).
[See discussion on each below.]
Manufacturing an Endless Debate Over Data and Uncertainty
Based on the complexity of activities and spending that I carefully detail and discuss throughout the chapter, Joe Romm in several blog posts has taken this complexity and created a misleading, horse-race style debate over spending in specific areas like lobbying or advertising. In doing so, he distorts the central analysis, complexity and story offered in the chapter, the major questions addressed in the report, and goes well beyond what the data allows in estimating these specific areas.
To aide his efforts he has turned to Robert Brulle, a long time contributor to his blog, and 1 of 5 reviewers of the report who I invited to provide comments based on his past work and for his political views which I was familiar with through Romm’s blog. My goal in choosing the 5 reviewers was to pair a diversity of expertise with a diversity of outlooks on climate change politics and to feature their input and perspectives across the report.
Brulle demanded that his name be removed from the report in a 1am email the day the embargoed version of the report was sent to several reporters. [More details below]
Romm’s intent as a professional blogger working for an advocacy group appears aimed at making discussion of the Climate Shift report an endless debate over uncertainty and data, all fixed to a supposed personality clash between researchers, a strategy that he often accuses Republicans of doing on climate science.
Below, I provide background on Romm and his longstanding relationship with Brulle and respond to statements that Romm has posted to his blog.
Who is Joe Romm?
Romm is a professional blogger employed by the Center for American Progress (CAP). A former Energy Department official in the Clinton administration, his most recent book is titled Straight Up: America’s Fiercest Climate Blogger Takes on the Status Quo Media, Politicians, and Clean Energy Solutions. Romm has credited Chris Mooney, author of the Republican War on Science, for inspiring his decision to become a professional blogger.
Romm’s blogging is anchored strongly in several of the assumptions that the findings of the Climate Shift report challenge. Below I list several of those assumptions and the findings that challenge them:
- In Straight Up,he writes: “Historically, even the most respected newspapers have fallen into the trap of giving the same credence – and often the same amount of space – to a handful of U.S. scientists, most receiving funds from the fossil fuel industry, as they give to hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists. No surprise that much of the public has ended up with a misimpression about the remarkable strength of our scientific understanding and the need for action.”
- Romm and CAP have devoted considerable resources detailing the activities of the Koch brothers (“the Kochtopus”,) describing their efforts as among the leading obstacles to action on climate change.
- →Chapter 2 of the report finds that despite the heavy attention to the strategic funding influence of the Koch brothers relative to climate change, the major foundations supporting climate action have been every bit as strategic and have distributed more than 10 times as much money than Koch-affiliated foundations.
- Romm is quoted in the The New Yorker article featured in the opening to Chapter 2 of Climate Shift, asserting that the Koch brothers had influenced an exhibit at the Smithsonian and its portrayal of climate change.
- →The New Yorker article is critiqued in the chapter for reinforcing a narrative that conservative philanthropists are more strategic and therefore more effective than their counterparts that support action on climate change.
- Romm has consistently attacked suggestions that a path forward might be to focus on energy insecurity instead of climate change, one argument among many that the report features as deserving greater consideration.
What is the Center for American Progress?
The Center for American Progress is a liberal think tank and advocacy group created by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta , modeled after conservative counterparts the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute. CAP was a supporter of cap and trade legislation.
As I discuss in my report, according to their 2009 tax documents, CAP took in $38 million in revenue and spent $29 million on all program activities, with $14 million of this spending devoted to communication, media and policymaker outreach. CAP also coordinated a 501(c)(4) partner—the CAP Action Fund—which took in $8.9 million in revenue, spent $4.7 million on rapid response communication, public education, and grassroots organizing, and devoted an additional $1.8 million to online communication strategies and blogging. In all, in 2009, the Center for American Progress and the CAP Action Fund spent $35.6 on all program activities and devoted $20.5 million – or 58% of spending– to communication, influence, and mobilization across issues.
How does the funding for the Center for American Progress relate to your report’s findings?
Chapter 2 includes an analysis and evaluation of the nine foundations which focused their funding strategies heavily in support of achieving a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions. The chapter highlights several likely flawed assumptions in how these foundations defined the problem of climate change and made funding decisions supporting societal action. The chapter also discusses the limited focus in the foundation’s 50 page strategy document on what would make for effective communication in the climate change debate [See chapter; Also discussion by another expert reviewer of the report].
