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Lies the Koch Brothers Tell

Charles and David Koch think you can’t handle the truth.

Charles and David Koch are living proof that money talks. The brothers, who inherited a massive oil fortune and made it even larger, rarely speak publicly about politics and the environment. Yet few people have more influence over public policy.

Through their advocacy group and “think tanks,” the Kochs helped make climate change denial a thing. They fund academics who appear to support their agenda—then drop them when they accept the reality of climate change. The political groups they fund spent $100 million to influence the 2014 midterm elections (successfully, it turns out). And they lobby hard to repeal or block laws protecting the environment.

Illustrated by: Jared Rodriguez/Truthout

The Koch brothers may be wrong—really wrong. But they aren’t stupid. They know the way to fight legitimate research is with bogus research that confuses the public. Beginning in 1997—less than a decade after NASA climatologist James Hansen gave his landmark testimony on the dangers of global warming to Congress—the brothers began pouring money into climate change denial. They funded or founded denial groups that include the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the Cato Institute. They bankrolled the Tea Party, though they tried to keep their distance in order to keep up its appearance as a grassroots movement. According to a widely cited 2011 Greenpeace investigation into the Kochs’ funding patterns, the brothers have spent more than $67 million (a number that has surely increased over the past three years) to generate and disseminate bogus climate change research.

That kind of money can buy you an enormous pile of baloney. In no particular order, here are some of the most egregious lies that the Koch brothers’ riches have spread.

Lie No. 1: Polar Bears Are Just Fine

Koch-funded scientists published a non-peer-reviewed letter in the journal Ecological Complexity in 2007, making two fantastic claims. First, they attributed air temperature changes in the Arctic to natural variability rather than human-induced climate change. Second, they argued that polar bear populations were not in big trouble. “[T]he extrapolation of polar bear disappearance,” the authors argued, “is highly premature.”

Greenpeace has extensively documented the tepid sea of preposterousness on which this claim floats. (Disclosure: Aliya Haq, who helped produce the Greenpeace research, now works for NRDC, which publishes Earthwire.) First, there were funding questions. The Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, and Exxon-Mobil all gave grant money to author Willie Soon; Exxon also gave money to the Center for Astrophysics, which employs Soon and another author of the paper. What were the grants for? Unclear. According to the Greenpeace case study, the authors did no original research.

Taking money from Charles Koch doesn’t automatically make Soon wrong, of course—faulty evidence and absurd interpretations do. Polar bear expert Ian Stirling of the University of Alberta has spent decades tracking changes in sea ice, polar bear populations, and the health status of individual polar bears. Using more than 30 years of satellite imagery, he has documented reductions in sea ice over the long term.

Sea ice in Canada’s western Hudson Bay now breaks up more than three weeks earlier in the season than when Stirling began his observations in the 1970s. This forces polar bears to begin their hibernation fasts earlier in the year. The bears are not equipped for progressively longer fasts, and Stirling observed declining survival rates in bears of all ages. Females, which fast for longer periods than males do, weighed 143 pounds less, on average, in 2004 than in 1980. The shrinking mothers had a harder time birthing and raising young.

This chain of cause-and-effect should be relatively clear. Disappearing ice forces bears into earlier hibernation. They can’t survive three additional weeks of not eating, which causes them to lose weight. Thinner bears have difficulty raising their young, and when the next hibernation season begins—this one even longer than the last—they are already at a deficit. It’s as easy as putting two and two together.

Soon and his colleagues, however, put two and two together and get three. But apparently that's what happens when an astrophysicist who has done no original research and has been repeatedly called out for talking about things well beyond his expertise questions the work of a man who spent decades tagging, following, and measuring polar bears.

Photo: Michael Bamford

Lie No. 2: Climate Change Forecasts Are All Wrong

In an October 2013 letter addressed to “[f]ellow lovers of liberty,” Heartland Institute official Jim Lakely wrote that “any change in temperatures that might occur in the future is so small, it will not be noticed against the climate’s natural variability.”

