The data suggest opponents of climate legislation far outspent environmentalists during debate over the bill in 2009 and 2010:

  • 8-to-1 on lobbying in 2009
  • 4-to 1 (or more) on advertising in 2009
  • 8-to-1 in donations to candidates and Congress members in 2010 cycle
  • 10-to-1 on independent election expenditures in 2010

I am basing those numbers on a reanalysis of data in Matthew Nisbet’s discredited “Climate Shift” report [big PDF here].

This reanalysis, which I’ll present below, was done with the help of Dr. Robert Brulle. Brulle is a leading social scientist whom Nisbet had specifically asked to review his financial analysis — and who ultimately withdrew his name from the study in large part because Nisbet’s claims that enviros held the spending edge were “contradicted by Nisbet’s own data.” Brulle’s withdrawal letter is here.

Yesterday, yet another expert, Thomas Webler, came forward to debunk Nisbet’s analysis. His email to me focused on Nisbet’s claim that enviro overall spending resources exceed that of bill opponents and concludes:

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Nisbet acknowledges that the green groups do many more things than simply work on climate legislation, but by posing this huge $1.4 billion number against the $787 million of the brown NGOs, I feel Nisbet is attempting to convey an idea that is actually false.  He seems to want to make the point that greens have more — and spend more — than browns.  But, when one looks beyond the surface, it becomes clear that this can only be done by making illegitimate assumptions that end up bending the truth.

It’s sad to see such misleading social science come out into the public sphere, but particularly troubling to see this on Earth Day.  I’m saddened to see such questionable scholarship acquire publicity it does not deserve.  Questionable scholarship does harm to our entire profession. I only hope that readers of the report will put the time in that is necessary to read critically, not accept claims on face value, and come to their own conclusions. [Emphasis mine.]

Webler is a founding member and research fellow at the Social and Environmental Research Institute. He is on the editorial board of Environmental Communication, Society and Natural Resources and Human Ecology Review.

Since Nisbet’s debunked financial analysis is the big news hook for his study, and since this is a crucial area for understanding what happened to the climate bill, I’ll spend the rest of this post reanalyzing the data in great detail, to try to get a true picture of what happened.

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Note: I don’t want to overstate the confidence in these numbers, which is why I use the word “suggest” in the first line. These numbers aren’t peer-reviewed. But they are based on Nisbet’s extensive, though deeply flawed research, plus input by Brulle and Webler, along with 2010 analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics and new, original analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard described my first post as “Killing a false narrative before it takes hold.” Since Nisbet’s report is beyond uncitable, my goal here is provide analysis that will stand as one of the most credible analyses to cite until someone publishes a journal article.

Reanalyzing the financial data in detail

Nisbet’s claim that the environmentalists outspent opponents of the bill is the exact opposite of the truth. I’ll start by looking at the specific funding areas, and then look at the overall spending picture.

Election spending: On page 22, Nisbet notes, “A clear financial advantage still held by the conservative movement and industry allies exists in the arena of election spending, as a recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics indicates.” Nisbet’s numbers for 2010 put the edge for the opponents at $73 million to $7.2 million or 10-to-1. This ratio seems plausible.

Advertising: On pages 21 and 22, Nisbet compares the 2009 advertising budget of the opponents, not including individual companies ($167 million) to that of the environmentalists ($47.7) or nearly 4-to-1 against. He notes that “Not all of this ad spending was on climate change.” In fact, most of his numbers are similarly non-rigorous, but you have to let qualms like that go when writing about Nisbet’s work.

Nisbet points out: “Image advertising by the major oil companies is also relevant, as this advertising may influence the perceived need among lawmakers and the public for cap and trade legislation, even if the ads did not directly address the debate, and even as some of the companies supported the bills.” If we add in the figures he gives for ads by ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron, that would be almost 5-to-1 in ads potentially undermining support for a bill.

Lobbying: Nisbet’s seemingly bombshell conclusion here is (page 21):

Through their work building coalitions and alliances, the environmental groups were able to forge a network of organizations that spent a combined $229 million on lobbying across all issues. In comparison, the network of prominent opponents of cap and trade legislation spent $272 million lobbying across all issues. These figures represent a dramatically reduced power difference compared with past legislative debates over climate change.