Among the funds distributed by these foundations that are publicly available and analyzed in the chapter, $444,000 was given in 2009 by the Energy Foundation to the Center for American Progress to “fund a comprehensive communications campaign that promotes clean energy and climate policies.”
Romm as a professional blogger employed by CAP has been the most prominent and influential voice in this campaign.
Who is Robert Brulle?
Brulle is a professor at Drexel University in sociology and was 1 of 5 academic reviewers asked to provide comments and feedback on the Climate Shift report. As is the norm in reviewing lengthy manuscripts such as books, he was offered an honorarium for his time and efforts, as were all the reviewers.
I sent Brulle an embargoed version of the report on April 13, the day it was also sent to journalists who requested a copy. I had told all of the reviewers that I would send them an embargoed version of the report when it was ready. Reviewers were not asked to sign off on the final contents of the report or media materials. A clear disclaimer is contained in the report saying that the contents are the sole responsibility of the author and that reviewers were not asked to endorse the report’s conclusions or recommendations. This is common practice in academic reviewing of reports and manuscripts.
Brulle, like all the reviewers, received the full report and based on his review and our conversations during the revision stage, I made several rounds of revisions to Chapter 1, additional revisions to Chapter 2 and revised other parts of the report. In all, I spent an extra 3-4 weeks on the project working to incorporate Bob’s suggestions and recommendations.
Indeed, Brulle’s suggested revisions as well as those of the other reviewers are incorporated throughout the report, Brulle’s past work is cited heavily, and his own perspective on the future of the environmental movement is given strong prominence in both the Introduction and Conclusion.
In a 1am email sent April 14, Bob asked that his name be removed from the report as a reviewer. In all caps at the top of the email he wrote “DO NOT FORWARD.” This email has subsequently been posted with Brulle’s permission by Romm at his blog.
When I woke and saw his message, I emailed the report designer to remove his name at his request. I then called him to discuss his concerns and left a message. When Brulle called back, he told me that he believed Chapter 4 was too critical of Al Gore’s role in contributing to polarization, did not spend enough time discussing the role of conservatives, and had overlooked citing studies he had recommended. I told Brulle that these factors have been explored at length across many studies, which I cite and document in the chapter, several of which Brulle suggested. [see more]
At the end of the call, he said unprompted: “Well I don’t know what Joe Romm will do about this.”
Reporters should ask Brulle at what point he had contact with Romm about the report. They should also ask Brulle who else he had contact with about the report before he sent his email on April 14 at 1am requesting that his name be removed.
What is the past relationship between Joe Romm and Robert Brulle?
At his blog Climate Progress, Romm portrays Brulle as an “expert” on a broad range of political events, media coverage and peer-reviewed studies that Romm has attacked, quoting Brulle to back up his claims. All told, Brulle has provided statements or been cited as an authority in dozens of posts at Climate Progress over the last few years.
Many of these past statements by Brulle are challenged by the findings or themes addressed in the Climate Shift report. Here are a few examples of his statements featured by Romm at his blog in the past and the findings from the report that challenge those statements:
- Brulle on Obama’s State of the Union address which was framed in terms of the energy challenge: “By failing to even rhetorically address climate change, Obama is mortgaging our future and further delaying the necessary work to build a political consensus for real action.”
- →The report emphasizes that Obama’s communication strategy and policy focus is one of several approaches that merit greater attention among Green groups, concluding that enviros focused on climate change and groups focused on innovation strategies need to collaborate rather than be at odds.
- Brulle on UC Berkeley peer-reviewed study that shows negative consequences of dire messaging, covered at the journal Nature: “This isn’t a reliable analysis of science-based education. The conclusions drawn from a tiny study don’t support the extravagant claims made in the press.”
- →My own past work, reflected in the report, emphasizes similar conclusions as the UC Berkeley study.
- Brulle on the public opinion impact of Climategate and the downturn in concern since 2007: “The shift in public opinion about climate change is linked to the nature of mainstream media coverage of the so-called “climategate scandal.”
