Published online 19 April 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.248
Updated online: 20 April 2011


Money not the problem in US climate debate

Environmental groups matched opponents' spending power during arguments over cap-and-trade legislation, report claims.

down with this sort of thingIn the fight over cap and trade, environmental groups were not quite the financial underdogs they are often assumed to be.Alex Wong/Getty Images

Environmental groups and their supporters spend more money on climate-change and clean-energy activities and campaigns than sceptical right-wing groups and their industry supporters, according to a report by a US social scientist, who questions some of the most common reasons given for US political inaction on global warming.

But the report has stirred controversy, with critics claiming that its conclusions are not backed up by the data it presents, and that it ignores studies offering contradictory evidence.

According to the report, conservative think-tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations raised some US$907 million during 2009, and spent a total of $787 million on their activities, with $259 million of that devoted specifically to climate and energy policy issues. Over the same period, national environmental groups had revenues of $1.7 billion and spent $1.4 billion on their programmes, which included $394 million devoted to climate and energy issues.

"Propelled by an ultra wealthy donor base and key alliances with corporations and other organizations, the environmental movement appears to have closed the financial gap with its opponents," says Matthew Nisbet, associate professor of communication at American University in Washington DC, who wrote the report.

Closing the gap

This became obvious in the almost equal amounts spent by each side on political lobbying in 2009, when cap-and-trade legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions was moving through the US Congress. Whereas the opponents of the legislation, including Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries, spent a total of $272 million on all their political lobbying in 2009, the report says, environmental groups forged a network of organizations that spent a total of $229 million on lobbying in the same period. The legislation was eventually defeated in the Senate in 2010.

Tax rules limit spending by not-for-profit organisations on direct attempts to steer legislation, but the environmentalists were able to mobilize additional financial support from commercial companies, which are not subject to these rules. In all, six of the world's fifteen largest publicly traded companies supported cap-and-trade legislation, including General Electric, JP Morgan Chase, Shell and Walmart. "The effort to pass cap and trade legislation may have been the best-financed political cause in American history," Nisbet says.

The finding is significant, he says, because many environmental leaders blamed the failure of the cap-and-trade legislation on the financial advantages of the conservative movement and its industrial allies. "Many scientists similarly view themselves in a battle with conservatives and their industry patrons."

But Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the policy think-tank Center for American Progress, based in Washington DC, disputes Nisbet's findings. On his blog,, Romm presents a reanalysis of Nisbet's data which suggests that opponents of the climate legislation spent eight times more on lobbying than environmentalists. Romm also points out that the report has been criticized by other social scientists, including one who informally reviewed Nisbet's work.

Media balance

Nisbet's report, Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Public Debate, published by American University, also analysed another common complaint of climate scientists, that attempts at 'balance' in the media gives too much coverage to the small minority of climate-change sceptics. In fact, the report finds that during 2009 and 2010, some nine out of ten news and opinion articles at The New York Times, The Washington Post and reflected the consensus scientific position. The Wall Street Journal carried significantly more sceptical articles, but mostly in the comment section.


The failure of US cap-and-trade legislation, Nisbet concludes, was not due to a problem in communicating the message on global warming, but to the framing of global warming as a problem that could be solved by a single specific policy. More useful, he says, would be to present climate change as an issue that needs addressing at many levels, similar to public health and poverty.

"Belief in the reality and risks of climate change are linked to the proposed policy solutions. Polling experts assert it is wrong to assume that questions asking about the causes and impacts of climate change are in fact measuring knowledge," Nisbet says. "Answers to these questions are much more likely to be indirect opinions about cap-and-trade policy and an international agreement, explaining why even highly educated Republicans appear in polling to doubt human-caused climate change." 


This article has been updated to include details about criticisms of the study.

Commenting is now closed.