Note that even in this dubious comparison, enviros were outspent in 2009.

The key squishy phrase that allows Nisbet to make enviros look infinitely richer than they were is “forge a network of organizations that spent a combined $229 million on lobbying across all issues.”

Nisbet counted the entire lobbying budget on all issues from every corporation in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership — $152.7 million. If you find this impossible to believe, go to Table 1.9 (p. 19), where he totals up the lobbying for corporations like GE ($26.4 million), ConocoPhillips ($18.1 million), and British Petroleum ($16.0 million). Nisbet also counted the entire lobbying budget on all issues from “other major companies and organizations that lobbied on cap and trade and were publicly supportive of the legislation” (Table 1.10, p. 20) — $64.1 million. This includes the entire lobbying budget of Bank of America, Walmart, and American Electric Power.

Brulle called this an “extremely dubious assumption,” which is academic-speak for total B.S. As Nisbet himself notes, ConocoPhillips and BP left USCAP in early 2010. They never seriously supported the climate bill. More important, it is beyond head-exploding to tally up the entire lobbying budget.

Does anyone think that GE or BP or BofA spent even a small fraction of their overall lobbying budget seriously pushing for a climate bill? Lobbyists I spoke to pointed out that, at best, some of those companies probably occasionally met with members of Congress to say something like “if you do pass a climate bill, please make sure it doesn’t include the following provisions we hate.” That’s hardly lobbying for the bill. I actually met with lobbyists for one of the groups Nisbet lists as supposedly pro-bill, and they repeatedly dismissed it as “cap-and-tax” and almost certainly lobbied against it!

Brulle points out that if we eliminate Nisbet’s absurd assumption about the lobbying budgets of USCAP members and other big companies and organizations, then opponents out-lobbied environmentalists by $272 million to $12.8 million. But that probably inflates the lobbying that the opponents did. Can we get a better number?

Last August, Open Secrets blog, which investigates money in politics, published “Pro-Environment Groups Outmatched, Outspent in Battle Over Climate Change Legislation,” which concluded:

At the height of the legislative push, during 2009, pro-environmental groups spent a record $22.4 million on federal lobby efforts. That is double the average expenditure between 2000 and 2008 …

The US Climate Action Partnership, an unprecedented conglomeration of leading advocacy groups, energy businesses and some of the U.S. largest producers, spent $1 million independently.

Yet even as pro-environment groups seemed poised to capitalize on favorable trends, moneyed opponents girded for a fight with more financial capital than ever before.

Clients in the oil and gas industry unleashed a fury of lobbying expenditures in 2009, spending $175 million — easily an industry record — and outpacing the pro-environmental groups by nearly eight-fold, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis. [Emphasis mine.]

That eight-fold ratio is not inconsistent with Nisbet’s numbers, once corrected. It stands as the most plausible estimate until something far more thorough is published in the peer-reviewed literature. The Houston Chronicle has more detail on these numbers here.

Donations to members of Congress: On page 22, Nisbet devotes one short paragraph to donations:

Donations to members of Congress are equally complex to track, though do show a sizable advantage for proponents of cap and trade legislation. Data compiled by estimates that in the two years leading up to the June 2009 House cap and trade vote, donations to elected members of Congress from interest groups supporting the bill outnumbered the donations from interest groups opposed to the bill nearly 9 to 1 ($35 million to $4 million). Similarly, on the Senate bill, in the two years leading up to its August 2010 failure, donations to Senators from interest groups supporting the bill outnumbered those from groups opposed by 5 to 1 ($6.4 million to $1.2 million.)

Strangely, it is the only cross comparison that uses a two-year aggregate and therefore the numbers don’t match all of his others, which are single-year comparisons. But, as we’ll see, it is way, way off.

Kristen Bartoloni, a Center for American Progress Action Fund researcher, did a more thorough analysis. She found that “‘Climate Shift’ uses Maplight Data on campaign contributions that excludes 15 of 18 organizations Nisbet identifies as ‘Prominent Opponents’ of the bill,” including Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries:

It omits Koch Industries, who contributed $2,134,963 to candidates for office in just the 2010 cycle, Exxon Mobil, who contributed $1,331,352 to candidates, and Chevron, who contributed $931,814. Just these three companies combined for a total of $4.4 million in campaign contributions ignored by the study.

