Right-wing media falls back on the old “climate aristocracy” drumbeat after failing to defeat the IRA
On August 16, Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the single biggest climate package in history, into law. With its historic investments in clean energy, the IRA is widely considered a surprise win for Democrats ahead of November’s midterm elections, despite major fossil fuel concessions in the bill that will expand drilling and ultimately harm vulnerable communities.
While some oil and gas companies went so far as to publicly celebrate the legislation, Republicans and right-wing media mobilized against it. Now, in an attempt to distract from the realization of one of President Joe Biden’s key campaign promises, right-wing media are capitalizing on a tried and true tactic — trying to discredit the climate movement, and government climate action as a whole, by vilifying certain wealthy advocates for their personal consumption habits.
On August 15, FoxNews.com published emails suggesting that the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation may have helped fund state and local lawsuits against oil and gas companies that seek to hold them accountable for climate change impacts, which occurred as a result of the industry lying about the consequences of burning fossil fuels. This should come as no surprise, given that DiCaprio has long been an advocate for climate action and a donor to climate-related causes.
In 2017, his foundation awarded $20 million in grants to 100 environmental organizations, a small fraction of which went to the Collective Action Fund for Accountability, Resilience and Adaptation. The fund “supports precedent-setting legal actions to hold major corporations accountable for costs associated with the effects on climate of their pollutants,” and was associated with the Resource Legacy Fund, an environmental conservation and grant-making 501(c)(3) organization. Fox alleges that the emails prove the money went through the fund to support Sher Edling, the law firm representing the cities and local governments suing big oil. It’s unclear how much DiCaprio donated to Resource Legacy Fund, but Fox labeled it a “dark money” group in the August 15 piece, suggesting that both DiCaprio and the law firm were unethically forcing taxpayers to cover lawsuits, which would force an industry Fox constantly champions to pay up for decades of deception. The Washington Examiner, Daily Caller, and New York Post all picked up the story.
Fox attempts to tie big oil lawsuits to liberal elitism
Fox News picked up the story, contrasting DiCaprio’s activism, which they framed as deceptive, with his carbon-intensive lifestyle. On Hannity, host Sean Hannity claimed the lawsuits further justified right-wing media’s fixation on DiCaprio: “The climate litigation and Dicaprio's arrangements specifically raises a whole host of legal and ethical concerns, but hypocrisy and bad optics are nothing new for this climate activist.”
On Outnumbered, co-host Kayleigh McEnany recalled DiCaprio’s “apocalyptic quote” from his 2016 Oscars speech on the urgency of climate action while discussing the lawsuits. "He doesn't act” as if climate change is an existential threat, McEnany said, “It has not kept him from traveling across the world on gas-guzzling private jets.”
Jesse Watters Primetime featured Brian Claypool, a lawyer and frequent Fox News guest, who told correspondent Christina Coleman that it was “ironic that Leonardo DiCaprio and his foundation is funding a law firm to sue big oil companies for alleged deception when he him very self is deceiving the public on where these charitable contributions are going.”
During the August 16 episode of The Five, co-host Dana Perino even suggested DiCaprio's donation was “behind the collusion and price gouging of increasing gas prices on Americans,” because oil companies pass on the costs of hiring a legal team to consumers. (Meanwhile, these companies have seen record-breaking profits.)
In general, climate activists on the left have not been shy to criticize the use of private jets by the rich. After the release of DiCaprio’s climate change-themed movie Don’t Look Up, climate journalist Molly Taft wrote in Earther:
"Whenever DiCaprio is in the news for his climate charity work, a right-wing outlet always smugly runs a piece about his private jet use. While these critiques are in bad faith, they do point out their own inconvenient truth that DiCaprio is part of the sliver of rich people who could actually make a real carbon dent if they changed up their lifestyles or gave away more of their money … The actions DiCaprio is promoting as part of Don’t Look Up fail to properly confront power. Celebrity activism is inherently a strange, slippery slope."
Right-wing media appoints climate spokespeople and projects fossil fuel corruption onto the climate movement
It is naive to think that those elevating the story are really concerned about taxpayers, especially when extreme weather driven by climate change costs taxpayers billions every year. Similar lawsuits against oil companies have been moving through courts for years now, and many are currently pending, embroiled in disagreements over whether there is state or federal jurisdiction. According to PBS, “some recent federal court decisions show support for state jurisdiction” in similar climate suits. On August 17, a federal appeals court panel said that two of these two lawsuits belong in state courts, which is considered a win for plaintiffs. One of the plaintiffs is being represented by the law firm Sher Edling.
The same people attacking the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation have brazenly supported fossil fuel industry corruption. According to Daily Kos, Chris Horner, the person who gave FoxNews.com the emails, “is better known for getting paid by fossil fuel companies to target climate scientists with baseless or frivolous and harassing or vexatious FOIA lawsuits demanding they release their emails in an attempt to rerun the Climategate disinfo playbook.” Michael Krauss, a George Mason University law professor who Fox quoted extensively in the piece on DiCaprio, has previously gone after Steven Donziger, a human rights lawyer who was confined to one thousand days of house arrest after winning a $9.5 billion lawsuit against Chevron after the company deliberately contaminated the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and poisoned the Indigenous communities that live there. Krauss called Chevron, which spilled 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and 17 million gallons of crude oil into open, unlined pits, “courageous” for its “persistence” in “defending itself against Donziger,” after it launched a massive smear campaign against him. Notably, George Mason University accepted an estimated $50 million from Koch foundations between 2005 and 2015.
Leonardo DiCaprio is not and has never been an accurate representation of who is the most concerned about climate change, and it is deeply misleading to portray him as such. Nonetheless, Fox keeps attempting to appoint politicians like John Kerry and wealthy celebrities like Prince Harry, Thom Yorke, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the face of the climate movement, obscuring the role of the activists on the ground who have worked tirelessly to pass legislation like the IRA and the millions of people around the world harmed by climate change and environmental injustice.
According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from June, Black and Hispanic Americans and women are among the groups most likely to be “strongly concerned about the impact of climate change on them personally and about how their personal choices affect the climate.”
When things don’t go your way, blame far-left infiltration or a teenager
Right-wing media’s fixation on “dark money” and celebrity activism is not new. When Republicans face scrutiny, they try to paint Democrats as beholden to radical, hypocritical elites who are out of touch with real Americans. On August 16, FoxNews.com also published an article attempting to frame Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (SPEC) John Kerry's office as radical because some officials who work there have previously worked for other large environmental organizations. Additionally, the article quotes Myron Ebell, who calls large green groups and those affiliated with them the “climate aristocracy.” Ebell, a noted climate denier who led Trump’s EPA transition team, is the director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s (CEI) Center for Energy and Environment. Chris Horner was also a CEI fellow, and the organization has filed briefs and launched campaigns defending the oil companies being targeted by the lawsuits discussed above, and has also received funding from the industry.