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Universities Are Enabling Climate Change Denial. Yes, Brown too.

Original illustration by Noah Bassman

In 2019, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency appointed Tony Cox, a former employee of the oil and chemical industries, to chair the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). Wasting little time, Cox began advocating against stringent air pollution standards. He presided over the committee while the EPA eliminated two subcommittees that advised it, both consisting of the nation’s top air pollution scientists.

Chalking up Cox’s appointment to the well-documented Trump Administration tendency to place pro-corporate, antiscience officials in the top levels of the federal bureaucracy only tells part of the story. Cox embodies another sinister and more secretive trend: Academic institutions are producing the personnel, research, and policy that fuel climate change denial and prevents  mitigation of its catastrophic effects.

Since 2012, Cox has been a contributing writer at the Regulatory Studies Center (RSC), a research center at George Washington University founded by Susan Dudley, the chief regulatory officer for the George W. Bush Administration. Under the leadership of Dudley—who is notable for defending global warming for preventing the next ice age and smog for reducing sun exposure—RSC contributors and staff members like Cox, Sofie Miller, and Brian Mannix have acted fluidly as both the drivers of anti-climate policy and the researchers behind it.

Many of the groups that have funded and employed these scholars are members of the Climate Change Countermovement (CCCM), a phrase coined by Brown University visiting professor Robert Brulle to define the complex web of donors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic centers that fight against action addressing climate change. The network is bankrolled by a small group of corporations and organizations with a vested interest in environmental deregulation, like oil magnates and anti-government ideologues. 

To devise and test new policies that advance pro-corporate, anti-environmental goals, actors within this network co-opt institutions of higher education with ruthless efficiency. This movement is powerful and existentially dangerous and will continue to weaponize the higher education system until universities assume responsibility to stop them.

Funders of climate change denial have baked themselves into mainstream American politics. The CCCM has significant overlap with the well-organized existing network of conserative actors that mobilize to fight government, suppress the right to vote, and empower white supremacists, among other initiatives. Financed and engineered by oil magnates Charles Koch and his late brother, David, these twin networks often operate as one contiguous system. 

First, academic institutions such as the RSC churn out anti-climate research and policy recommendations. Then, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute research and test these ideas, and outreach groups build support for them. The finished products are delivered to federal and state policymakers as policy recommendations. This system is calculated and deliberate; each organization plays a specific role. Actors in the network refer to it as “the Structure of Social Change.”

The Structure of Social Change as it appears in a 2015 document from Americans for Prosperity, a climate change denial astroturf group that classifies itself within the “Issue Advocacy and Education Outreach” section. Here is an explanation of this structure by Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola, authors of the book Free Speech and Koch Money.

Starting at the top of this structure, the RSC is far from the only anti-climate academic center. In 2017, the Charles Koch Foundation donated $25 million to Utah State University to establish the Center for Growth and Opportunity (CGO). 13 of CGO’s first 19 faculty members were hired directly from Strata Policy, a think tank known for opposing clean energy and land conservation, two policy initiatives that are essential to climate change mitigation. Thus, CGO provides academic credibility to existing anti-climate ideology. 

Moving down the pyramid to the “decision makers” section, CGO illustrates the Structure of Social Change in action. According to The Center for Biological Diversity, CGO “vigorously promoted policies to weaken federal protections for America’s public lands in order to dramatically expand fossil fuel development, logging, and grazing.” Brian Steed, a former Utah State student and faculty member who published anti-conservation research alongside two of CGO’s founders, became the deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management in the Trump Administration.

But perhaps no academic institution is as potent and dangerous a spreader of climate change disinformation as George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. George Mason hosts a pair of research centers sponsored by CCCM donors: Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) and Mercatus Center. IHS, where Art Pope is Chairman of the Board and Charles Koch is Chairman Emeritus, is described by Greenpeace as a “Koch Industries Climate Denial Front Group.” A former Koch Industries employee described Mercatus as “a lobbying group disguised as a disinterested academic program,” in a leaked internal report.

Sometimes the law and economics curriculum is corrupted, as noted by a student who reported that a George Mason professor taught from a textbook called Global Warming and Other Eco Myths. More broadly, George Mason exports students and faculty to other anti-regulation and anti-climate organizations, as well as directly into the political arena. In a grant proposal to the Charles Koch Foundation, though not speaking exclusively about climate change denial, IHS confessed, “Imagine, for example, what our graduate student support capability might look like if hundreds of trusted faculty at PhD-granting institutions acted as our agents.”

Susan Dudley herself was a Mercatus fellow for nine years and a George Mason law professor prior to that. Christopher Koopman, the current CGO executive director, was also a Mercatus fellow and received his law degree at George Mason. By preaching pro-corporate ideology and discrediting climate science, IHS, Mercatus, CGO, and RSC are attacking the knowledge and policy that is foundational to ensuring any semblance of a stable future.

Funding this crusade against climate science and climate change mitigation policy are the usual suspects: Charles Koch and the Koch donor network. Charles Koch’s foundations have donated $179 million to George Mason, including IHS and Mercatus, since 2005. In fact, nearly every academic home of climate denial is bankrolled by the same small number of billionaire donors that are almost exclusively white and male. 

