The Mercers, Trump’s Billionaire Megadonors, Ramp Up Climate Change Denial Funding

The New York financiers’ donations to climate misinformation think tanks are finally attracting the scrutiny long reserved for the Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil.
Billionaires Rebekah Mercer, left, and her father, Robert, attended the Heartland Institute's annual International Conference on Climate Change in March 2017.
Billionaires Rebekah Mercer, left, and her father, Robert, attended the Heartland Institute's annual International Conference on Climate Change in March 2017.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, are best known as the secretive billionaire megadonors who bankrolled and organized President Donald Trump’s campaign, poured at least $10 million into Breitbart News, and showered millions on a network of right-wing websites and think tanks. The family has spent $36.6 million on Republican races and super PACs since 2010.

The Mercers are less well known as patrons of the climate change denial movement, yet their spending has been equally generous and appears to be increasing, according to new, previously unreleased tax filings reviewed by HuffPost.

The Mercer Family Foundation in 2016 gave $800,000 to the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank and major proponent of climate change denialism, up from $100,000 the previous year. Heartland received about $5.2 million in average annual income between 2011 and 2015, meaning the Mercers’ donation could make up 15 percent of the organization’s funding in 2016.

The foundation gave $200,000 for a second year in a row to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, a discredited medial research group best known for spreading a hoax petition in 2009 claiming that 30,000 climatologists rejected global warming. Based on the organization’s average income for the last few years, that donation could make up anywhere from one-third to 62 percent of its budget.

The Mercers made first-time donations to two other prominent groups last year: the CO2 Coalition, an organization born from the ashes of the defunct George C. Marshall Institute, which denied global warming and lobbied against the science behind acid rain and smoking-caused cancer, received $150,000; and the Arizona-based Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, an oil-funded think tank run by former Peabody Energy executive Craig Idso, got $125,000.

In its first year, the CO2 Coalition raised $404,384, so the donation the Mercers disclosed for last year increased the budget by nearly 40 percent. For Idso’s outfit, which took in just $194,757, according to its most recent filing, the Mercer money would mark a 64 percent budgetary increase.

Tax disclosures typically become public a year after a nonprofit files, so the most recently available documents are from 2015. The Mercers’ contributions are detailed on the foundation’s most recent 990 tax form, which researchers at the nonpartisan Climate Investigations Center obtained and shared with HuffPost. Neither the Mercer Family Foundation, nor any of the four organizations, responded to a request for comment on Thursday afternoon.

The majority of Americans understand that climate change is a reality, 2016 survey data from Yale University shows.
The majority of Americans understand that climate change is a reality, 2016 survey data from Yale University shows.
Yale University

The spending is notable not only for the large amounts, but because it seems to mark a shift in the world of climate-denial funding, which was once bolstered mainly by fossil fuel titans like Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil Corp. but has now become too extreme even for some of its original benefactors.

The Mercers have long donated to an array of conservative groups that oppose regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. The foundation also provided nearly $2.3 million to the Donors Trust, a conservative funding group that does not take an official position on climate change but has for years funneled money to denial proponents, earning it the nickname “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.”

But the Mercer Family Foundation appears to have discontinued funding for other climate denial groups. They gave a total of $800,000 in 2013 and 2014 to the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Ron Arnold, the group’s executive vice president, serves as a policy adviser to Heartland, and has been quoted as saying his goal is “to eradicate the environmental movement.”

The foundation began donating to Heartland around the time the Illinois-based think tank transitioned from defending cigarette companies under the auspice of “smokers’ rights” to aggressively denying climate change and attacking scientists. In 2008, the Mercer foundation gave Heartland $1 million, inflating the group’s budget to about $7.6 million that year, according to a tax filing. Heartland has banked on six-figure grants from the Mercers since, though the donations dwindled over the years, falling to their lowest level in 2015. Between 2008 and 2016, the Mercer foundation gave Heartland nearly $5.9 million.

The resurgent funding in 2016 came at a pivotal moment for Heartland. The organization has become more powerful than ever over the past year, wielding unprecedented influence at the EPA. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt joined Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). in November to speak at Heartland’s America First Energy Conference in Houston.

But Heartland has also faced public embarrassments. In October, HuffPost reported that the group included a convicted child sex offender in a list of scientists it submitted to the EPA. Last week, a months-long investigation by HuffPost revealed Heartland had protected a former executive charged with stalking and harassing a female colleague half his age. After both stories published, Heartland accused HuffPost of attempting to smear the organization.

The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine was among the Mercer foundation’s earliest ventures into climate denial funding. The foundation gave the group $60,000 in 2005, increased its donation to $100,000 in 2010, then granted $965,000 in 2012. After that, funding tapered off for three years, until the foundation gave $200,000 in 2015.

