How Environmentalists Created the Koch Brothers, and How the Heartland Institute Radicalized Environmentalists

A Plan for Destroying Freedom and the Planet in One Sweeping Move

When Big Oil and Big Green clash in public, reporters don't even need to witness the event to write an accurate story about it.

That was comically true when a senior executive of ExxonMobil faced off against a senior executive of the Sierra Club to debate the future of energy at the 2013 national conference of Net Impact, a network of young environmental professionals.

It wasn't supposed to be a debate. But a third panelist with a centrist view dropped out just before it began. That left an almost storybook opportunity for a clash between good and evil.

Yet the story differed from the predictable David-vs.-Goliath narrative. For those who listened and looked closely, there was something surprising about it: The roles were reversed, with the Sierra Club senior executive playing Goliath to the ExxonMobil senior executive's David.

We all see the world through the prism of our beliefs. We pick and choose facts that reinforce our existing worldview. We screen out those that challenge our beliefs. It helps us feel secure and in control.

But when we fear a demon, a force that we believe is conspiring to destroy us, we literally make that demon real. We take adversaries, people who oppose us but with whom we could find common ground, and scrape away the unexpectedly attractive features that give hope for common ground. We shape and mold our own demons, buffing their contours until they perfectly match our preconceptions, and then we set them loose against us.

For example, the Heartland Institute, which prides itself on being the premier climate-change-denying NGO, directly shaped the climate-policy prescriptions of its chief rhetorical nemesis, Naomi Klein. They crafted her positions to directly match their caricatures of the anti-freedom environmental extremist.

Similarly, Klein's colleagues, who believe the climate crisis calls for global governmental planning and regulation right now, directly shaped the climate denial championed by the Koch brothers.

I didn't say "indirectly"; I said "directly." In each case, the extreme positions taken by one side directly triggered the other side to jettison reason and take parallel extreme positions, which then served as rhetorical fodder for their adversaries. The result: gridlock that threatens what both sides want most, and what society needs.

Charles and David Koch are the latest in a long line of "demons" who help mobilize environmentalists on behalf of climate protection. The industrialist Koch brothers, who own an array of oil, gas, timber and other companies, don't just oppose the toughest climate policies; they oppose almost all of them, any policy that would reduce carbon emissions, and they do so aggressively. This is no fanatic's illusion; this is very real.

But here is what many of my colleagues reject out of hand what they sweep away because they "know" it can't be true but fear it might be. We created the demon Koch brothers. We made them not just our adversaries but our deeply committed enemies, lacking in nuance, matching our simplistic caricatures, fearing us as much as we fear them.

Activist leaders know this, but they reject its significance. They believe they are not undermining their movement; they believe that by casting the Kochs as uniformly evil, they are mobilizing their troops against a common enemy.

They are right, from a small-picture perspective. The funders take notice, the volunteers sign on, the reporters write stories, and the dollars roll in.

But the same happens on the other side. The anti-climate forces grow stronger and more unbending. They too build their funding, supporters, media, and grassroots army, dedicated to vanquishing their enemies.

If each side had not so demonized the other, it would be simple to overcome the climate challenge. Two or three federal policies in the U.S. alone, and focused effort by major companies under pressure from Greenpeace, would drive all the changes needed, at net benefit to the economy.

But that won't happen -- yet. It will only be possible when the demonization stops. Then the changes we seek will flow like water.

That is the vision that drives me and my colleagues at Future 500. Our daily objective is to break the cycle of demonization that falsely divides the climate debate into a battle between angels and demons: the pro-freedom, anti-planet Kochs and the pro-planet, anti-freedom environmentalists.

We experience no small amount of grief for dedicating ourselves to this purpose. Rigid Neanderthals from both sides assume we've sold out to the other, or at least that we're spoiling their little fairy tale about the evil green movement or the evil freedom movement.

But they are the ones who sell out. They sacrifice victory in order to perpetuate war. They choose martyrdom over courage. It pisses me off, frankly. Aren't they supposed to be supporting freedom, or supporting the climate?

Both the Koch brothers and environmentalists have valid cause for fearing the other. Environmentalists fear that the Kochs will so demonize the cause of climate protection that they will bring about climate collapse. And this, unfortunately, is a well-founded fear. If they are not stopped, the Kochs have the political clout to do so.

But the Koch brothers have an equally valid fear. They believe environmentalists will impose so brutal a regulatory and pricing regime on carbon that they will destroy the free enterprise system. And this, unfortunately, is also a well-founded fear. If the most naïve and extreme proposals of environmentalists are imposed, they would largely destroy free enterprise.

Most environmentalists would reject that assertion. It is genuinely not their intent to harm the economy. They simply believe that we are facing a climate crisis and must act decisively.

But consider how it sounds to conservatives when climate advocates like Naomi Klein, the bestselling author and speaker, call their followers to arms. Her prescriptions sound like a top-10 list of libertarians' worst nightmares. Here is how she summarizes them:

Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as "people" under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.

Whew. It's no wonder many free market advocates don't want to admit that carbon could possibly be a pollutant. Klein's "progressive" prescriptions are a mechanistic compilation of best hits from the early 1970s. There is nothing organic about them; they are forced, urgent, and panicked. They show little understanding of how sustainability actually works in nature or the economy. And if adopted in whole, they would drive more depletion, not less.

Where did Klein get this prescription for saving the Earth? She herself admits she framed this agenda by taking it down in notes as she sat in at a conference of the Heartland Institute, the staunchly skeptical "think tank" that uses billboards to compare climate advocates to terrorists and Nazis. Klein decided that Heartland was right in terms of the policy implications of the climate crisis.

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their "free market" belief system.

What Klein has really done is take a rigidly dogmatic prescription, framed by Heartland, and convey it directly to her followers. It "sells" because it is simplistic, devoid of complex thought and confusing nuance. Fundamentalists on the left can easily be motivated to cheer it, and those on the right to fear it. Each side can use it to build their army. Each side believes they are advancing their troops. Each side constructs a solid wall of opposition to any progress whatsoever, locking in policies that elide both freedom and sustainability.

Neither Klein's extreme policy prescriptions nor the Koch's do-the-opposite approach are likely to happen in the real world. The greater danger we face is that by further deadlocking our gridlocked political system, followers of the Kochs and supporters of Klein will together destroy a significant part of both the economy and the ecosystem. And each, having brought about this calamity, will blame the other and be blind to their own role.

In his debate with ExxonMobil, the senior Sierra Club executive chose a standard role. He rhetorically swept away any perspective of ExxonMobil that undermined the Evil Oil narrative that he decided he would champion. He painted the company as an unapologetic funder of anti-climate extremism. He discounted the company's support for a federal carbon tax, expressing skepticisms that match the cynical narrative but depart from the more complex reality. Hopefully he has an end game.

The senior ExxonMobil executive played David to the onslaught of Goliath, expressing gratitude for the Sierra Club senior executive's gracious input and explaining why the company supports a carbon tax and long ago ceased funding groups that are ideologically anti-climate. He won the debate in the Twittersphere, but the Sierra Club senior executive energized his troops for war. The battle will go on.

Today the Koch brothers have displaced ExxonMobil as environmental enemy number one. But it does not need to be that way. The environmentalists and the Kochs both cherish a system worth saving, a system whose complex beauty unleashes the creative capacities that cultivate and support all life. To one of them, this is a free-market economy; to the other it is a free-flowing ecosystem. But if we can overcome our demons, we will find that the same policies can support both, that at a deeper level the two are one and the same.

Bill Shireman is CEO of Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.