New Study Shows Why Media Need To Disclose Funding Behind Fossil Fuel Front Groups

PNAS Study Finds Exxon, Koch Funding Influences Organizations, Increases Polarization On Climate Change

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A new study found that organizations funded by ExxonMobil and the oil billionaire Koch brothers may have played a key role in sowing doubt in the U.S. about climate change. These findings reveal how important it is for media to disclose the industry ties behind front groups that consistently misinform the public.

Over recent decades, the scientific consensus that fossil fuel emissions are driving global climate change has grown stronger, yet Americans have become increasingly divided on the issue along partisan lines. A new study, led by Yale University sociologist Justin Farrell, examined the “organizational and financial roots” behind this polarization and found that funding from ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers may have played a key role.

The study, published November 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that “organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue.” It focused on organizations funded by ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundations, noting that those two funders had been previously “identified as especially influential,” and that funding from these groups “signals entry into a powerful network of influence.”

The study follows criticisms of Exxon Mobil for sowing doubt on climate change through its front groups despite its own scientists confirming the climate change consensus decades ago. New York's Attorney General is currently investigating whether Exxon deliberately misled the public about climate change, and more than 350,000 people recently signed a petition calling for a federal investigation of the company's climate misinformation campaign. Documents compiled by Greenpeace show that since 1998, Exxon has given over $30 million in funding to organizations “that work to spread climate denial.”

According to the PNAS study, many of these groups' climate change positions were likely influenced by Exxon's funding; specifically, the study found that not only were these groups “more likely to have written and disseminated contrarian texts,” but also that “corporate funding influences the actual language and thematic content of polarizing discourse.”

The study detailed the “thematic content” touted by these organizations, which include many industry front groups, and found that fossil fuel-funded organizations more often discussed “temperature trends,” “energy production,” “the positive benefits of CO2,” and “climate change being a long-term cycle” than organizations that did not receive industry funding:


Those deceptive “themes” have made frequent appearances in the media. “Temperature trends” have recently become a pervasive talking point, with much coverage devoted to a supposed 18-year "pause" in global warming (multiple studies confirm that this “pause” never happened, as the planet continues to warm). The false talking point that carbon dioxide emissions could have positive impacts has been touted by Marc Morano -- who is paid by industry-funded Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow to run a climate denial blog -- and has also made its way onto Fox News, and, most alarmingly, into California textbooks. And the misleading emphasis on “climate change being a long-term cycle” is a frequent soundbite on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, even though the science shows that the global climate is currently experiencing a significant shift that award-winning astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says “the Earth hasn't seen since the great climate catastrophes in the past.”

Yet, as study author Farrell told The Washington Post, “contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.”

Farrell's study suggests that fossil fuel industry front groups' efforts to polarize the climate change debate may have been intended to delay climate action, stating in its discussion: “It is well understood that polarization is an effective strategy for creating controversy and delaying policy progress, especially around environmental issues.”

As Media Matters has documented, many groups funded by ExxonMobil and the Kochs have pervaded mainstream media to fight against environmental protections. It is essential that reporters, at the very least, disclose the industry funding behind them -- or better yet, think twice before providing such a wide platform for corporate interests to stymie progress on climate change.

Image via Creative Commons courtesy of Flickr user CGP Grey.