Union of Concerned Scientists Not Very Concerned With Accuracy

by Brian McGraw on June 7, 2012

in Blog, Features

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Ron Bailey of Reason took a closer look at one of the many reports out there written to discredit those organizations (and corporations) that remain skeptical of plans to dramatically scale back the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. What the report intended to insinuate was that corporations were hypocritical: they claimed to publicly support policies to combat climate change but privately gave money to those organizations whose aims were to undermine support for such policies. While I can certainly believe that some corporations will want to present a happy face to the public while also being more privately concerned with the impact new legislation has on their profitability, upon closer inspection the report wasn’t quite what it seemed:

In line with the findings of the UCS, the L.A. Times specifically declared, “General Electric has backed six environmental and non-partisan research groups that accept the scientific consensus on climate change, including the Brookings Institution and the Nature Conservancy. At the same time, it has funded four organizations that reject or question the consensus, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.” Based on the UCS report, The Guardian (U.K.) stated, “Some of America’s top companies are spending heavily to block action on climate change or discredit climate science, despite public commitments to sustainable and green values.” The Guardian specifically mentioned that UCS had identified General Electric as being two-faced about climate change. According to the UCS report, among the four GE-supported organizations that “misrepresent” climate-change science is the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

So what vast sums of money did the duplicitous executives at General Electric lavish on the Reason Foundation in 2008 and 2009 to support an implied campaign to traduce climate science? Exactly $325. How much did GE spend on matching and direct grants on the six think tanks identified by the UCS as being pro-climate consensus? That would be $497,744. At least with regard to General Electric’s contributions, it appears that the Union of Concerned Scientists has salted a follow-the-money trail with pieces of fool’s gold, which certain unwary news outlets obligingly picked up and reported as real bullion.

You can read the entire report here. It’s mostly documentation of various corporations and their perceived support or opposition towards climate change legislation. It separates groups into what seems to be “good” and “bad,” with most of the fossil fuel energy making the bad group.

The noteworthy part is the way in which the media swallowed the conclusions without doing any work of their own. Bailey points out that the only funding Reason received from General Electric was to the tune of roughly $300, and only because G.E. has a company wide policy that matches donations made by employees to groups like the Reason Foundation or the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The report didn’t mention that GE’s support was not actually corporate funding, but rather a very small match towards employee contributions. Keith Kloor offers sympathetic commentary.

What is also frustrating about the report is that it fails to realize or acknowledge that almost all of the corporations are acting in their own interest, and attempts to label some as acting in the public interest and others not acting in the public interest. The oil companies that jumped on the cap-and-trade bandwagon had a specific strategy in mind: water the bill down as much as possible so it doesn’t hurt so much. This is easier for oil companies because the entire globe is heavily reliant on oil and its not going anywhere anytime soon, carbon policy or not. It’s also easier for natural gas companies as the last few years have shown: very low natural gas prices along with stringent new regulations on coal plants have massively increased their share of electricity generation in the United States.

The corporations that fund pro-climate legislation groups are likely to benefit financially from a cap and trade bill. Do we really think General Electric doesn’t support massive government intervention into the economy which will increase demand for products they make? And why would Nike, a shoe/sporting goods company, have any interest in climate legislation at all? Well, they supported cap-and-trade because it would hurt their competitors who operate in the United States (like New Balance), while their factories are across the globe where coal is still beloved and cap-and-trade is at least decades away. But let’s place them in the “good steward of the Earth” category, because using the law to crush your competition while pretending to be altruistic is indeed a laudable goal.

Finally, the idea that General Electric supports CEI is laughable; we consistently criticize them (and more). We have even protested their inclusion at a conference hosted by one of our allies. Somehow that didn’t make it into the Los Angeles Times piece.

Thanks again to Ron for wading into weeds. I wish I was a fly on the wall when he called them on their nonsense:

Puzzled, I called up Dr. Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and director of its Scientific Integrity Program. She put me on speakerphone with her and the author of the report, Gretchen Goldman. I asked them if these minuscule donations were why GE was listed as a corporate supporter of the Reason Foundation. They answered yes. Seriously? Yes. They added that GE’s 990 forms did not disclose what the funds would be used for, darkly implying that the money might be directed to what the UCS might regard as climate disinformation campaigns.

In a memo (pdf) sent to me the next day (at my request), Grifo explained that the UCS did not have a threshold dollar amount for funds in their analysis. She added that GE’s 990 forms do not provide further information on the nature of these payments. But that is simply not true. The 990 forms clearly indicate to even the casual investigator that the payments are matching funds for employees’ donations, meaning that individual GE employees gave money, and the company matched it. (GE matching fund donations to the Union of Concerned Scientists for those same two years totaled $6,980, or 21 times more than was donated to the Reason Foundation.) Grifo’s memo does note that the UCS report admits “that because the details of these affiliations are not publicly available, we cannot directly link specific donations to climate-related activities.” Indeed not. But it appears that UCS nonetheless wanted credulous reporters to uncritically accept these vaguely-referenced payments as evidence of underhanded corporate influence.

Read the rest of his post here.



silver price June 20, 2012 at 4:22 am

Setting that accusation aside, going through the figures it turns out that the Union analysts were counting $325 in corporate matching funds for employee donations to Reason as damning evidence of corporate climate change hypocrisy. I called up Francesca Grifo, the UCS’ scientific intergrity officer, to ask her if the report was seriously counting those donations? She replied yes. By the way, it turns out that GE executives and employees had contributed $497,744 to the non-skeptical think tanks. To get the rest of the story read my column.

JohnFtLaud June 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Silver! Good follow up! Thanks! The house of cards is falling and that is making those that believe in AGW look foolish.

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