The real issues behind Locke's crusade against climate policy

The Institute's special report released this week -- exposing the NC-based John Locke Foundation's crusade against state climate policy, and the corporate interests backing them -- continues to rage on.

See, for example, the spirited discussion over at Ed Cone's blog. Once you get past the odd food-fight debate tactics -- like John Hood of the Locke Foundation trying to link us to Fidel Castro (huh?) -- there's a useful debate developing about the importance of disclosing one's funders, and the role financial backers play in shaping politics.

There's more coverage over at NC Public Radio's policy blog Isaac Hunter's Tavern, although writer Laura Leslie bypasses these key issues and focuses on one narrow aspect of the study:

What's missing from the [Institute for Southern Studies] report is the fact that JLF took in somewhere north of $8.5 million in that timeframe. That puts the allegedly oil-tainted money at less than 1.5 percent of its budget, which would be a fire-sale price for a major policy position.

Leslie is overlooking the central thrust of our report, which is about disclosure: the fact that the John Locke Foundation has publicly gone after the Center for Climate Strategies for taking money from "environmentalist foundations" -- which, in Locke's eyes, undermines the credibility of the entire operation -- yet it has taken a series of steps to obscure and conceal many of its own funders.

Yesterday, my colleague Sue Sturgis elaborated on several ways in which the Locke Foundation has been less than forthcoming with such information. When Locke is so secretive and disingenuous about their funding -- and other issues like their sponsorship of the Climate Strategies Watch website, their connection to the Heartland Institute, etc. -- the question looms: what are they trying to hide?

Second, in our report we clearly note that there are other corporate interests that give money to Locke who have an interest in defeating global warming legislation, beyond the $126,000 in energy-related funding. We devote two paragraphs to Art Pope -- far and away Locke's leading backer -- and explain why he also has a "dog in the fight" of defeating energy regulations. Further down, we note both the energy industry AND automotive industry money tied to Sen. Robert Pittenger, Locke's leading advocate for defeating climate policy in the NC legislature.

Finally, does it really make sense to measure the impact and influence of corporate contributions to an outfit like Locke in terms of the percentage of its annual budget? The history of politics is filled with seemingly small contributions that exert a major influence; for example, deposed North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black received only $8,000 from video poker PACs in 2004 (pdf) -- a miniscule percentage of his total haul -- but it was symbolic of a relationship that was central to his operation (and downfall).

My quick estimate is that roughly 5-10% of the Locke Foundation's overall program relates to climate issues -- which means that $126,000 of money tied to energy interests isn't small at all. It's at least enough to bankroll one in-house climate skeptic "expert" -- even if this "expert" happens to occasionally fall for hoaxes published in non-existent science journals.

But such percentages really don't tell a useful story. A better question to ask might be, if energy interests really thought their contributions weren't having any impact in shaping the policy direction of anti-regulation think tanks like Locke, why would they keep making them?

Big Energy and other corporate interests are not giving John Hood money because of his good looks. As the Union of Concerned Scientists report we cite and others have documented, energy companies have devised a thoughtful, national strategy to help defeat efforts to curb global warming pollutants. This includes investing money in think tanks who will make the needed arguments -- largely based on scant evidence -- that global warming doesn't exist, that regulations will destroy the economy, etc.

The energy companies, shrewd strategists that they are, clearly think they are getting something for this investment -- and I think they'd know best.

The fact that Locke goes to such great lengths to conceal its relationship to this larger effort only bolsters the case that Big Energy and other corporate interests are putting money into the John Locke Foundation for a reason. That's the central point to remember.