Koch Brothers Fuel the GOP’s War on Climate Science
Investigative journalist Bruce Livesey explains that the Koch brothers have used their enormous wealth to force Republicans to toe the line on climate change denial
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, with the Real News. In the past month, two catastrophic hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, struck the United States. The second of these hurricanes, Irma, inflicted even greater devastation on the Caribbean Islands than it inflicted on the mainland U.S. Irma has reduced the island of Barbuda to rubble, and has obliterated Saint Martin and Saint Bart’s, provoking fears in Saint Martin of a civil war for survival.
Irma then showed “no mercy” to Anguilla, and wreaked absolute devastation on the U.S. Virgin Islands, leaving “forests wiped out as far as the eye can see.” As of Friday evening, Irma’s death toll stood at 84. Importantly, Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to form east of the Leeward Islands. In the past, Category 5 hurricanes have formed in the warmer waters of the Caribbean. As for Hurricane Harvey, it broke the record for rainfall from a tropical cyclone in the United States, dropping more than 50 inches of rain on parts of Texas and Louisiana in a matter of days. Harvey has caused at least 82 deaths.
Now, in the wake of these two unprecedented storms, a third massive hurricane is bearing down on islands already reeling from Irma’s ferocity. Overnight, Hurricane Maria strengthened to a dangerous Category 3 hurricane, and is expected to make a direct hit on Puerto Rico as an even more dangerous Category 4 storm. Puerto Rico sustained serious damage from Irma but was spared the worst of the storm, and it is therefore harboring many who fled the devastation of neighboring islands, and those evacuees are now in harm’s way yet again.
On The Real News, we have been speaking to leading climate scientists about the clear links between climate change and the ferocity of these storms. In one such interview, which we published on September 7, renowned climate scientist Michael Mann had this to say about the links between climate change and hurricane intensity.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, so hurricanes are basically driven by the energy that results from the evaporation of very warm water. That’s why we find hurricanes in the tropical regions of the world, where ocean surface temperatures are warm enough to generate this particular type of storm. So they derive their energy from the energy that’s released when water evaporates from the surface of the ocean, and it carries this heat with it. The heat helps drive the hurricane, strengthen the hurricane, intensify the hurricane.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Despite the clear links, however, and despite the unprecedented nature of these recent hurricanes, President Donald Trump continues to whistle the tune of those who have paid the piper. After Irma stuck, he was asked by reporters on Air Force One whether these hurricanes had changed his views about climate change. This is what he had to say.
REPORTER: Mr. President, the severity of these storms — the one in Florida, the one in Texas, has that made you rethink your views of climate change?
DONALD TRUMP: Well, we’ve had bigger storms than this. And if you go back into the 1930s and the 1940s, and you take a look, we’ve had storms over the years that have been bigger than this. If you go back into the teens, you’ll see storms that were as big or bigger.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now here to discuss all of this with us is investigative reporter Bruce Livesey. Bruce is an award-winning journalist and the lead investigative reporter for The National Observer. His writing has appeared in most major newspapers and magazines in Canada, and he also has extensive experience in television, including six years as an associate producer at the CBC’s Fifth Estate. Bruce has also directed documentaries for various media organizations, including this network, The Real News Network. That documentary is called “Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers: Their War on Climate Science.” Thank you for joining us today, Bruce.
BRUCE LIVESEY: Thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So Bruce, as we’ve seen the Republican party at its highest levels continue to deny the reality of human-made climate change. Even apocalyptic hurricanes have not caused any appreciable change in their denialism. Your documentary explored the role of big money and particularly the Koch brothers in all of this. I’d like you to start by just tell us what you learned about the Koch brothers themselves, and their history in the course of your work on this documentary.
BRUCE LIVESEY: The Koch brothers, as your viewers may know, are two of the wealthiest individuals in the world. I think they’re currently listed as the eighth richest billionaires. They own a vast conglomerate called Koch Industries, which is based in Kansas. The origin of wealth of the Koch brothers is refining oil.
But starting in the 1980s, but in particular in the 1990s, the Kochs began to realize that it was important for the corporate interest to become politically involved. Eventually, they set their sights on influencing the Republican party. Really for the last 20 years, they’ve waged a relentless and very well financed campaign to influence the Republican party, especially on issues of regulation of the oil industry, and regulation around climate change.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Can you give us a sense of the amount of money that they’ve, and to the extent that this can be gleaned from publicly available information, or information you’ve otherwise acquired, the amount of money that Koch Industries and the Koch brothers have directed towards the Republican party and to denialist organizations? What are some of the organizations or fronts that they’re using, in order to sow doubt about climate science?
BRUCE LIVESEY: Just to give you an idea … One of the things that they actually did, for example, if you went back 10-15 years ago, there were actually limitations in the United States on what you could give political parties and what not. One of the first things they did is they began an assault on the various pieces of legislation that prevented greater expenditure by corporate entities, and in that respect they succeeded.
They’ve gone from spending about 40 million dollars on the midterms about 13 years ago to last year’s election, and we don’t know the full figures yet, but we’re probably talking in the neighborhood of a quarter of a billion, possibly as much as three quarters of billions of dollars that they spent on all levels of trying to influence, whether it’s state elections, congressional elections, senate races, and of course the presidential race. The sums are enormous, and by now they have a vast network of about 17 different front groups and organizations where the money is spent to influence the debate.
