The World’s First Climate Denial Conference (And 10 Other Ways Koch Has Blocked Climate Action)
True North tallies the ways Charles Koch and his billionaire allies have thwarted our efforts to stop climate change.
On Friday April 22, Earth Day turned 52 and the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere turned 419.13 parts per million (350 ppm is widely considered safe).
A half-century of Earth Days is a lot of time to talk about — and take action against — the environmental consequences caused by the burning of fossil fuels. But those decades of increasingly-certain science on human-cause climate change and burgeoning social movements were in many ways disrupted by the monied interests of men whose fortunes depend on the planet continuing to burn. Although Exxon is certainly a major antagonist in the unfolding climate disaster, chief among the humans responsible for delaying government mitigation is carbon billionaire Charles Koch.
On Earth Day, True North told the story on Twitter of Koch and his billionaire allies’ decades-long war on climate action, delays that have continued to enrich these American oligarchs. You can consider this a timeline of greatest worst hits (for the full discography, consider reading Kochland). We’ll start in the 1970s.
(To learn more, please tune in to new PBS/Frontline investigation of how Exxon, Koch, and others delayed crucial action on climate change. More original documents are available from the Climate Investigations Center.)
Onto the timeline!
A (Brief) Timeline of Koch’s War on Climate Action
1. Early 1970s📍
Shortly after Charles Koch took control of his father’s oil refining empire in late 1967, a Union oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara spilled 80,000+ gallons of oil into the channel, leading to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. (Koch later invested in drilling just north of there.)
Weeks later, Nixon creates the Environmental Protection Agency.
2. Early 1970s📍
Tobacco lawyer Lewis Powell pens a secret blueprint, now infamous and known as the Powell Memo, for corporations to dominate US democracy.
Charles Koch writes in a 1974 speech, “Anti-Capitalism and Big Business,” that the Powell memo did not go far enough. He said:
“We have accepted the concept that the corporation has a broad social responsibility beyond its duty to its shareholders. When the businessman does this, he is in fact preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.
The development of a well financed cadre of sound proponents of the free enterprise philosophy is the most critical need facing us at the moment…The system can be restored if business will re-examine itself and undertake radical new efforts to overcome the prevalent anti-capitalist mentality.”
Koch then positioned himself to launch these very “well financed, radical new efforts” to promote extremist, libertarian policy — including against climate action. No one has played a longer or deeper role implementing this distorting vision.
Those well-financed efforts materialize as right launches a slew of groups to remake public policy to favor the corporate interests that fund them. The Koch fortune has funded all of the listed groups:
1969: Center for Independent Education (founded by Charles Koch)
1973: Heritage Foundation (funded by Charles Koch later)
1973: American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) (funded by Charles Koch for at least three decades)
1973: Institute for Humane Studies (Charles Koch took over the group in 1973 after Baldy Harper’s death but had been partnering with IHS for years)
1977: Cato Institute (founded by Charles Koch; previously called the Charles Koch Foundation)
1978: Center for the Study of Market Processes, now Mercatus Center (Charles Koch created it with Richard Fink and is chairman of the board)
1979: Council for a Competitive Economy (created by Charles Koch)
1981: The Federalist Society (expressly founded to advance Libertarians and long funded by Charles Koch)
1984: Citizens for a Sound Economy, now Americans for Prosperity (founded by Charles and David Koch with Richard Fink)
Charles Koch also became the biggest funder of the Libertarian Party in the mid-1970s. While Charles Koch ran Koch Industries, David Koch ran as the party’s VP nominee in 1980 on an extreme platform, which he poured $2M into. After getting less than 1% of the vote, the Kochs began focusing on co-opting the Republican Party to advance the Kochs’ extreme ideology. Charles Koch began attacking anti-corruption campaign finance laws in the 1970s, and after the Citizens United decision, Koch deployed his political operations to exploit the ruling and expand his dark money efforts with the so-called “Association for American Innovation” in 2011, which became Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce in 2012, then was renamed the Seminar Network in 2016, and now uses the brand Stand Together since 2019.
A Senate investigation produces evidence that Koch Industries stole oil from Native reservations (which they denied).