This message—written by an official at a Koch-funded “think tank” and posted on the website of Americans for Prosperity, another major cog in the Koch propaganda machine—has become a theme among climate change deniers. Koch Industries executive vice president Richard Fink loves to use the word exaggerate when discussing climate change. Ed Crane, another of the Kochs’ main men, also uses the e word in connection with global warming.

It’s obvious why deniers are tacking this tack: The reality of human-induced climate change has reached an indisputable level of consensus among scientists. The only plausible argument remaining to them is quibbling over the precise magnitude of temperature differences.

There is a single thread of truth woven into this Koch-funded quilt of nonsense. Climate change modeling is challenging when done on the scale of a decade or two, because forecasters must incorporate large-scale, unpredictable phenomena, such as the fluctuations in ocean temperatures known as El Niño and La Niña. If they make wrong guesses about what will happen in the oceans, their estimates about the surface temperatures are likely to be slightly off. The slight slowdown in the increase of surface-level global warming in the last few years, for example, due to the oceans absorbing more heat than expected.

These hard-to-predict variations, however, are unimportant over the course of several decades, and that is the timescale on which policymakers should be thinking. (I emphasize, should.) El Niño and La Niña are an oscillating pair, which means they will balance each other out. Climate change models have already proven their accuracy when those cancellations are taken into account. A paper published in Nature Climate Change in July applied existing climate change models to known conditions over the past 60 years; it showed that when the models got the ocean cycle correct, their forecasts of surface-level temperature changes were impressively accurate.

As with any science, climate change modeling also becomes more accurate as we develop our understanding over time. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the models are systematically overstating future temperature increases. And the especially hilarious aspect of Koch-fueled attacks on climate models is the suggestion that climatologists are lying to protect their own financial interests. Have the Kocks ever heard of glass houses?

Lie No. 3: Climate Change will be Good for Farmers

The Koch brothers don’t usually have to tell their own lies about climate change, just like they don’t have to shine their own shoes or wash their own underwear. They have people to do that sort of thing for them. This next lie, however, is an exception. In 2010, David Koch stepped out from behind his emerald-green curtain to tell the following climate change whopper to New York magazine: “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because a far greater land area will be available to produce food.”

Koch apparently had read the CliffsNotes version of climate science, because there is a tiny grain of truth in this hugely misleading statement. In certain parts of the world, slightly higher temperatures could improve yields of some crops. In addition, an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide could encourage plant growth. But in other parts of the world—the majority, in fact—devastating droughts and other changes will likely lead to massive food shortages (as the latest United Nations report and the Pentagon, not exactly treehuggers, have both warned). Overall, more of the planet's agricultural areas are expected to do worse instead of better. So suggesting climate change is good for agriculture is a bit like a zookeeper letting a hippo out of his exhibit because he might keep the grass short

The overwhelming majority of scientists who have examined this issue conclude that food prices will rise dramatically over the long term in a business-as-usual carbon emissions scenario (meaning if we don’t do anything to cut the amount of pollution we’re spewing into the atmosphere). Without the rapid adoption of clean-energy solutions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body responsible for assessing global warming, predicts that global temperatures will rise nearly 4 degrees Celsius (approximately 7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century, relative to temperatures at the end of the last. At that level of increase, four of the five studies cited by the IPCC suggest significant rises in food prices, ranging from a low of 5 percent to a staggering high of 30 percent.

Photo: IPCCCereal prices (percent of baseline) versus global mean temperature change for major modeling studies. Prices interpolated from point estimates of temperature effects.

Keep in mind that those forecasts are only for the latter part of this century, which isn’t all that far in the future. (With rapidly improving medical technology, children born in the United States today stand an excellent chance of living into the 22nd century.) If we take the Kochs’ advice and do nothing about carbon pollution, warming will accelerate in the next 100 years. Few scientists have attempted to forecast what would happen to food prices if global warming moves past 5 degrees Celsius (or 9 Fahrenheit), but the results would be extreme.

Take heart: If your kids have a few billion dollars to spare, they probably won’t have trouble scrounging up a few scraps.

