Pulling Back the Curtain

Guest blogger Robert Brulle reports on his attempts to uncover the sponsors of think tanks engaged with the issue of climate change. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Over the past forty years, there has been an enormous expansion of ideologically focused think tanks. These think tanks have become increasingly important in the development and advocacy of public policies on a range of issues. They have also increasingly been funded by undisclosed sources. So it is difficult to judge the validity of their assessments without full disclosure of their funders.

For example, my work has focused on think tanks engaged with the issue of climate change. What we see in this area is a group of think thanks that foster confusion about the science of climate change, and oppose action to address this issue. These think tanks have been bankrolled by funders known for their overall commitments to extreme free-market ideologies. Where funding can be traced, it has come from foundations driven by an encompassing ideological vision that posits government “interference” in markets as inherently illegitimate. Regulations and taxes are demonized, yet both are ingredients of proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite thorough efforts, I could not find all of the sources of funding for organizations that mount climate-change denial efforts because the law allows secrecy. Many of the actors and organizations that have done so much to block U.S. actions to counter the global warming threat are able to operate in the shadows. Americans hear denial arguments funded on a grand scale by unknown wealthy manipulators.

This is a big problem for democracy. The U.S. constitution guarantees free speech, and the current Supreme Court enforces that right for corporations as well as individuals. In addition, current U.S. rules applying to “nonprofit” organizations make it easy for political activities to be supported on a huge scale in hidden ways. Nonprofit organizations not required to reveal their donors can simply collect funds and pass them to campaigns and think tanks. This hidden-funding system needs to change through the revision of nonprofit reporting laws. Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible.

Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. So in this area, as well as many others, we have unaccountable funding flows to these think tanks from unknown sponsors trying to influence public policy in an enormous way, and that really runs counter to the whole notion of democracy and open debate.

Rating think tanks on their transparency is a first step in the right direction. This web site will allow citizens to see which think tanks are fully transparent about their funding sources, and those that hide behind a veil of secrecy. At the end of the Wizard of Oz, Dorthy’s dog Toto pulls back the curtain on the Wizard, who is manipulating the image of Oz. This exposes the true nature of power. I hope this web site will do the same.

Robert Brulle is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University