(Separately, Koch Industries was later indicted in 1999 in a 98-count complaint alleging numerous violations of environmental regulations. The Kochs spent big for George W. Bush in 2000, and then when Bush’s Department of Justice reviewed the violations, Koch Industries got away with a slap on the wrist.)
These investigations represented threats to their bottom line, and spurred Koch to ratchet up their political operation. Kochland author Christopher Leonard writes that the oil theft probe “laid the groundwork for the Koch playbook.”
Koch’s Cato Institute runs the first-ever climate denial conference just as George H.W. Bush announced support for a treaty limiting CO2 emissions.
“Global Environmental Crises: Science or Politics?” took place over two days in June in 1991 at the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., with a roster of avowed climate denialists and skeptics like Patrick J. Michaels, Richard S. Lindzen, Robert C. Balling, Jr., and S. Fred Singer.
The conference hosted panels with titles like “The Flaws in the Stratospheric Ozone Thinning Hypothesis,” “The Judeo-Christian Roots of Ecotheology,” and “The Threat of Air Toxics: Real or Imagined?”
(Pro tip: You can see an annotated version of the conference flyer, and other hard-to-find Koch documents, at KochDocs, an essential resource co-created by our director, Lisa Graves, and Greenpeace.)
Koch groups help convince Sen. Chuck Hagel to co-sponsor a resolution preventing the U.S. from ratifying the Kyoto Protocols — the groundbreaking international treaty committing industrialized countries to limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Hagel later said, “What we now know about some of these large oil companies...they lied. And yes, I was misled.”
Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (previously known as Citizens for a Sound Economy) runs the "Hot Air Tour," a nationwide roadshow that spread misinformation about climate science and policy.
There was a hot air balloon and big "Don't Look Up" vibes.
Koch mobilizes to quash Obama-era climate efforts like the cap and trade bill — the last serious U.S. governmental effort to put a price on carbon pollution.
Americans for Prosperity crafted a "No Climate Tax" pledge, lobbied furiously, and got the entire GOP House leadership to sign on.
Koch and his billionaire allies then poured tens of millions into the 2010 midterms, fueled the Tea Party and targeted those who didn't sign AFP’s pledge.
AFP's then-president Tim Phillips bragged: "After that, [support for renewable energy] disappeared from Republican ads."
Trump withdraws the U.S. from the historic Paris Agreement in his first year of office and claims the victory as his own. It was Koch, argues Jane Mayer, who actually made it happen.
The double sabotage of Kyoto and Paris has made the United States an outlier among Western industrialized countries for its lack of cooperation on international climate accords.
By 2018, the Koch family fortune had spent at least $145 million funding climate denialist groups.
Reflecting on the Trump years, Charles Koch reportedly told donors, “We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the previous fifty.”
Most recently, the Koch network pulled out the stops to sink Build Back Better and its historic climate provisions.
Americans for Prosperity spent tens of millions on ads against Build Back Better, and Koch-funded "think tanks" like the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) came out opposing it.
In December 2021, we learned that the extreme bills to punish companies that stop fossil fuel investments come from TPPF and the American Legislative Exchange Council, both Koch-funded groups.
ALEC's climate denial is so extreme that Exxon, Shell, and BP (yes, you read that right) have all quit. Koch Industries has been on its corporate board for nearly 30 years and has been a major funder of ALEC’s operations.
What Do We Do With All This? Two Takeaways
The Koch network is so insidious because it finds ways to appear mainstream, while pushing a fringe, extremist agenda.
The "Independent Women's Forum," for example, peddles climate denial.
But look who funds them: Koch, Marathon Petroleum Company, and one of the world’s largest producers of compressors used in fracking, Ariel Corporation.
Whenever you encounter possible front groups peddling climate denial, consult sources like SourceWatch and DeSmog’s Climate Disinformation Database.
Treading lightly on the planet in your own life is important, but we're up against big secret money — so we need to organize about a whole lot more than plastic straws.
Join and support groups like Stop the Money Pipeline (a collective taking direct action — guided by Indigenous organizing — against fossil fuel companies and the banks and insurance companies funding them) and identify your local climate justice group.
Lisa Graves contributed to this report.