Think tank that cast doubt on climate change science morphs into smaller one

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 12/10/2015 08:41 AM EST

The George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that has cast doubt on the science behind global warming for years, closed its doors in September.

The George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that has cast doubt on the science behind global warming for years, closed its doors in September.

The institute, which had a twin focus on defense and climate change denial and had been funded by a number of fossil fuel interests, including the ExxonMobil Foundation, morphed into a nonprofit called the CO2 Coalition in August.

The institute’s defense division migrated to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, in October.

William Happer
William Happer, a retired Princeton University physicist | Photo is courtesy of Princeton.

The institute found it difficult to get funding in recent years because of its association with climate change contrarianism, said William Happer, an emeritus professor at Princeton University.

"Many foundations that would normally have supported defense would not do it because of the Marshall name being associated with climate," he said.

The institute’s 2014 tax filing showed that it had $319,092 in total revenue but spent close to half a million dollars.

The CO2 Coalition is headed by Happer and William O’Keefe, CEO and former chief operating officer of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group.

Happer was implicated this week in a Greenpeace sting operation where activists posing as consultants for a Middle Eastern energy company asked Happer and Frank Clemente, an emeritus sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University, to author a media-friendly report on the benefits of carbon dioxide emissions and the benefits of coal, respectively. Greenpeace released the email exchange this week, which throws back the curtains on the opaque world of fossil fuel funding of contrarian views on climate science.

When the "energy company" raised the issue of remuneration for the report, Happer suggested that it donate to the CO2 Coalition. Peabody Energy Corp. similarly funded the CO2 Coalition in exchange for his testimony at a regulatory hearing in St. Paul, Minn., on the social cost of carbon, Happer wrote.

"I told Peabody I’d be glad to write testimony for them, but it [the testimony] is what I think; I don’t care what they [Peabody] think," Happer told ClimateWire. "And if they want to pay me, I’d be delighted to take the money for our little coalition."

Peabody did not respond to ClimateWire’s request for comment. It was the target of a two-year investigation by the New York attorney general for improper disclosure to investors about the financial risks of climate change.

When Greenpeace’s "energy company" told Happer that it would prefer to donate anonymously to the CO2 Coalition, Happer suggested that it send the money through DonorsTrust, a conservative nonprofit that routinely channels money to organizations that cast doubt on mainstream climate science.

‘We kept the hardest’ problem

Environmental groups have revealed links between fossil fuel companies and climate change doubters in recent years. A study recently found a correlation between the flow of corporate money to such organizations and the rise in rhetoric doubting climate change in media (ClimateWire, Nov. 25).

The Marshall Institute received $865,000 from Exxon Mobil since 1998 and at least up until 2011, according to Greenpeace.

Happer said that the funding from fossil fuel companies to the Marshall Institute has dried up in recent years because of the negative press.

"You can forget about asking money from Exxon; they send all their money to Stanford [University] or to Princeton [University] for greenwashing," he said.

In fact, foundations that are interested in national security also declined to donate, he said. So the board members of Marshall convened this summer and decided to refocus their energies on climate change. They gave the intellectual property of their defense and space research to CSIS, and the researchers working on national security issues were laid off.

CSIS did not want any part of Marshall’s climate research program, Happer said.

"When we made the transfer to CSIS, there was a press release saying that only the defense work will be transferred; CSIS will not continue the climate work," he said. "We know that’ll make it easier for them to get money.

"We kept the hardest part of the problem — the climate problem," he said.

Clemente, the other professor implicated in the Greenpeace sting, said that he stands behind his statements in the emails about the benefits of clean coal technologies.

"To the best of my knowledge there are no factual errors in my work," he said in an email.