Here is what Bartoloni found when she redid the analysis — a nearly 9-to-1 advantage for opponents in the 2010 cycle:

Reality: During the Key 2008-2010 Cycles, Polluters Donated $100 Million MORE to Candidates and Members of Congress Than Environmentalists and the Alternative Energy Sector


The big picture

As you may recall, Dr. Brulle said that after his detailed review of the financial data, “My overall analysis is that the rest of the report eviscerates the executive summary.”

In the Executive Summary, Nisbet never mentions any of the real financial disparities. Instead, here is what he says:

The national environmental groups working on climate change have closed the financial gap with their longstanding opponents among conservative think tanks, groups and industry associations. They have augmented their legislative influence through alliances with several dozen of the world’s largest corporations. They have also spent heavily on general public education campaigns and advertising, and they have been able to spend unrestricted amounts on direct mobilization of their more than 12 million members.

  • Analysis of revenue and spending is based on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) records and annual reports for 2009, the most recent year for which data is publicly available. The analysis of lobbying expenditures is based on data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
  • The 45 national environmental groups working on climate change are a $1.7 billion-a-year movement, with revenue streams that rival the most expensive presidential campaigns in history and the combined earnings of the world’s richest sports franchises. In comparison, the 42 conservative think tanks, groups and industry associations aligned against cap and trade legislation generate about $900 million per year in revenue.
  • In 2009, in their efforts focused on climate change and energy policy, the national environmental groups outspent conservative think tanks, groups and their industry association allies $335 million to $259 million.

Sounds impressive and compelling, no?

But as we’ve seen, the data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics actually shows environmental groups were out-lobbied, probably 8-to-1. They were out-advertised 4-to-1 or more. They were beaten by more than 8-to-1 in donations to candidates and Congress members in the 2010 election cycle and by 10-to-1 on independent election expenditures in 2010.

But what about the $1.7 billion total revenues for enviro groups vs. $900 million for opponents? Well, it is certainly worth pointing out that environmental groups have become large. But remember, of the $1.7 billion, roughly $1 billion is the Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, and National Audobon Society and other conservation organizations who spend the vast majority of their money on things like buying land for nature preservation, wildlife refuges, maintaining open spaces, running outdoor nature education facilities, protecting and enhancing the habitat of wildlife and endangered species, building and maintaining hiking trails and outdoor recreation spaces, and so on.

This comparison doesn’t count any corporate money. Yet Nisbet counts corporations in the spending comparisons when he thinks that will make his case. In this sleight-of-hand, Nisbet coyly doesn’t include the revenues from the fossil fuel companies themselves in the $900 million.

Why does Nisbet count corporations in the lobbying expenses comparison, but not the total revenues? That’s an easy one. ExxonMobil’s revenues by itself were $285 billion in 2010 alone! Heck, their profits were a staggering $19 billion. If Nisbet counted them, as he should, it would again eviscerate his key talking point. On page 15, Nisbet points out that the enviros’ 2009 revenues of $1.7 billion were bigger than the “combined revenue of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers and Manchester United.” Too bad the enviros weren’t playing against sports teams to decide the fate of climate policy, but against Big Oil and corporate polluters.

So that second bullet is bogus.

Webler points out:

I take issue with the Figure 1.1, which shows all spending by greens at 1.4 billion. The implication in the report is that this number can be compared with the 787 million spent by brown think tanks and lobbying groups. Lobbying and policy analysis are ALL that the latter groups do, whereas the green groups do so much more with their 1.4 billion. WCS, for example, runs the Bronx Zoo. The Nature Conservancy funds research into land management practices. The National Parks Conservation Association studies the threats facing national parks (like a casino planned to be built at Gettysburg National Battlefield). I already made the point about that several groups like WWF spend large amounts of money abroad, trying to support biodiversity conservation or habitat protection in threatened regions. Nisbet acknowledges that the green groups do many more things that simply work on climate legislation, but by posing this huge 1.4 billion number against the 787 million of the brown NGOs, I feel Nisbet is attempting to convey an idea that is actually false. He seems to want to make the point that greens have more and spend more than browns. But, when one looks beyond the surface, it becomes clear that this can only be done by making illegitimate assumptions that end up bending the truth. [Emphasis mine.]