On climate denial, the numbers around about possibly as much as $80-100 million, maybe over $100 million they’ve spent over the years. But that’s just a fraction, because it’s not just what they’ve spent directly on climate denial front groups, it’s the funding of the Republican party as meant that they now influence the debate within the party. So the people who get elected now have to toe the Koch brother line on climate change.
DIMTIRI LASCARIS: Has their largesse been confined to the Republican party, or are there Democratic politicians, important Democratic politicians who’ve also been recipients of their so-called generosity? If so, who are their primary culprits?
BRUCE LIVESEY: Apparently, there have been over the years the odd democrat that they funded, but no one, as far as I can see, of any significance. They don’t really have friends in the Democratic party. The Democratic party, in fact, has made a lot of noise in recent years pointing to the Koch brothers, especially during elections, especially in terms of when the Democrats are pointing to their opponents being in the pockets of the Koch brothers. Yes, there has been a bit of money going to the Democrats, but it’s really not very substantial.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: What do we know specifically about their support for Donald Trump himself? Not just for the Republican party in general or for particular congressional or senate candidates, but for Donald Trump’s candidacy in the last presidential election?
BRUCE LIVESEY: Well, they didn’t support him. They threw their backing behind a number of other candidates. If you recall, originally there was 16 various candidates for the Republican nomination. They had their own group. Guys like Ted Cruz, for example. I think it was Scott Walker, they wanted to run. So there was certain people that they backed and they didn’t really care for Trump. Then, when Trump became the nominee, the stories were that they were not going to throw the vast amount of money that they could have thrown behind Trump, because they weren’t really sure about Trump. But that didn’t, in my view, really matter that much, because the machinery that the Kochs have built, their election machinery, it has two effects. One, it gets people out to the polls, which is critical. People who were going to vote Republican got to the polls, and voted for Trump. That was partially the responsibility of the Kochs’ machine. The second thing, which I think was actually more crucial, was the control of the Senate and the Congress.
What the Kochs did is their money ensured that both the Senate and Congress, which they had spent years shifting to control by the Republicans, remained in the hands of Republicans after the November election. So I think that’s actually probably more significant that whatever backing they may or may not have given to Trump.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: One would imagine that any Republican candidate for president would understand that you don’t want to run afoul of this extraordinary powerful political machine that the-
BRUCE LIVESEY: I think what’s been very clear now, and what my documentary gets into … And I think at one point Trump realizes that, especially after he won the election, he’s going to need help in terms of getting a cabinet together, and establishing the capacity to govern. Then he therefore turns to the Republican establishment, a machine which happens to be overwhelmingly stocked with Koch people. One-third of his transition team is made up of Koch network-connected people. Most of his key people in his cabinet come from the Koch-backed network. That includes Mike Pence, his vice president. Jeffrey Sessions, Betsy DeVos, the head of the CIA, they’re all connected to the Koch network.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Bruce, it’s a surprisingly little-known fact that in 2009, as leaders of the world converged on the UN climate conference held in Copenhagen that year, Donald Trump co-signed an open letter to the Obama administration in which he and other luminaries exhorted the administration to take urgent action on climate change. A letter, interestingly, was also signed by Trump’s three adult children. It stated amongst other things, I’m quoting now, “If we fail to act now it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”
Bruce, of course none of us is a mind reader, but what do you think is going on here? Should we believe that Donald Trump became a climate change skeptic within a couple of years of publicly acknowledging that the science was irrefutable? Or do you think he continues to understands, particularly with some of the advice he may be getting from the Pentagon, which does appears to have a clear understanding of the climate science, do you think he continues to understand that we are in a global climate emergency, and he simply decided to lie in order to please the GOP’s principal benefactors?
BRUCE LIVESEY: Well, this is a tough one, because one of the things that Trump got elected on, and guys like Steve Bannon, his Svengali, sort of were pushing was that Trump was against the Republican establishment. The Kochs are very much part of the Republican establishment. It’s hard to know … My sense is that Trump probably is not extremely aware of the details about anything, including the complexities of the science of climate change. I think, my sense is in particular after he got elected, he had surrounded himself with so many, essentially, climate change denier, who came out of the Koch network, who were preaching him the line that this was good for American business, that the regulations on stopping the burning of fossil fuels was bad for American business. And that he just went along with it, because it made a certain practical sense to him.
So, it’s very hard to know, this is the problem with Trump, it’s hard to know how much of it he’s being influenced by the Republican establishment, by the Koch network, or by whatever the hell he happens to be reading that day on Twitter. I think what is significant is that he has really gone out of his way to dismantle, even the puny measures of the Obama Administration. This might just be spite, by the way, because there is a spitefulness about Trump in regards to Obama. That part of the Paris climate agreement, a part of the other changes that Obama put into place regarding climate change, he wants to dismantle just to get rid of Obama’s legacy. In the end, I think what’s interesting is that despite the efforts of his own daughter and his son-in-law, to make him stay with the Paris treaty, he refused.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. It reminds me of something a former U.S. politician, Upton Sinclair, once said, that it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. This has been Dimitri Lascaris, speaking to investigative reporter Bruce Livesey about Donald Trump’s latest act of climate change denialism. Bruce, as I mentioned at the outset, has directed an important documentary called, “Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers Their War on Climate Science.” You can see this documentary on The Real News, under the heading “Feature Reports.” I urge you to do so. It’s a very important and interesting piece of work. Thank you very much for joining us today, Bruce.
BRUCE LIVESEY: My pleasure, Dimitri.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris, for The Real News.