- →Chapter 4 of the report concludes that Climategate had a limited, reinforcing influence on public opinion and more likely influences have been the economy, the policy dependent nature of perceptions, and the polarizing qualities of Republican and Democratic leaders, including Al Gore.
- Brulle on NYTimes coverage: “The New York Times has become an echo-chamber for the climate disinformation movement.”
- → Chapter 3 of the report finds that the NY Times and the other trend-setting national news organizations analyzed have overwhelmingly reflected the consensus views on the fundamentals of climate science.
OVERALL REVENUE AND SPENDING
How did you arrive at the conclusion that environmental groups hold an overall resource and spending edge over conservative/industry association groups?
In the main analysis conducted in the chapter, I sought to estimate the overall organizational resources and capacity of the opposing network of green groups and conservative/ industry association groups.
The 45 environmental groups were selected from among the major national environmental organizations analyzed by political scientist Christopher Bosso in his book Environment Inc: From Grassroots to Beltway, an award-winning study of the history, financing and political strategies of the U.S. environmental movement. The 45 analyzed organizations coordinated their work through alliances such as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the Green Group, Clean Energy Works and The Partnership Project.
For conservative groups and industry associations, the analysis included a list of 42 organizations that had opposed cap and trade legislation, had dismissed expert consensus on climate science through various communication strategies and/or had exaggerated the economic costs of action. These conservative and industry organizations had been identified and analyzed in previous scholarly studies and in investigations conducted by journalists, environmentalists and others.
Estimates on spending are compiled from Internal Revenue Service filings and annual reports. Records from 2009 are analyzed, the year for which data is most recently available. In this year, cap and trade legislation passed in the U.S. House, debate began on a U.S. Senate version of the bill, and international climate accord meetings took place in Copenhagen.
In the majority of cases, environmental groups provided specific information in their annual reports and tax documents on how much was spent on climate change and energy-related program activities. Details and sources of these estimates are provided in the notes to each table and/or in the end notes to the chapter. [More Info]
Figures on spending specific to climate change and energy policy were not provided by conservative think tanks, groups and industry associations. Estimates based on a review of annual reports and web sites are used with details specific to these estimates in the notes to each table and in the main text of the chapter. [More Info]
In total, the environmental groups analyzed in 2009 brought in $1.7 billion in revenue, spent $1.4 billion on program activities, and spent an estimated $394 million on climate change and energy-specific activities. The combined program spending of environmental organizations ($1.4 billion) is almost twice as much as the combined program spending of conservative organizations and industry associations ($787 million). Specific to climate change and energy related activities, environmental groups outspent conservative groups and their industry association allies $394 million to $259 million.
Within this overall spending, what could environmental groups spend their money on?
As Chapter 1 discusses in detail, environmental groups as mostly 501C3 organizations were allowed to spend unlimited sums on public education which includes advertising and communication efforts advocating generally for a need for action on climate change or a general cap on emissions. They could also spend unlimited sums on think tank style analysis and information dissemination.
Apart from contacts from their members, most groups were capped at $250,000 (or less) in spending on legislative mobilization of the general public which involves requesting that they urge Congress to vote for specific legislation and $1,000,000 on direct lobbying. Industry associations have no such limits.
Who did you interview while researching the report?
I engaged in several hours of in-person, off-the-record discussions with senior staff at two of the lead environmental groups in the effort to pass cap and trade legislation. Discussion focused on the reasons for the failure of cap and trade legislation, the role of money and communication, the outlook for where to go from here and what strategies to employ. I also conducted many similar off-the-record discussions with other individuals who had worked on aspects of climate and energy policy and/or who had analyzed the debate.
SPECIFIC AREAS OF SPENDING
How did environmental groups seek to overcome their restrictions on lobbying?
Environmental groups invested in mediation efforts with major corporations, forming the U.S. Climate Action Partnership with more than two dozen leading corporations. [More Info]
What kind of data is available specific to lobbying on cap and trade legislation?
Corporations and organizations are required to register if they lobbied on a bill, but only to report what they spent lobbying across all bills. The Center for Responsive Politics analyzes these reports and makes them available via a searchable database on their web site.