That the Mercers are now funding smaller, more fringe groups such as the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine, the CO2 Coalition and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change demonstrates a doubling down on climate change denial by the ascendant right-wing benefactors. Riley Dunlap, an Oklahoma State University sociologist who studies climate misinformation groups, called the four among “the most extreme.”

“Denial annihilates facts. Therefore, we can’t ignore denial.”

- John Cook, George Mason University

The climate denial movement, relegated to the political fringe during Barack Obama’s presidency, has returned with a vengeance over the past year, notching considerable victories under the Trump administration.

Four days after taking office, Trump signed executive actions to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline and invite TransCanada to reapply to build the controversial Keystone XL project. In June, Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a deal to cut greenhouse gases signed by every other nation on Earth. In October, the EPA proposed repealing the Clean Power Plan, the federal government’s only major policy to reduce planet-warming emissions.

The Mercers have emerged amid a growing rift between climate change deniers and the fossil fuel giants that propped them up for decades, as InsideClimate News reported in December. That tension brewed into what E&E News described as a “civil war” at an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in November. At the summit, Heartland pushed ALEC to adopt a resolution calling on the EPA to overturn the finding that lists greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to public health and underpins the federal government’s climate policies. Exxon Mobil ― which spent decades funding climate denial ― and a group of big companies and utilities opposed the resolution and convinced ALEC to withdraw it.

In response, Heartland President Tim Huelskamp, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, described Exxon Mobil as a long-standing member “of the discredited and anti-energy global warming movement.”

“They’ve put their profits and ‘green’ virtue signaling above sound science and the interests of their customers,” he said in a statement.

Despite its reluctance to invest in renewable energy, Exxon Mobil has scaled back its funding for climate change denial in recent years and even publicly urged Trump against withdrawing from the Paris climate deal in June. The company added a climate scientist to its board of directors last January. In December, the Texas-based behemoth bowed to shareholder pressure to start disclosing financial risk associated with climate change.

Ninety-seven percent of peer-reviewed research has concluded that burning fossil fuels, deforestation and industrial farming are blanketing the planet in heat-trapping gases, while a research review published in 2015 found significant flaws in the methodologies, assumptions or analyses used by the 3 percent of scientists who concluded otherwise. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, and 52 percent understand it is caused by humans, according to 2016 survey data from Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication.

Protesters earlier this week demanded the American Museum of Natural History cut ties with Rebekah Mercer, a trustee, over her climate change denial funding.
Protesters earlier this week demanded the American Museum of Natural History cut ties with Rebekah Mercer, a trustee, over her climate change denial funding.
SOPA Images via Getty Images

Still, misinformation on climate change commands outsized influence in public debate, according to John Cook, a researcher at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

“Denial annihilates facts,” Cook wrote in an email to HuffPost. “Therefore, we can’t ignore denial ― we need to respond to it.”

Over the past few years, investors have pushed companies to abandon skepticism on climate change. Yet as corporate culture has become more hostile to a bluntly contrarian climate stance, the network of organizations built on promoting that view has found new allies in far-right politics.

“The climate misinformation campaign is so integral now with these modern, hardcore conservative efforts that it would make sense they’re putting their money down on what is really the fringe elements of the climate countermovement,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University who tracks climate change denial groups.

Despite the Mercers’ decade-long relationship with groups like Heartland, the family has kept a relatively low profile in the climate denier world.

“Their names have not historically come up when people talk about the major funders,” said Dunlap, the Oklahoma State university sociologist. “I’m guessing this was their big entree into it.”

Myron Ebell, a stalwart climate change denier who works at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said he has never met the Mercers but that he welcomes their money to a funding apparatus propped up by some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people and corporations.

“We don’t have much money on our side,” Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, said. “So anyone who is a generous donor is going to have an outsized positive effect.”

The increased funding is making the Mercers a new target for environmentalists and scientists. On Thursday, more than 200 scientists called on the American Museum of Natural History to drop Rebekah Mercer from its board of directors. The Mercer Family Foundation donated $625,000 to the museum in 2016, bringing the total contributions to nearly $4.1 million since 2012, according to filings.

In 2016, activists ousted David Koch from the museum’s board after a months-long campaign highlighting the billionaire’s history of funding climate change denial and attacks on scientists. The Natural History Museum, the nonprofit watchdog group that organized the last campaign, has set its sights on Rebekah Mercer.

“We’re asking the museum to cut ties to Mercer as part of the board,” Beka Economopoulos, the New York-based group’s executive director, told HuffPost. “It’s an unusual gesture for scientists to single out an individual on a science institution’s board. It really speaks to the moment of how damaging Mercer’s funding of climate denial is, with the consequences playing out on the national stage.”

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