Have you ever wondered why a supposedly intelligent species, Home sapiens, is steering full steam ahead into global ecological catastrophe without putting on the brakes? Why greenhouse gas emissions are still rising even though the collapse of the climate has unmistakably begun? Why habitat destruction continues despite the sixth mass extinction? There are forces at play that we don’t hear much about. Can we see behind the veils?
Cheap energy is the engine of our civilisation. Unfortunately, it is also the engine for the massive destruction of the natural world in all its aspects. And as the ecosphere of planet Earth is weakened and its once stable, benevolent climate system collapses, civilisation as we know it is also in jeopardy. The greatest resistance to loosening humanity’s iron grip on the ecosphere comes from the extractive industries themselves, especially the energy sector.
Think tanks and dark money
On the home front, the American oil plutocracy is investing more than ever in strategies to undermine climate action; estimates put the figure at $500 million a year *(1), which is why climatologist Manfred E. Mann calls it “the best funded and organised PR campaign in history.” *(2) This new climate war, led by the fossil fuel industry, uses a number of strategies (see Part 1 on manipulating the climate debate) to sow doubt about climate science and renewable energy and generally disempower the public. These strategies – disinformation and deception, distraction and diversion, delay, doomism and despair – are being used on a grand scale to prevent the necessary systemic change.
This is not just about lobbying in the traditional sense, where lobbyists work in government quarters to influence politicians and legislators to advocate things that they should never consider in the public interest, or in the interest of the planet.
Video: Koch Industries’ mysterious ’internal bank’ in Switzerland | Guardian Explainers
A taster of shell-financing in the Koch network
The main players in the climate information war are so-called “think tanks,” whose top staff mastermind countless campaigns and even classic psyops to divert public attention from the real issues. The spectrum ranges from commissioning bribed “scientific studies” (see Part 7) to support the arguments of climate-denying conservative politicians to flooding the (right-wing) media and the internet with misinformation, deception, distraction and doomism. For the latter, a host of paid staff orchestrates a multitude of invented internet domains, fake social media accounts and troll bot armies. For example, on any given day, about a quarter of all climate-related tweets come from bots, and before climate conferences, even more than a third. *(3)
Although their task is to covertly influence public perception and opinion in line with their radical agenda, for which they use behavioural micro-targeting and emotional manipulation, these “think tanks” bear reputable-sounding names and pose as objective and neutral “institutes” and “foundations.” Here, “academics who hold climate-sceptic positions are trained in communications work in order to insert themselves into media debates.” *(4) Behind this is a strict agenda financed by far-right libertarian billionaires, mostly with dark money through a network of shell foundations and their version of “philanthropy.”
Philanthropy is undoubtedly a good thing. Or it used to be. People who have more money than they need donate considerable sums to public institutions such as schools or hospitals or other charitable causes. And the super-rich can donate even more, which they often do. Awesome.
But soon enough, someone realised that tax-deductible donations can also be used for not-so-charitable purposes. Yes, even to further downright devious goals that serve neither the public nor the planet nor anyone else, but only the ideology of the rich donor. This system relies on US law that does not require the identity of charitable donors to be disclosed. Apart from that, all that is needed is a network of “institutions” that pass on the money until the traces are sufficiently covered. It is dark money that comes out of what Jane Mayer calls “weaponised philanthropy.”
Jane Mayer is an investigative journalist whose research in this area led to a critically acclaimed book: Dark Money: How a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control in the US. Well, that’s the British subtitle; the original American edition sums up the problem even better: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.
Video: Jane Mayer / The Koch Brothers and the Weaponizing of Philanthropy
Discussion with Jane Mayer at Stanford University’s Ethics in Society forum
The Far Right
Radical right – now it gets worrying. This is not about the oil and coal companies themselves who keep their balance sheets and policies clean. It is about their private owners who use part of their profits to invest in an ultra-conservative, “libertarian” course. It’s about the top elite, the 0.01%. And “weaponised philanthropy” keeps their balance sheets clean too.
Their brand of “libertarianism” is a gross distortion of the original meaning and history of the term. Whereas it once described ambitions to advocate social justice and equality for all, the Far Right’s “libertarianism” of the multi-billionaires of the fossil fuel and banking sectors wants freedom only for the elite themselves. It is in favour of free-market capitalism, strong private property rights (e.g. over land, infrastructure and natural resources), globalism (even neo-colonialism), international free trade agreements, deregulation and minimized oversight of industry (particularly in the environmental arena), and strong limits on the power of governments. It advocates the abolition of corporate tax and the protection of tax cuts for the super-rich.
