How dark money fuels climate denialism

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse joined Penn faculty to discuss distrust in science, the fossil fuel industry, and the conservative Supreme Court.

Whitehouse speaks in a panel next to Mann, Francisco, and Morrison.
Whitehouse joined scientists Michael Mann and Joseph Francisco in a panel on political dark money moderated by Kathleen Morrison. (From left to right: Michael Mann, Sheldon Whitehouse, Joseph Francisco, and Kathleen Morrison)

Apanel of climate scientists may seem an unusual choice for a discussion about the Supreme Court and political dark money, but Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse sees a clear connection between these seemingly disparate issues. In his view, the special interests behind stacking the Supreme Court with conservative justices were the same ones that perpetuate climate change denial.

On Friday, Dec. 9, Whitehouse joined Michael Mann, Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, and Joseph Francisco, Presidential Distinguished Professor of chemistry, for a discussion about how dark money underlies climate change denial in American politics. Dark money refers to funds from an undisclosed source that are used to influence political outcomes.

The panel, moderated by Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor of Anthropology Kathleen Morrison, was organized by the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media and took place at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The discussion centered on topics covered in Whitehouse’s recently released book, “The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court,” which he describes as “part textbook, part detective story, part prosecution memo, part warning flare.”

The work builds upon his previous book, which discussed the corporate capture of government and regulatory agencies.

A member of the Democratic Party, Whitehouse has served as the Junior United States Senator from Rhode Island since 2007. Prior to his time in Congress, Whitehouse was the 71st attorney general of Rhode Island.

‘A captured court’

Whitehouse began the conversation by introducing the concept of “regulatory capture,” when interest groups that a regulatory agency is supposed to govern end up controlling the agency from the inside. A commonly cited example is when 19th-century railroad barons consolidated their wealth and power by controlling the railroad commissions themselves.

Whitehouse argued that the current Supreme Court—with six conservative and three liberal justices—is a modern-day example of regulatory capture. According to Whitehouse, the special interest groups that propagated doubt about the climate crisis had “enormous overlap” with the groups involved in pushing through conservative Supreme Court justices.

Joseph Francisco speaks at a panel.
Joseph Francisco, a chemist whose research has shed light on atmospheric pollution, questioned why the Supreme Court seemed to be exempt from the checks and balances other branches of government faced. 

Francisco then raised that the U.S. government was built on checks and balances that ensured each branch of government could maintain independence but never gain too much power. The Supreme Court, however, appeared to be exempt from those checks. “The Supreme Court provides checks on the appeals and lower courts, but who checks them?” asked Francisco.

Whitehouse echoed Francisco’s concern and laid out the lack of oversight on the Supreme Court. Because Justices are appointed rather than democratically elected, he said, they’re not accountable to voters in the same way as members of Congress or the President. Whitehouse suggested that dark money organizations took advantage of the Supreme Court’s lack of accountability “to accomplish things that they tried and failed to accomplish through the democratic processes of government.”

Whitehouse said that the “captured court” was essential to restricting the federal government’s authority to regulate emissions in the 2022 West Virginia v. EPA case. “This is an effort to edge around the popular will and impose things through one branch of government that is not accountable to the people,” he said.

Media and money

Mann then turned the discussion to the role of the media in fostering the current political landscape. Whitehouse noted that the media was contributing to the rise of conservatism in American politics in multiple ways. First, he said, media outlets backed by powerful corporations and political actors produced “right-wing propaganda.” According to Whitehouse, these media outlets have large budgets and clear-cut talking points for their writers, making it easy to push out conservative-slanted stories that influence the public opinion. In contrast, reputable media sources were struggling, he said, with many journalists simply too busy and under too much pressure to “generate clicks,” leaving them unable to dig into complex political situations and “look for the patterns.”

Steering the conversation to the fossil fuel industry, Morrison wondered how it had contributed to the circumstances described by Whitehouse.

Whitehouse responded that, according to the International Monetary Fund’s calculations, the annual subsidy for fossil fuels in the U.S. totals $660 billion, and the industry “wants to protect that subsidy at all costs.” Based on that incentive, Whitehouse doubted that there was an upper bound to the amount of dark money the fossil fuel industry could funnel into politics. 

Morrison also questioned the “persistent cultural attachment to fossil fuels in American life,” citing examples like the mockery of Prius drivers and the practice of rolling coal, where diesel engines are modified to emit more exhaust fumes.

Whitehouse suggested that even these cultural phenomena may trace back to the fossil fuel industry. “There’s at least a non-trivial chance that all of that is actually created by money being spent to whip people up,” he said.

Francisco reflected that Whitehouse’s message could be summed up in three words: “Follow the money.” Whitehouse concurred.

Michael Mann speaks at a panel.
Mann, whose research has been essential for the scientific understanding of climate change, wondered about the future of bipartisan climate change in a political system dominated by dark money. 

Reaching across the aisle

Concluding the conversation, Mann remarked on the possibility of bipartisanship, asking “Is there any hope for working with those across the aisle today?” Whitehouse explained that before the 2010 Citizens United ruling that enabled corporations to spend unlimited funds on elections, there existed greater opportunities for bipartisan climate action. However, he said, that bipartisan legislation dried up after the fossil fuel industry began channeling more funds into politics in the form of dark money. Whitehouse said that to enact bipartisan climate legislation, dark money needed to be eliminated from American politics.

Book cover for “The Scheme”

Questions from the audience addressed how the Democratic party could work together rather than get lost in competing priorities, how politicians could reach across the aisle and collaborate, and how the fossil fuel industry has also influenced politics in Europe.

Sen. Whitehouse closed the conversation by thanking climate scientists like Mann and Francisco and urging for reform in American politics. “I truly believe if we got rid of this massive dark money spending,” said Whitehouse, “the temperature would come down in this country, bipartisanship would reemerge in this country, and the public would be much more satisfied.”

Michael Mann is a Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, with a secondary appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, & the Media.

Joseph Francisco is a Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science and chemistry in the School of Arts & Sciences, and is a co-chair of the Environmental Innovations Initiative at Penn.

Kathleen Morrison is chair of the Department of Anthropology and the Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor of Anthropology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, and is a co-chair of the Environmental Innovations Initiative.