Oil giants like ExxonMobil are also prolific contributors. Other like-minded donors who wish to stay anonymous funnel money through foundations like DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which have contributed $363 million to CCCM groups between 2003 and 2018. Overall, CCCM donors are financially abundant but numerically scarce. The top 1 percent of donors to CCCM groups account for 67 percent of grants to those groups, and the top 10 percent account for 94 percent of grants. 

This is one of the Climate Change Countermovement’s central weaknesses: Detach the coterie of deep-pocketed donors from the movement and it collapses under the weight of junk science and unpopularity. Yet ridding politics of CCCM influence remains a tall order—not least because the top groups blocking campaign finance reform, including CCCM donors, are the very same ones who benefit the most from it.

Each university, however, has the autonomy to prevent unscientific and negligent stances on climate change from breaching its walls. First, each university should enforce standards of academic integrity to cut off the production of scientifically impermissible research funded by and affiliated with the CCCM. 

Second, by rejecting funds from the small cohort of CCCM donors, universities can strip climate change deniers of their academic luster. The pipeline of scientific disinformation written on university letterhead would be shut off, and students would be shielded from inaccurate and dangerous curriculum. Once academic institutions formally and publicly turn their backs on climate change denial, the entire movement will suffer from a national lack of reputational legitimacy. The pseudoscientific foundations for climate change denial will be laid bare on the national stage.

Ending the academic legitimization of climate change denial should start right here at Brown. The Charles Koch Foundation donated a total of $1.36 million to Brown in 2020 and 2019 alone. In 2016, Brown began receiving funds from a six-year grant from DonorsTrust likely worth a bit more than $600,000 in total. DonorsTrust was paying Brown in installments as recently as 2020, though Provost Richard Locke has since said that he returned the grant.

Even if these donations are completely innocuous, treating CCCM donors like any other only serves to validate their names and their mission. If DonorsTrust gives money to universities like Brown, why should any other recipient reject their funding? As long as it keeps accepting money from CCCM donors, Brown is actively legitimizing climate change denial.

To distance itself from climate change denial, Brown can employ research from its own visiting faculty member Robert Brulle and alumnus Galen Hall, who recently defined which organizations are in the CCCM in a peer-reviewed paper. Brulle and Hall aggregated a complex dataset of tax forms, publications, website data, and metadata from sources like DeSmog, which resulted in a list of 128 CCCM groups. This study is foundational to a policy written by Scholars at Brown for Climate Action and endorsed by Students Against Koch Influence to prevent Brown from accepting donations from climate change deniers. It reads:

Organizations doing business with Brown University may not knowingly undermine science or science-based policy, nor support organizations which advance disinformation.

The Advisory Committee for University Resources Management (ACURM) reviewed this policy and recommended on February 14th that Brown implement it. However, ACURM’s approval is non-binding; President Christina Paxson and the Brown University Corporation need to approve these policy changes for them to take effect. 

But after the identification of climate change denial groups, universities have no excuse for accepting their money and furthering their agenda. Still, categorizing which CCCM donors deserve to be shut out can be tricky, as many donors who fund the likes of Mercatus also fund good-faith research into legitimate scientific questions.

To solve this issue, ACURM recommended the creation of a national clearinghouse that defines the organizations and donors that promote climate change denial. To enforce the proposed policy and apply the proposed clearinghouse, Brown should include input and oversight from its academic community.

Wake Forest University offers a case study in oversight that Brown should build upon. After a proposal for a new Koch-funded center threatened to strip faculty of power in curriculum and hiring decisions, Wake Forest faculty organized to block donor influence. Noting “the Charles Koch Foundation’s unprecedented effort and documented strategy to co-opt higher education for its ideological, political and financial ends,” including climate change denial, a Wake Forest Faculty Senate subcommittee recommended that the university reject all Koch network funding. This culminated in the establishment of its Gift Acceptance Committee. 

The Gift Acceptance Committee consists of seven members, including both administrators and faculty. It reviews gifts of over $1,000,000 to ensure they do not conflict with the university’s stated mission. If the committee flags a donation that would influence university curriculum, the donation goes before the faculty senate, who vote whether to approve or reject it.

In addition to tasking this committee with determining which donations should be rejected, Brown should further alter Wake Forest’s Gift Acceptance Committee before implementing it. First, a committee at Brown should include student membership. Students at Brown have a rich tradition of informing the university’s values, originating in the student-led push for the Open Curriculum in 1969.

Second, the bar of $1,000,000 is far too high—the Charles Koch Foundation and DonorsTrust almost always contribute to Brown in lesser sums. Faculty at Wake Forest came to the same conclusion as they initially requested a threshold of $100,000. But the Wake Forest administration rejected this value, according to a faculty member who wishes to remain anonymous.

By building upon CCCM research and the structure of the Wake Forest Gift Acceptance Committee, Brown can become a national leader in the fight against climate change denial, rejecting the most egregious donors and flagging others for further faculty consideration. This system can spread nationwide, too. For universities inundated with money and influence from funders of climate change denial, this is a chance to wipe the slate clean. For universities courted by the likes of the Charles Koch Foundation, this is a chance to prevent influence before it begins.

As sanctuaries of scholarship and truth, universities like Brown are well-equipped to combat climate change denial. Enabling it is a matter of choice. Every university that accepts money from donors to the Climate Change Countermovement, as Brown does on an annual basis, helps sacrifice global stability in the future for profit in the present. Universities are failing their mission of preserving knowledge and enabling free inquiry, and they are enabling humanity’s most destructive forces.