A new report in the journal Climatic Change details the sources of funding for climate change deniers. The study is the first peer-reviewed analysis of the funding organizations behind the climate change counter-movement.

Environmental sociologist Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University conducted the study during a year-long fellowship at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Brulle found that a number of well-known conservative organizations are at the backbone of the anti-climate change campaign, but that the money these organizations use to fund the counter-movement comes to them as "dark money" or through concealed funding efforts.

The study comes at the same time as the popular reddit.com science community, /r/science, is making headlines for banning climate change deniers from posting on the forum, which has 4 million subscribers, or about the combined circulation of America's two most widely read newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.  

"The climate change counter-movement is a well-funded and organized effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the US government to regulate emissions," Drexel University wrote in a statement. "This counter-movement involves a large number of organizations, including conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians."

This movement, however misguided, has stalled efforts to create solutions to human-caused climate change, Brulle said.

"The climate change counter-movement has had a real political and ecological impact on the failure of the world to act on the issue of global warming," Brulle said. "Like a play on Broadway, the counter-movement has stars in the spotlight - often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians - but behind the stars is an organizational structure of directors, script writers and producers, in the form of conservative foundations. If you want to understand what's driving this movement, you have to look at what's going on behind the scenes."

For his analysis, Bruelle identified 118 major climate denial organizations in the US, then examined financial data the organizations gave to the Internal Revenue Service and data made available by the Foundation Center, a nonprofit group that collects information on fundraising, philanthropy and grant programs.

Bruelle found that between 2003 and 2010, $558 million was made available as grants to 91 organizations with an agenda of climate change denial.

"Money amplifies certain voices above others and, in effect, gives them a megaphone in the public square. Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts," Bruelle said.

There is a not-so-well-funded movement to quell the voices of climate change deniers. In an article published on Grist, the chemist Nathan Allen, who is one of the moderators of the /r/science community, wrote about the decision to ban climate change deniers from the forum.

"As a scientist myself, it became clear to me that the contrarians were not capable of providing the science to support their 'skepticism' on climate change. The evidence simply does not exist to justify continued denial that climate change is caused by humans and will be bad. There is always legitimate debate around the cutting edge of research, something we see regularly. But with climate change, science that has been established, constantly tested, and reaffirmed for decades was routinely called into question.

"Over and over, solid peer-reviewed science was insulted as corrupt, while blog posts from fossil-fuel-funded groups were cited as objective fact. Worst of all, they didn't even get the irony of quoting oil-funded blogs that called university scientists biased," Allen said.

He also offered some insight into the rationale behind essentially banning free speech on a massively popular forum such as reddit.com by noting that "professional climate change deniers have an outsized influence in the media and the public. And like our commenters, their rejection of climate science is not based on an accurate understanding of the science but on political preferences and personality. As moderators responsible for what millions of people see, we felt that to allow a handful of commenters to so purposefully mislead our audience was simply immoral."

Bruelle offers four key points from his research that give creditability to Allen's position:

  • Conservative foundations have bank-rolled denial. The largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. These foundations promote ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.
  • Koch and ExxonMobil have recently pulled back from publicly visible funding. From 2003 to 2007, the Koch Affiliated Foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation were heavily involved in funding climate-change denial organizations. But since 2008, they are no longer making publicly traceable contributions.
  • Funding has shifted to pass through untraceable sources. Coinciding with the decline in traceable funding, the amount of funding given to denial organizations by the Donors Trust has risen dramatically. Donors Trust is a donor-directed foundation whose funders cannot be traced. This one foundation now provides about 25 percent of all traceable foundation funding used by organizations engaged in promoting systematic denial of climate change.
  • Most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. Approximately 75 percent.