Global warming skeptics have been longing for a figurehead to lead their charge since before Al Gore came out with his inconvenient documentary. Last month, several conservative groups in the United States hosted one of the few promising candidates – Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic.
Klaus not only gives these groups a lot of legitimacy, he also helps them raise the substantial sums that they miss now that Big Oil has left them on their own.
After working East Coast audiences in the spring, Klaus hit the road out west in late September. Klaus stopped at medium-size regional think tanks with not much federal leverage, as they openly admit, and did not meet with any government officials.
Starting in Portland, Oregon, Klaus introduced the second edition of his book Blue Planet in Green Shackles at a fundraising luncheon sponsored by Wal-Mart and a local radio station, among others. Not that the book has become a national best seller. Guests who saw Klaus introducing the first edition said he was surprised how small it was. So this time he got one an inch bigger, with a thicker cover. Its publication was funded by a leading center of climate change skeptics, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which last year lost ExxonMobil as the biggest sponsor of its pro-emissions campaign. The CEI had received $270,000 or more a year from the oil company, according to a new report by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit for investigative journalism where this writer is a fellow. Other groups formerly funded from the same source include the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that hosted Klaus in March.
The following day Klaus flew to Seattle, where he helped the Washington Policy Center raise about $500,000, or one-third of its annual budget, at the group’s annual dinner. According to spokesman John Burnes, the center has never received money from oil or coal companies.
Despite the popular notion that Big Oil’s money is abundant among these groups, none of it seems to be reaching Klaus. On the contrary, the president helped the CEI raise $400,000 this spring. A spokeswoman for the Goldwater Institute, another think tank Klaus helped with its annual dining on his last trip, said its event raised about $100,000. The institute, a bit better known than other hosts, doesn’t run a program on climate change but honored Klaus – “a champion of free markets … steadfast friend of the United States and an outspoken advocate for freedom around the world” with its Barry Goldwater Award for Liberty.
“You must be proud of him,” commented its spokeswoman, Starlee Rhoades.
This generous help and self-promotion hasn’t been put on the Czech taxpayers’ bill, according to a spokesman for the president who would not disclose details. Who paid for what and how much remains foggy. Apart from an honorarium of $10,000, the Goldwater Institute’s spokeswoman estimated that all the participating groups paid $21,000 combined for travel costs, a sum that seems hardly sufficient for a presidential tour.
A BIG OIL SUBSTITUTE
According to the Center for Public Integrity report, oil companies started financing climate change “deniers” in 1989. The aim was to produce enough opponents to the scientific consensus on climate change to persuade people that the debate was confused and that the jury is still out on whether global warming is man-made or not. Many of the skeptics were recruited from the same circles that had helped some tobacco companies confuse the public about the risks of smoking.
One of them, Fred Singer, was the principal reviewer of a report by the right wing Alexis de Tocqueville Institution that criticized a government study on the cancer risks of passive smoking. Singer later founded the Science & Environmental Policy Project, which endeavors to dispute the science of climate change. His work resulted in a study distributed in Prague by Klaus’ own think tank, the Center for Economics and Politics.
The center’s executive director, Petr Mach, says it would not refuse donations from energy companies but has never received any, nor has it worked closely with any U.S. group. However, the center published a book by the National Institute for Policy Analysis, another former ExxonMobil beneficiary. In Russia, Blue Planet in Green Shackles was published thanks to a donation by Lukoil, an oil company with strong links to the Kremlin.
A report last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists disclosed that ExxonMobil spent more than $16 million from 1998 to 2005 on groups that criticize the science of global warming. A few years ago big industry groups started backing away from the campaign and the last one, ExxonMobil, pulled out last year. “Over the past several years, we have discontinued contributions to several public policy research groups whose position was diverting attention from the issue,” said Alan Jeffers, an ExxonMobil spokesman. “We felt that we would prefer to focus on solutions and how to move forward rather than this distraction.”
Sam Kazman, the general counsel to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, believes ExxonMobil’s decision to abandon his organization came after a 2006 television ad campaign the group created that featured a little girl blowing away seeds from a dead dandelion with a final tagline that said, “Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution, we call it life.” After the ad aired, politicians sent letters to ExxonMobil demanding that they stop funding CEI, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s report.
The orphaned groups recovered quickly. They found backing from families that reap wealth from the petroleum, chemical, and plastics industries. Over three years, from 2004 to 2006, the Scaife/Carthage foundations, run by the heirs to the Mellon banking, oil, and industrial fortune, gave $15.2 million to global warming skeptics, the report stated. A conservative family donor, the Bradley Foundation, helped with $11 million. Two other foundations backed by Koch Industries, a $100-billion chemicals and refining group, donated nearly $13 million. Most of the like-minded think tanks do not disclose their donors.
NO CALL FROM McCAIN
With the new income stream has come a new strategy. Even the spokesman for ExxonMobil no longer disputes the fact of global warming and Klaus has slightly adjusted his opinions as well. Although his think tank used to promote a documentary denying the global warming theory, the new campaign merely downplays the consequences of warming and stresses that any fight against warming would harm the world’s economy intolerably. “It requires courage to oppose the ‘established’ truth, although a lot of people – including top-class scientists – see the issue of climate change entirely differently. They protest against the arrogance of those who advocate the global warming hypothesis and relate it to human activities,” Klaus wrote in a June 2007 op-ed for the Financial Times. However, he continued, “the adaptability of human society … will continue to increase and will solve any potential consequences of mild climate changes.”
Klaus is a conservative economist but has not done environmental research himself. “I don’t think he [talks about climate change] for money. He truly believes what he says,” said Vojtech Kotecky, campaign director of Friends of the Earth Czech Republic, a Prague-based environmental group.
In his speeches Klaus uses his experience in guiding the country away from its communist past as a reference point when talking about the efforts of climate change advocates. “I spent most of my life under the communist regime, which ignored and brutally violated human freedom,” he told the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in May. “In the past, [this was done] in the name of the masses or of the proletariat, this time in the name of the planet. Structurally, it is very similar.”
Not only does he compare environmental campaigns to UFOs, he even claims they might be worse than communism. This would surprise his Czech constituency. In 2003, the parliament voted him to the top job thanks to tacit support from the unreformed Czech Communist Party. He expressed his gratitude and granted the Communist leaders an official meeting at the picturesque Prague Castle for the first time since the 1989 revolution.
Klaus’ U.S. trip was noteworthy not only for the groups he met. During this election season, Washington, D.C., is usually crowded with foreign statesmen – the Czech foreign minister and his deputies are not an exception – who lobby both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on behalf of their nations. Unlike other visiting heads of state, President Vaclav Klaus was not likely to receive a phone call from Barack Obama or John McCain during his trip. (Nor did Sarah Palin, who is not “convinced” about global warming theory, give him a friendly hug.) Both senators publicly support mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions. The Republican candidate is less sanguine about them, but still he announced his plan to fight global warming this year in none other than that nest of environmental activists, Portland, Oregon. Klaus couldn’t have picked an unluckier place to kick off his latest anti-Gore tour.
Nikola Horejs is a Fulbright Fellow at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.