Moreover, the right-wing libertarian elite is in favour of a wholesale reversal of the modern welfare state. High-ranking industrial libertarians want to see public spending drastically cut, depriving millions of people of social security and health care. The argument could not be more elitist, it is that a welfare state that supports “losers” thereby only rewards weakness and produces even more “useless people with limited intelligence” (keyword “social Darwinism,” long since disproved; but compare Wikipedia: The Bell Curve).
The rejection of taxes and regulations does not stop with the demand for limited state interference. Many of these super-rich want to abolish the state altogether. As influential right-wing libertarian strategist Grover Norquist advised: shrink government to a size where “we could drown it in the bathtub.” *(5) And as fossil billionaire Charles Koch declared, “Our movement must destroy the prevailing paradigm of the state.” *(6)
This end of the spectrum is so extremist that political scientists and journalists speak of anarcho-capitalism or anarcho-totalitarianism.
These people consider even George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan too moderate. No wonder they condemn the slightest thought of social justice, social democracy or green policies as a threat from the left or as outright communism. Through their political lobbies, the libertarian billionaires are pushing for further tax cuts for the wealthy counting in trillions of dollars, suggesting to finance this through cuts in public spending (accepting that this would cause, among other things, millions of people to lose their food stamps and hundreds of thousands of children to lose their school lunch subsidies and health insurance coverage).
Yet despite their general clamour for limited government power, government interference was suddenly welcome when the banking sector itself (and thus the assets of the wealthy libertarians) was offered a $700 billion bailout package by President Bush’s Treasury Department in 2008 (TARP). After all, the rich “disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its wellbeing except as a place of extra lootloot,” as a Conservative member of the Senate Budget Committee described it in 2012. *(7)
Apart from all this, the general value system in these circles is elitist, deeply racist, homophobic, misogynistic and often more than borderline fascist.
The Far Right influence network
Fortunately for the rest of humanity, rich people to have different opinions. But faced with the common existential threat of fossil fuel divestment, two of the ten richest men in the world, brothers Charles and David Koch, have cleverly brought together a large number of their ilk. Every year since 2009, the Koch brothers have organised a meeting of some four hundred to five hundred hand-picked conservatives to “invest” with them. These conferences are kept top secret, and only one full guest list has ever been leaked (the June 2010 meeting). It was dominated by white men from the financial sector (hedge funds) and the fossil fuel industry, as well as right-wing media moguls, conservative politicians and eloquent publicists working in right-wing think tanks.
The guests of honor, however, were the donors, who included eighteen billionaires with a combined wealth of over $200 billion (as of 2015) (Mayer, p.9). These coal, oil, gas and mining magnates form the core of the Koch donor network. In the next step after collecting the donations, the Koch influence network and its integrated “news” network ensure that these funds are spent effectively to promote their agenda, especially to fight climate action, taxes and government regulation.
In the words of the American University School of Communication, the Koch brothers have built “what may be the best-funded, multifaceted, public policy, political and educational presence in the nation today. … this extensive, cross-sector Koch club or network appears to be unprecedented in size, scope and funding.” *(8) For a breathtaking glimpse into this multi-armed “Kochtopus,” as it is also known, see Part 7.
Video: The Koch Brothers’ “Dark Money” | Jane Mayer
Interview with Jane Mayer about the Koch empire
Background check: The Koch brothers have gained their financial clout by being the sole owners and executives of Koch Industries, the largest privately held company in the United States. It is a multinational conglomerate that primarily refines, produces and distributes petroleum, chemicals, fertilisers and plastics. The business foundations were laid by their father, Fred Koch, by getting involved with the two most terrible dictators of the 20th century: he earned his first $500,000 by helping Joseph Stalin build oil refineries in the Soviet Union. And in 1933 he moved to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. For example, he built the Reich’s third largest oil refinery in Hamburg, a key component of the Nazi war machine.
But as these old, dark roots show, the far-right market-libertarian worldview is a marginal relic of the past. It is only because there is so much money in circulation that these ideas of minimal government and a global elite can be “fed and clothed in think tanks run by the likes of Charles and David Koch and ExxonMobil,” as Naomi Klein points out. (Klein 2019, p.93)
This fascist world order cannot exist for much longer. But we still have to confront it in order to disempower it. For an insight into the media network of the extreme right-wing billionaires, see in Part 7.
Battle for the Earth
Part 2: The fossil fuel industry’s mind-bending strategies (continued)
Part 6: How the Far Right network rules (not just) the climate debate
Part 7: The shocking extent of the Far Right influence network
Part 8: Climate crisis, corona and conspiracy theories
Part 9: How conspiracy theories only serve one master
Part 10: The “Great Reset” and totalitarianism vs the real green revolution
Jane Mayer 2016. Dark Money: How a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control in the US. Scribe, London.
Michael E. Mann 2021. The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet. Scribe, London.
Naomi Klein 2019. On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Penguin Random House UK.