Because of the limits to the available data, just as we don’t know what corporate members of USCAP spent on lobbying specific to the cap and trade bill in 2009, we also don’t know exactly what the US Chamber or API spent either. The chapter in the report is very clear in addressing this. The Chamber for exampled devoted heavy resources in 2009 to health care and financial reform and as is the case with several of the corporations, the Chamber reports advertising totals as part of their lobbying totals. The American Petroleum Institute, for example, also focused on off-shore drilling, labor and safety rules, and wind fall taxes as policy priorities.
How does your analysis provide new insight on the data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics?
This section of the chapter builds on our understanding of the data provided in the past by the Center for Responsive Politics, which has grouped lobbying totals by the Energy and Natural Resources sector versus the Environment sector. In my analysis, I go beyond these aggregate lobbying totals, by looking at specific companies and organizations across many sectors (i.e. financial, retail etc) that registered to lobby on the bill and were on record as supporters or opponents, providing a finer grained understanding of lobbying expenditures. I also unpack the Energy and Natural Resources data, looking at specific groups within this diverse sector that either supported or opposed cap and trade legislation. Here’s how that section to the report concludes, emphasizing the limits of what can be said about the lobbying data:
With the exception of the figures for the environmental groups, this comparison of lobbying expenditures across coalitions should not be interpreted as reflecting the actual amounts spent on cap and trade legislation. Instead, in the aggregate, these totals are representative of the capacity for power and influence that each side could apply in 2009. Through their work building coalitions and alliances, the environmental groups were able to forge a network of organizations that spent a combined $229 million on lobbying across all issues. In comparison, the network of prominent opponents of cap and trade legislation spent $272 million lobbying across all issues. These figures represent a dramatically reduced power difference compared with past legislative debates over climate change.
If major corporations partnered with environmental groups in announcing their support for cap and trade but did not spend resources lobbying in support, what are the implications?
If environmental groups are now saying that the heavy investment they put into forming USCAP and partnering with corporations was for naught, then they should come forward and fully disclose the exact role and resources these corporate partners devoted to the cap and trade battle. This would help inform decision-making as to whether relying on corporate partners is a reliable strategy for the future. If corporate partners cannot be relied on, then it suggests that a big omnibus, regulatory solution bill like cap and trade (i.e. a legislative battle on the scale, if not greater than health care reform) may not be possible and instead other policy paths need to be taken.
This is one of the important implications of the report that has been obscured by the relentless manufacturing of uncertainty and personality conflict by Romm.
Can the lobbying expenditures be accurately re-framed as Romm claims, showing an 8-1 advantage for opponents of cap and trade legislation?
This is not possible from the reported lobbying expenditures as explained above. For Romm to headline his blog post claiming this is simply misleading and is intended to distort and suppress discussion of the major themes addressed in the report.
How did you evaluate advertising spending in 2009?
See section for details. Enviro group advertising focused almost exclusively on the need for climate action or cap and trade specifically, industry associations advertised on a range of issues including cap and trade with the Chamber spending heavily on health care. As I describe, oil companies spend considerable sums on strategically framed image advertising that does not address climate policy directly. In the area of advertising, however, the figures and sources of data are too uncertain to arrive at totals and comparisons for either side. Oil company data is also for 2010 and not 2009. Totals are not aggregated in the chapter for this reason and it is misleading for Romm to aggregate and re-frame these totals at his blog.
How did you evaluate donations to elected officials?
I consulted with the Research Director of Maplight.org, a nonprofit research organization that tracks donations to elected officials across legislative bills. They provided direct links included in the endnotes to their database records that compile donations from groups opposing and supporting the two cap and trade bills. I consulted with the Research Director several times to inquire that their compiled records generated from their database and the 2 year timeframe was valid and accurate, which he confirmed.
Which side held an advantage in spending in the 2010 General Election and in Proposition 23?
From available records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, it is clear that conservative groups hold an edge in independent expenditure spending in the 2010 election and have across past elections. Given Citizens United, the uncertainty over spending rules in upcoming elections, and the vast revenue base for environmental groups described in the chapter, it is not clear what conservative versus enviro/progressive spending will be in the 2012 election or future elections.
This is a discussion that should be happening now and an important implication of the report.
From records compiled by the California Secretary of State, environmental groups and their allies opposing Proposition 23 outraised in donations their oil industry opponents by more than a 2 to 1 to ratio.