Lie No. 4: Formaldehyde Doesn’t Cause Cancer

Formaldehyde has an unseverable connection with death. A whiff of it, for example, immediately takes any doctor back to the gross anatomy lab in medical school, with its rows of cadavers. For the non-doctors among us, it will be forever linked with dead-and-pinned frogs. Formaldehyde’s connections with death, however, go well beyond dissection. There is substantial evidence that the chemical causes cancer, among other disorders. That is, unless you believe the Koch brothers.

Formaldehyde is all around you. You’re probably inhaling it right now, at a maximum 0.03 parts per million in the ambient air. If you work in places with lots of running automobiles, cigarette smoke, gas-burning stoves, or cadavers, you’re breathing it in at significantly higher concentrations. That’s a bad thing. Many epidemiological studies, including a massive long-term study by the National Cancer Institute, show that people who are regularly exposed to elevated levels of formaldehyde are more likely to develop leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancers. Inhaling it seems to cause squamous cell carcinomas in mice and rats.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the world’s recognized experts on carcinogenicity, classifies formaldehyde as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means there is sufficient evidence proving the substance’s cancer-causing power. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in contrast, classifies formaldehyde as only a “probable” human carcinogen, meaning it considers the evidence not conclusive.

Why is the EPA hesitating when the IARC is certain? No one known for sure, but, as Jane Mayer pointed out in the New Yorker in 2010, the Koch brothers seem to have a hand in the EPA’s equivocation. Koch Industries produces billions of pounds of formaldehyde and has lobbied the EPA not to move it into the known-carcinogen category. Koch network has also lined the coffers of members of Congress who have cautioned the EPA against acknowledging the carcinogenicity of formaldehyde, despite the recommendation of a panel of experts from the National Institutes of Health.

Can you smell that? It’s not dead frogs—it’s the putrid stench of corporate interests encroaching on science.

Lie No. 5: The EPA Loves Koch Industries

Charles Koch is fed up with people trying to suppress his free speech. That’s why he wrote an angry editorial in the Wall Street Journal back in April, accusing his opponents of intimidation. I feel for him. All he has is a vast network of corporate spokesmen, several advocacy groups, a few think tanks, and a few members of Congress in his pocket. It is so tough for a billionaire to get a word in edgewise these days.

In the same op-ed, Koch claimed that his companies have won a slew of awards from the EPA and that the agency “commended us for our ‘commitment to a cleaner environment’ and called us ‘a model for other companies.’ ”

If you smell something after reading that, it’s not formaldehyde. Shortly after Koch published his editorial, Steve Contorno examined these claims for Politifact. The EPA did not refer to the Koch fossil fuel and chemical empire as a “model for other companies.” In fact, an EPA regional administrator commented that an agreement struck between the agency and a single subsidiary of the Koch network regarding a permitting process could be a model for other companies. That’s far from commending the company’s environmental record as a whole.

What about the Kochs’ “commitment to a cleaner environment?” There, too, Charles has confused a barely detectable EPA nod of appreciation with a wet kiss on the mouth. After another Koch subsidiary agreed to participate in a program to improve fuel efficiency, the EPA acknowledged that single action as suggestive of a commitment to a cleaner environment. The agency made abundantly clear to Politifact that the comment was not intended as an assessment of Koch Industries’ overall environmental record but was simply a one-off acknowledgement of a transportation initiative.

The idea that the EPA would consider Koch Industries as a model for environmental compliance is laughable. (I mean that literally—I'm chuckling to myself just thinking about it.) Koch companies have leaked all manner of toxic substances into their plants’ surroundings, from chlorine dioxide to crude oil to benzene. The Kochs are almost constantly at war with the EPA in the court system, and their companies have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements with the agency. The Political Economy Research Institute ranks Koch Industries as the country’s 13th-largest air polluter

If these are the kind of things that Charles Koch’s opponents are preventing him from saying, maybe he should consider silence a virtue. Go home, Charles. You’re embarrassing yourself.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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