By Karen Savage
The conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute has been busily pressing forward with its mission to promote climate denial, using high-profile tactics like full-page ads in major newspapers. But it is also working behind the scenes, filing records requests to dig for information from cities filing climate liability suits and academics studying the topic.
As the science has grown definitive in tying global warming to the burning of fossil fuels, even oil companies have been forced to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus and back away publicly from climate denial efforts. But CEI continues to double down on their mission to claim the science is not settled.
CEI made a splash this week by purchasing full-page ads in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal taking issue with Meet the Press host Chuck Todd and NBC for refusing to give airtime to denialists during his Dec. 30 show about climate change.
The think tank has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry and has long worked to promote climate denial. And as municipalities have begun to sue fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, CEI has filed briefs and launched other campaigns defending them.
According to Kert Davies, founder and director of the Climate Investigations Center, CEI’s most recent push is likely motivated by the increasing number of those lawsuits and investigations of the fossil fuel industry.
“CEI has a personal interest in how these lawsuits proceed because they had a contract with ExxonMobil Foundation from the 1990s—they got over $2 million through 2007 when Exxon abruptly dropped them,” said Davies, adding that he expects lawyers pressing suits against the company would want to see the contracts between CEI and Exxon during that period.
CEI’s tactics go beyond its attempts to sway public opinion.
Last year, CEI sued UCLA to obtain emails the organization said were exchanged between two UCLA climate law professors and state attorneys general offices involved in investigations of the oil giant.
An ethics complaint filed by another fossil fuel industry-backed group in December against then-New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood echoes a report written by CEI legal fellow Chris Horner. The report relied on public records requests to allege that attorneys general are involved in a coordinated scheme by private interests to hold oil giants responsible for climate change. That alleged conspiracy includes Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who is also investigating Exxon for possible fraud.
Horner has also filed information requests with municipalities filing suit against the oil and gas industry, including Richmond and San Francisco. In those requests, he is seeking records related to a climate litigation-related briefing he said took place at Harvard in 2016 between activists, private attorneys and public employees of various states’ attorney general’s offices.
In July, he requested communication belonging to staff members in the Rhode Island attorney general’s office, after it became the first U.S. state to attempt to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate change by filing suit against 21 oil and gas companies. Horner’s request was for communication between special assistant attorney general Greg Schult, senior policy advisor Matthew Lenz and legal experts involved in climate litigation in other municipalities, including attorney Matthew Pawa, Niskanen Center chief counsel David Bookbinder and director of climate policy Joseph Majkut.
Horner is also on the board of directors of the non-profit Government Accountability and Oversight, the organization behind Climate Litigation Watch, which posts public records obtained in an attempt to “expose the network of influence involving the litigation surrounding climate change.”
CEI has used full-page ads in major newspapers in previous campaigns to try to discredit climate action.
In one ad that appeared in The New York Times in 2016, CEI—along with more than 40 signatories—claimed that attorneys general across the country were abusing their power by attempting to silence the “debate” on climate science.
Between 1997 and 2014, those signatories and the organizations they represent received more than $10 million from Exxon and the ExxonMobil Foundation and they received more than $21 million from the Koch brothers, who have long funded climate denial efforts in support of their fossil fuel businesses.
In a press release, CEI said the ads push back on Todd and NBC’s decision to “exclude guests who disagree with alarmists and calls for a real and open debate about the impacts of climate alarmist policies.”
“Sometimes, journalists like Chuck Todd are persuaded to join the activists in shutting down legitimate debate about policy issues and in those cases, we feel a duty to push back in defense of our rights and our policy positions,” a CEI spokesperson said in an email, adding that the organization’s requests for public records are made on their own initiative, and as part of this body of work defending their principles.
“Americans of all political stripes tune into NBC’s Meet the Press with the expectation that the great political issues of the day will be debated vigorously by guests representing a full range of viewpoints,” said CEI President Kent Lassman.
Because CEI does not disclose its donors, it’s unclear who is funding the current ads, but it has previously received funding directly from David Koch, as well as coal giants Massey Energy Company and Murray Energy Corporation.
ExxonMobil was a publicly-acknowledged contributor to CEI for a number of years.
“In 2006, however, ExxonMobil publicly announced that it would cease its support for CEI and a number of other groups,” a CEI spokesperson said in an email.
NBC did not respond to a request for comment.
The ads fit into a long-running strategy to cloud the issue of climate science to the public.
CEI was named in a 1998 email to the American Petroleum Institute’s global climate science communications team as a possible funding recipient in a campaign to implement a “Climate Action Plan.”
According to that plan, “victory will be achieved” when people and the media are convinced there is significant uncertainty in climate science and “media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognizes the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current ‘conventional wisdom.'”
Davies said in addition to potentially having to face an examination of its relationship with Exxon in the course of climate litigation, CEI has other concerns.
Davies pointed to a study published this week showing Greenland’s ice is melting faster than previously thought and a recent Yale poll showing that 73 percent of people in the U.S. understand climate change is occurring and 62 percent understand it is mostly human-caused.
“The evidence is in front of people, the weather‘s messed up, the climate’s messed up, the public opinion is moving away from CEI, and then they strike out at a national news broadcast for not including this extreme minority opinion that there’s nothing to worry about,” Davies said.