I know you’re wondering why the $1.4 billion for all spending by greens (p. 16 of the study) doesn’t match the $1.7 billion in the Executive Summary. Nisbet has these confusing apparent inconsistencies everywhere.

Spending on climate and energy

But what about the claim of enviros outspending opponents $335 million to $259 million? First, other than the Alliance for Climate Protection, all of Nisbet’s other numbers for spending by environmental groups on “climate change and energy” are pure guesses. A number of these groups have told me his estimates are “wildly wrong.” Many of them do lots of things on energy that have nothing whatsoever to do with the climate bill. And much of what they did on the climate bill was about figure out how to design it — not how to promote.

I suspect that a real analysis would show that the fraction of the opponents’ spending in this area to kill the bill was much higher than the fraction of enviro spending to promote it. Certainly that is at least as plausible as any of Nisbet’s conjectures.

Webler sent me this:

Although I have not performed a careful academic review of the report, just a quick read does raise some serious red flags. I was particularly interested in the assumptions hidden in the footnotes to Chapter 1. For instance, for the biggest environmentalist groups (those in Table 1.6) he assumes that 10% of all spending is on climate change and energy (10% of 393 million = 39 million). Does this assumption hold up? I took the first group, WWF, which is also the biggest, and I downloaded their most recent 990 tax return from the WWF website. This shows total expenses were 182.9 million (line 18 on their 990). I’m not clear why Nisbet lists expenses as 224 million.

But basically, Nisbet’s 10% assumption concludes that WWF spent $24 million on climate policy. Is this possible? Looking deeper into WWF’s tax return, one sees that they spent 56 million for grants and 70 million for other projects (total 126 million), so their climate spending would have to come out of this (other expenses were for salaries, benefits, office, etc.). The 990 says that, of this 126 million, 89 million went to field programs to conserve “ecosystems and the people who live there” (e.g. “elephants in Africa”) and another 17 million on helping transition markets away from habitat depletion (e.g. “ending trade in snow leopard pelts”). WWF says that the rest, about 20 million was spent on education, some of which was certainly spent to influence climate policy in the USA, but how much? Nisbet assumes WWF’s spending on climate change politics was 22 million in 2009.

Therefore, for Nisbet to be right, WWF must have spent ALL its public education budget on climate change politics. But this seems highly unlikely, given the organization’s main interest in wildlife preservation. I offer this story not because I fished around for one mistake in the report, WWF appears first on this list and, knowing their work, I thought it odd that the organization would spend anywhere near that amount on climate. I did this all in one hour after reading your posting on Climate Progress.

So I think it is safe to say this part of Nisbet’s analysis can’t stand the light of day.

Second, Brulle pointed directed me to this disclaimer on page iii of the report:

Yet despite these sizable advantages in spending for environmental groups, only 19 percent of the spending by environmental groups specific to climate change and energy policy was unrestricted as part of a 501(c)(4) organization. In comparison, because of the 501(c)(6) tax status of the industry associations, approximately two-thirds of spending by the coalition of advocacy groups opposed to climate action was free to be applied in unlimited amounts to lobbying and direct grassroots mobilization.

Stop the presses!

For those of you who don’t know about the lobbying restrictions applied to nonprofits, Wikipedia has a good entry here. The overwhelming majority of the enviro money simply can’t be used for lobbying and the like. It is for things like paying staff to travel to meetings like Copenhagen or write policy papers — should we auction the permits or give them away and so on? This is what wonks do. It’s important stuff, but again, what fraction of even the enviro c4 spending on climate and energy was to actively promote the bill? Based on my discussions with people in the field, it is certainly less than half, and probably far less than half. Certainly Nisbet has no clue what the fraction is.

As Brulle put it to me, of all the comparison areas Nisbet looks at — lobbying, election funding, advertising — this broad organizational spending is “probably the least important.”

Note: On page 10, Nisbet seems to offer another figure: “This means that 85 percent of all spending specific to the issue by the aligned coalition of conservative groups and industry associations could be applied in unrestricted ways to lobbying and grassroots mobilization.”

But let’s multiply Nisbet’s ratios by his own numbers to see how much can actually be used for lobbying and the like. The enviro number is 19 percent of $335 or $64 million. The opponents number is either 67 percent of $259 or $173 million — or it’s 85 percent of $259 million, which is $220 million!

