If there was any lingering doubt that a tiny clique of fossil-fuel barons has captured America’s energy and environmental policies, it was dispelled last week, when the Trump Administration withdrew from the Paris climate accord. Surveys showed that a majority of Americans in literally every state wanted to remain within the agreement, and news reports established that the heads of many of the country’s most successful and iconic Fortune 100 companies, from Disney to General Electric, did, too. Voters and big business were arrayed against leaving the climate agreement. Yet despite the majority’s sentiment, a tiny—and until recently, almost faceless—minority somehow prevailed.
How this happened is no longer a secret. The answer, as the New York Timesreported, on Sunday, is “a story of big political money.” It is, perhaps, the most astounding example of influence-buying in modern American political history.
As the climate scientist Michael Mann put it to me in my book “Dark Money,” when attempting to explain why the Republican Party has moved in the opposite direction from virtually the rest of the world, “We are talking about a direct challenge to the most powerful industry that has ever existed on the face of the Earth. There’s no depth to which they’re unwilling to sink to challenge anything threatening their interests.” For most of the world’s population, the costs of inaction on climate change far outweigh that of action. But for the fossil-fuel industry, he said, “It’s like the switch from whale oil in the nineteenth century. They’re fighting to maintain the status quo, no matter how dumb.”
Until recently, those buying the fealty of the Republican Party on these issues tried to hide their sway, manipulating politics from the wings. But what became clear this past weekend is that they can remain anonymous no longer. With their success dictating America’s climate policy, the fossil-fuel industry’s political heavyweights have also won new notoriety. Charles and David Koch, the billionaire owners of the Kansas-based fossil-fuel leviathan Koch Industries, used to attract attention only from environmental groups such as Greenpeace, which labelled them “the Kingpins of Climate Denial.” They were so secretive about their political activities that, when I first wrote about their tactics in The New Yorker, in 2010, the article was titled “Covert Operations.” But now references to the Kochs are becoming almost as commonplace as the Dixie Cups, Lycra, and other household products that their business produces. As the Times noted, Republican lawmakers’ swerves to the right on climate issues “did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil-fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries. . . .” The Kochs were called out on the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, too. On ABC’s “This Week,” former Vice-President Al Gore cited “dark money” from fossil-fuel companies as the explanation for Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord; on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Secretary of State John Kerry specifically chastised the Kochs.
Now that they have been flushed from the shadows, the Kochs and their political operatives have proudly taken credit for obstructing the U.S. government from addressing climate change. Charles Koch, who is a hardcore libertarian, has argued that government action was only “making people’s lives worse, rather than better,” as he put it in an interview with Fortune last year. Meanwhile, Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ main political-advocacy organization, has boasted about the group’s success in killing the careers of politicians who broke with the brothers’ anti-climate-change agenda. Phillips recounted to the Times that, after 2010, when the group spent tens of millions of dollars in campaigns aimed at defeating congressmen who wanted to take action on climate change, no Republican candidate has dared cross the Kochs on the issue again. “After that,” he said, support for renewable energy “disappeared from Republican ads. Part of that was the polling, and part of that was the visceral example of what happened to their colleagues who had done that. . . . It told the Republicans that we were serious, that we would spend some serious money against them.”
President Trump may be the face of America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, but, as deeper reporting is making clear, it’s the Kochs and their fellow fossil-fuel industry donors who really own the policy. Whether responsibility for such a consequential move will redound to their favor remains to be seen. But it’s worth remembering that Fred Koch, Charles and David’s father and the founder of the family company, had a favorite admonition. He warned his boys to keep a low profile and stay below the surface, because, as he put it, “It’s when the whale spouts that he gets harpooned.”