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How an Influx of Money is Changing the American West

Justin Farrell researches the dollars behind climate change denial and how wealth is impacting the environment.

how Justin Farrell in Teton County, Wyo. Photo courtesy of Justin Farrell.

Born in Wyoming, Yale professor Justin Farrell is a son of the West. As a child, he accompanied his mother when she cleaned houses for the wealthy, spent summers camping and fishing in Yellowstone Park, and listened to his elders complain about environmentalists, whom they blamed for regulations being imposed on longtime residents, and how the region was changing due to the influx of outsiders.

But he never imagined these experiences could lead to an academic career studying the influence of money on the environment. “I didn’t really realize it was an area of study until I got to graduate school, and I started in this PhD program at Notre Dame. I just followed my own interest,” he says. “It was baked into my family.”

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After receiving a master’s degree in the sociology of religion from Princeton in 2006, Farrell began his PhD research on the money behind climate change denial, which has become a field of academic pursuit at several universities.

“Thinking about power relations relative to the coal industry in Wyoming got me thinking more about climate change, and how corporate power works, and how manipulation of the public works,” he says. “That’s what led me to some of the climate denial research that I’ve been doing.”

Farrell, now an associate professor of sociology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was one of several experts who recently testified about the money behind climate change denial before a Senate Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.

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Worth talked with Farrell about his research, as well as his forthcoming book, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West, which will be published by Princeton University Press in March.

Farrell with daughter Ruby in Teton County, Wyo. Photo courtesy of Justin Farrell

Q: Can you describe the strategy of climate change deniers? 

A: The whole purpose of infusing money into this movement was to create what appeared to be a scientifically credible network of think tanks and research organizations in order to confuse the average person that climate change is a hoax. Or maybe it is happening, but humans aren’t the cause, that it’s not because we’ve been burning fossil fuels.

Then spread that message across all the different platforms, whether it’s talk radio, mainstream newspapers or cable news. Then people couldn’t really decipher between what was trusted science, because climate deniers had their own quote-unquote experts pushing out information, pushing out essentially fake studies, so people couldn’t tell the difference between what was propaganda and what was trusted science from the climate science community. Now 97 percent or even more of climate scientists know that climate change is happening, and it has dire consequences.

Do you have any sense of how much money has been spent on this effort?

We don’t know precisely. We do know that advocacy groups and think tanks have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars. We do know that opponents of climate action spent over $2 billion lobbying against climate action between 2000 and 2016. These were fossil fuel companies, transportation corporations, utilities and their trade associations. They outspent environmental and renewable energy lobbying by a ratio of 10 to one. It’s such an uneven playing field. They have so much money.

Donor-directed philanthropy, which is hidden philanthropy that is legal, tops more than $100 million.

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How does that work?

There are two very famous ones that are connected to the Koch family foundation: Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. You give them money, tell them where to give it, they handle it, like a middleman, then they give it out. There’s no way to see really where it goes and who it came from.

Then you have funding to political campaigns, which again, maybe Exxon gives money to a campaign, or their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, does.

For me, the outcome is very clear. It has been immensely successful.

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Why is it so important to Exxon to debunk climate change? Is it an existential threat to them?

Fossil fuel companies knew about the effect of their product. They knew that the global temperatures would rise; it’s in their internal documents, which is coming out in lawsuits. They knew that policies to stop it could cripple their industry. If we stop leasing oil and gas on public lands, it really can hurt their bottom line.

Their job is to try to maximize their profits, at the expense of whatever’s in their path, even if that’s the earth and its inhabitants. That’s how they stopped any sort of meaningful action from happening.

Companies like Exxon also talk about their green initiatives—what they are doing for the environment. What is that about?

It’s almost like a second phase of climate denial. On their website, they’ll acknowledge climate change. Exxon has several ads running that make it appear like they’re concerned about transitioning to cleaner energy, when they’re still buying leases to drill. It’s essentially a propaganda campaign; they’re still creating this Republican firewall against any sort of meaningful action. They belong to trade associations that do all the dirty work for them.

Is it difficult to track the money?

