Politics & Government

N.C. conservative group dinged for alleged climate change ‘denial’

An influential politically conservative group in North Carolina has been lumped in with others nationwide accused by some U.S. Senate Democrats of being in a fossil fuel industry-funded “web of denial” over climate change.

In an effort to push environmental policies, 19 Democratic senators, including recent presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, took to the Senate floor this week with a resolution saying industry-backed groups are intentionally misleading the public on climate change effects.

In floor speeches, Democrats named the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation and 47 other groups, categorizing them as being part of a campaign to block policies that would help the environment but hamper fossil fuel business. They compared the industry’s activities to past efforts by tobacco companies and lead manufacturers to mask public health concerns about their products.

Led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the cadre of senators blasted climate change “denial,” saying companies that make money from traditional energy resources like fossil fuels hope to advance their business interest by blocking environmental protection measures. Whitehouse has long championed sustainable energy investments and has repeatedly called for federal legislation to address global warming and climate change.

Whitehouse accused the 48 groups – including some major corporations, media outlets and research organizations – of trying to “fool the public about the risk of climate change.” Those entities, he said, “provide talking points to right-wing talk radio” and “take advantage of a lazy media's impulse to offer both sides of the story even when one is false.”

The John Locke Foundation is a research organization primarily funded by a foundation run by Art Pope, a major donor to conservative causes.

The criticism drew a pointed response from North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. Burr and Tillis’ congressional spokespeople told the Carolina Journal, a publication operated by the John Locke Foundation, that Democrats involved are attempting to curtail free speech.

The John Locke Foundation is a public policy research organization that receives much of its funding from a foundation led by Art Pope, a major donor to conservative causes. Energy and environmental policies aren’t central to the foundation’s current activities, a spokesman for the organization said this week.

So, why was the North Carolina group name-dropped?

Spokesman Mitch Kokai told McClatchy on Friday the foundation was singled out because of its opposition to a 2007 North Carolina law setting renewable energy standards. The standards require large electricity providers to use more renewable energy and have helped make North Carolina third in the nation in solar-energy capacity.

Renewable energy is more costly for consumers and businesses, Kokai said. The John Locke Foundation, he said, scrutinized the legislation because supporters were using climate change as the justification for increased regulation and costs. Although the average N.C. resident’s utility bill hasn’t increased since then, Kokai says the standards have upped expenses and those have been offset by cost savings due to the increased use of fracking.

Generally, he said, the John Locke Foundation provided research to state lawmakers that contradicts or questions the “orthodox” thinking on climate change and how much humans have influenced global warning.

“We’ve never argued that there’s no such thing as climate change,” he said. But, “there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what’s causing various things to happen with the climate.”

On the charge from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and others this week that the North Carolina foundation and similar groups have taken money from the fossil fuel industry in exchange for casting doubt on prevailing climate change views, Kokai said the John Locke Foundation does not make public its list of donors.

But, he said, given the group’s focus on state-level issues like government spending, transportation and education – not specifically global warming – “you can probably anticipate that very little money would be coming from energy related industry.”

“We don’t reveal our donors because we want to respect their privacy,” Kokai said.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews