Anyone making constructive criticism of climate change mitigation policy faces an uphill battle, says The Scientific Alliance.
Last week’s newsletter – Carbon dioxide, pollution and energy policy – quoted from a recent article posted on the Carbon Brief website: Analysis: UK carbon emissions fell 6% in 2016 after record drop in coal use. Carbon Brief (tag line ‘Clear on climate’) nails its colours to the mast quite clearly by featuring stories reinforcing the still-dominant narrative of impending dangerous, anthropogenic climate change and the need to take urgent action.
Their stated purpose suggests a degree of objectivity. On the ‘about us’ page of the website, we read “Carbon Brief is a UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy. We specialise in clear, data-driven articles and graphics to help improve the understanding of climate change, both in terms of the science and the policy response.” However, the director and editor is Leo Hickman, previously of the Guardian and ex-chief advisor on climate change to WWF-UK. They are unlikely to publish anything that even hints at questioning the party line.
This is a professional operation, with a well-designed website and a team of seven employees, supported by a number of eminent academics (plus Peter Stott, acting director of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Science) as editorial consultants. None of this is cheap, and Carbon Brief declare that they are funded by the European Climate Foundation to the tune of over £400,000 (in the tax year 2015/16).
Which of course, raises the question of what exactly this foundation is and, if it funds this activity in the UK, what does it do in other member states? Its vision is clear: “A low-carbon society for prosperity and energy security”. “The European Climate Foundation (ECF) – a ‘foundation of foundations’ – was established in early 2008 as a major philanthropic initiative to help Europe foster the development of a low-carbon society and play an even stronger international leadership role to mitigate climate change”.
Its key components of the vision are
- Supporting the development of a low-carbon society
- Staying below 2°C of warming relative to pre-industrial levels
- Balancing climate protection, energy security and economic growth
This ‘foundation of foundations’ has offices in The Hague (19 staff), Brussels (25 staff), Berlin (16 staff), London (13 staff), Paris (5 staff) and Warsaw (4 staff) plus five employees in Turkey and elsewhere. It lists 14 funders on its website, including the Grantham Foundation (UK), the KR Foundation (whose chair, ex-commissioner Connie Hedegaard, is on the board), the ClimateWorks Foundation (US), the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (UK), the McCall MacBain Foundation (Switzerland), Villum Fonden (Denmark) and the Dutch National Postcode Lottery.
According to the 2015 annual report, the ECF made 349 grants totalling €25.6 million to 204 grantees, including the Carbon Market Initiative, Carbon Market Watch, the Institute of Environmental Economics, Friends of the Earth Europe and WWF. The total programme costs were €34 million, with €4.8 million going on administration and in-house projects. Without going into the details of the projects, these clearly involve lobbying and spreading the word. The ECF is also part of the ClimateWorks Foundation network, which works ‘to stimulate climate-related policy work worldwide’.
ClimateWorks itself is a charitable body that in 2025 distributed $68 million in grants (and $115 million the previous year). It coordinates the funding activities of some large private donors: “ClimateWorks helps philanthropic donors who share a deep commitment to addressing global climate change work together more closely and more effectively.” I could go further into their activities, but the point is that there is some serious money going into a network of organisations to push the message on climate change.
For those working in this bubble, questioning the orthodoxy is essentially taboo. The European Climate Foundation doubtless has an open door to key influencers in the Commission and Parliament, who themselves are virtually all committed to the cause. Senior staff in other European capitals will also have the ear of government ministers and top officials.
There is nothing remotely like this on the sceptical side of the argument. For all we hear about the influence of Big Oil, funding for those who want to air other views is scant. Probably the biggest single contributor from the critical side is the Heartland Institute. Their latest annual report declares funding of $4.7 million in 2015, with expenditure of $6.3 million. Thirty per cent of this went on running costs and fundraising, leaving maybe $4.5 million to spend on a range of issues, of which climate change is but one (Heartland is a free market, libertarian think tank, not a single-issue group). This is less than the running costs of the ECF alone.
This is in one country. In other countries, those trying to redress the balance of the one-sided ‘debate’ are either volunteers or receive funding much smaller than even a single website such as Carbon Brief. The surprising thing is that sceptical voices are heard at all, given the resources aligned against them, compounded by editorial policies in some major media outlets (with the BBC as a prime example) who consider the matter closed.
In face of this situation, we might wonder why it is even worth trying to put forward alternative points of view. Fortunately, human nature is such that many people are prepared to fight to have their voice heard rather than see countless billions of taxpayers’ money going on projects that have little if any chance of success.
And things do change. If realisation grows that continued expansion of renewable energy programmes such as Germany’s energiewende in its present form or the UK’s usage of imported wood pellets to generate electricity are costly blind alleys, policies may begin to shift. There is also the unknown global impact of the new American administration’s intention to roll back the country’s climate change mitigation policies. But for now, it behoves us to continue to speak truth to power.
The Scientific Alliance
St John’s Innovation Centre
Cambridge CB4 0WS
Cambridge Network does not endorse the content that members contribute and this posting may be seen as contentious
A membership-based organisation which works to promote a rational, evidence-based approach to environmental issues.