In short, even in Nisbet’s biggest aggregation, which certainly wildly over-inflates the enviro number according to multiple sources, the opponents of the climate bill outspent the environmentalists by over $100 million, by upwards of 3-to-1.

But, as we’ve seen, this particular number has so many question marks associated with it — it is mostly wild guesses that are wildly wrong — that anyone looking for numbers to cite should stick with the ones I posted at the very top.

Note: Nisbet’s report sometimes uses another number that conflicts with the $335 million number — $394 million — so he needs to fix what appears to be a glaring internal inconsistency. For the record, 19 percent of $394 million is $75 million, so whenever he figures out what is the right number, it won’t change my reanalysis significantly.

The real lessons from the financial analysis

Had Nisbet not been so consumed with writing an executive summary that doesn’t match his own numbers, he might have been able to draw some interesting conclusions.

First, the environmental groups were severely outspent by the opponents of the climate bill in every area that matters. His numbers are mostly too squishy to cite, but I’d stick with the 8-to-1 lobbying estimate, at least 4 to 1 advertising estimate, 9-to-1 in donations to candidates and Congress members in 2010 cycle, and 10-to-1 on independent election expenditures in 2010.

Second, on page 2 he gives this disclaimer which would seemingly vitiate his entire financial analysis:

It is important to keep in perspective, however, that money was only one factor among many shaping the outcome of the cap and trade debate. In their study of nearly 100 policy issues, a team of political scientists led by Frank Baumgartner concludes that relatively resource-poor coalitions were no more likely to be on the losing side of a policy debate than their resource-advantaged opponents.  Instead, the impact of spending on lobbying, advertising and communication often varies depending on other factors, such as the cohesion of a coalition and the wider political context. In the case of cap and trade legislation, the continued economic recession, the heavy focus on the health care debate, a perceived lack of leadership by the White House and decisions by key leaders in the Senate all are presumed to have shaped the legislative outcome.

That’s an especially fascinating disclaimer because nowhere in the Executive Summary does Nisbet ascribe any blame whatsoever to Obama or the White House, whereas most independent experts agree that Obama’s choice to focus on health care and his lack of leadership on the climate bill in the Senate were indeed major factors. But, again, in the Executive Summary, Nisbet wants to create the impression that the White House, conservative groups, and media are blameless so he can pin the entire blame on climate scientists, environmentalists, foundations, and Al Gore.

As another example of how superficial and ideological his analysis is, in Nisbet’s entire 100-page treatise on the causes of the failure of the climate bill you will not find the word “filibuster” or “60 votes” or any discussion at all of the very high bar required to pass any legislation in the Senate. Every single analysis to date of the failure of the climate bill has emphasized this critical fact, which Nisbet ignores entirely. Why? Because if he were to it emphasize the Senate bottleneck, it would undercut his effort to blame enviros and scientists and Al Gore.

Third, Nisbet has a discussion of the Proposition 23 effort to kill the California climate bill. He notes:

In total, supporters of the proposition raised approximately $10.6 million. In comparison, the “No on Proposition 23” coalition raised at least $25 million, resulting in a more-than 2-to-1 financial advantage over their opponents …

Proposition 23 was defeated 61 percent to 39 percent, drawing considerable support among Republican voters in the state.

So here it would seem again to make the case that a monetary edge does help make a difference. Also, having the support of prominent Republicans in the state presumably helped. Why weren’t there prominent Republicans at a national level supporting the climate bill? I’ll discuss that in a later post, but as we’ll see, notwithstanding Nisbet’s counterfactual history, it was not for lack of a concerted effort by Al Gore and the pro-bill coalition.

Let me end with Webler’s conclusion to me:

He seems to want to make the point that greens have more and spend more than browns. But, when one looks beyond the surface, it becomes clear that this can only be done by making illegitimate assumptions that end up bending the truth.

It’s sad to see such misleading social science come out into the public sphere, but particularly troubling to see this on Earth Day. I’m saddened to see such questionable scholarship acquire publicity it does not deserve. Questionable scholarship does harm to our entire profession. I only hope that readers of the report will put the time in that is necessary to read critically, not accept claims on face value, and come to their own conclusions.