The Dead Billionaire’s Club That Runs the Environmental Movement

new report from the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works shows just how a handful of left-leaning foundations have taken control of the once-grassroots environmental movement. These foundations both shape the environmental agenda and help put people in power in the Environmental Protection Agency and other bureaucracies.

20140829_OTooleClick image to download the 2.3-MB report.

The report uses the unfortunate term “Billionaire’s Club” to describe the funders who give groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club Foundation millions of dollars a year. In fact, in most cases it would be more accurate to describe it as the “Dead Billionaire’s Club,” as most of the money comes from foundations set up by wealthy people who were often fairly conservative, but their foundations are now run by their liberal children and/or left-wing staffs.

One curious exception is a funder called the Sea Change Foundation. This foundation, which has remarkably little to say for itself on its web page, is run by Nathaniel Simons, a hedge-fund manager and son of a billionaire, and it gives more than $40 million per year to environmental groups, mostly for climate change issues. For some reason, he funnels much of his money through a phony Bermuda company that then donates it to the Sea Change Foundation. Whether this is because he is motivated by environmental idealism or because he is also an investor in companies that will benefit from restrictions on fossil fuel production is difficult to say.

Aside from the unfortunate Billionaire’s Club name, the new report is very believable to anyone familiar with the environmental movement today. The Antiplanner worked as a consultant to the nation’s leading environmental groups from 1974 to about 1993. For most of those years, a Republican was in the White House, and environmental groups funded themselves by sending out direct mailings saying, “Send us money and we’ll save the environment from James Watt” or whoever was the Republican demon of the year.

One benefit of this system was that the wide variety of environmental groups had a wide variety of funding sources, and this diversity led them to use a wide variety of tactics and take often conflicting positions on various issues. For example, the Antiplanner’s book, Reforming the Forest Service, which recommended that federal land management be turned over to market forces, was controversial within the movement but was generally well received by many national forest activists.

Everything changed when Bill Clinton was elected president. With a self-proclaimed environmentalist in the White House, donations to major environmental groups dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, a variety of foundations that had previously ignored environmental issues began taking an interest in funding environmental groups. Moreover, the foundations let it be known that they would only give to groups that had mutually agreed-upon goals and strategies, leading the movement to lose the diversity that made it strong and the tolerance for new ideas that led to better solutions to environmental problems.

I left the movement at that time and for those reasons, and it appears that it has only gotten even more dependent on foundations since then. It also gets lots of government money. The new report documents how environmental staffers get themselves appointed to positions in the Environmental Protection Agency and then use those positions to give government grants to the environmental groups they once worked for.

The report also detailed one case where a Dead Billionaire’s Foundation paid someone to work in the White House in order to lobby for more EPA regulations. Ironically, the foundation in this case was originally funded by the Rockefellers, yet the oil industry that earned their millions is now the chief target of the groups funded by their foundation.

When I hear that there is a “scientific consensus” on some issue or that there is strong grassroots support for some regulation, it now appears more likely that the consensus and support are found only among a narrow group of foundations and the environmental groups they fund. I know there are real environmental problems, but the problems they identify are often imaginary and the solutions they promote will almost always do more harm than good.

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About the Author:  Randal O’Toole is an American public policy analyst. The majority of O’Toole’s work has focused on private land rights, particularly against public land use regulations and light rail. Since 1995, he has been associated with the Cato Institute as an adjunct scholar and frequent anti-light rail campaigner. O’Toole was the McCluskey Visiting Fellowship for Conservation at Yale University in 1998, and has served as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and Utah State University. O’Toole studied economics at the University of Oregon. This post was originally published on O’Toole’s blog, The Antiplanner, and appears here with permission.