Yes. We know the money is there and we’re able to track it almost just in aggregate. You have more data available from the ’80s, the ’90s that you can get your hands on. You can create this web of influence, to understand how it’s working.

Is Exxon the biggest contributor?

Exxon is the most influential over a 30-year span. Early on, they were providing donations to many organizations, dozens that I know of.

How has this impacted public policies?

In some ways, the Trump administration is the culmination of this whole movement, which was modeled after the tobacco strategy in terms of confuse the public, mislead the public, deny the harm of your product. For tobacco, it was cancer. This time it was climate change.

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The Trump administration appointed one of the most well-known climate denial actors, Myron Ebell, to head the transition team for the EPA.

Have the policies gotten worse?

In some ways they have. The Trump administration has also been able to block any meaningful action on climate change and co-opt the entire Republican party and its supporters, to genuinely doubt the climate science, and to doubt the elites who are quote-unquote pushing it.

Tell me about your new book, Billionaire Wilderness. It seems to be moving beyond your research on funding for climate change denial. What are you trying to do with this book?

In a lot of ways, this book is on the same topic—looking at immense wealth and the environment, and that relationship, and the role of power, the role of money and in some ways the role of creating the appearance of goodwill.

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I wanted to look at the intimate individual experiences of ultra wealthy people. They like to hike, they like to fish, they like to ski. I wanted to dig into that class of people, how they think about nature. Even if they were in certain finance industries that are investing in fossil fuels or work for fossil fuel companies, they do care about the earth. I was really interested in how they use nature to solve these dilemmas, whether it is guilt about having that much money, or maybe guilt about the industry in which they worked.

How did you get access to this group of people?

I was able to leverage Yale’s name in a way that would appeal to these people. And being born in Wyoming, I appealed to them because I was this authentic Westerner. I had this cachet as a Yale professor, but I also had this cachet of authenticity. I found that they really wanted to be a normal person.

Why focus on a specific county in Wyoming?    

It’s the richest county in the country. It’s also the county, because it’s the richest, that has the biggest gap between the rich and the poor.

What draws the wealthy there, as opposed to someplace else?

Two things. They’ll say, “It’s beautiful” and “I needed to get away from Wall Street; I needed to get away from Greenwich, Connecticut, where all people do is talk about their work. I needed to become a more authentic person and connect with nature, connect with rural ways of life and just slow down.”

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Also, Wyoming also doesn’t have an income tax, and the corporate taxes are low. It’s just insanely financially beneficial to live there.

Do they view themselves as environmentally conscious?

Yes, but it often has to do with their own properties, or saving the moose in their neighborhood or the stream quality behind their house, rather than climate change or larger and more important environmental issues. There are not going to be any moose around if you don’t start dealing with climate change.

Where do they stand politically?

I would say they probably lean to the right a little bit, but I talked to progressives. Those folks would talk about climate change.

I have a whole chapter on guilt. I think the burden that they feel most are these social stigmas about having so much wealth, and that’s where they really appropriate rural culture. That was the thing that shocked me. I didn’t go into this project thinking that they’re trying to put on cowboy boots and think that they’re normal, but it just kept coming up over and over.

Are they harming the environment?

I went to a lot of their homes, which is just gilded consumption, and these ultra-exclusive enclaves, private clubs, that leave a footprint in that area like the Yellowstone Club. Bill Gates is a member and Eric Schmidt from Google, and they own a whole mountain.

It’s a skiing resort for just for a couple hundred people. Locals cannot go there. The effect there is on the local landscape, and in some ways on the national parks. It starts to abut up against those.

Do you think that Yellowstone Club should be closed down or open to the public?

That’s a tough question. I do think the amount of land they have is a moral issue. Within our current political system, I don’t know how you say, “You can’t have that,” but morally, I think it’s wrong.

Are the wealthy people you interviewed going to take umbrage at what you write in the book?

I’ve received some blowback and some threats. No one’s issued me any sort of legal documents, but there have been people who have emailed me to say how dare I pry into their lives, they’re already under the microscope, they deserve privacy—even though I used pseudonyms throughout the book.

The Yellowstone Club contacted me; they thought that I stole a member list.

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Did you steal a member list?

No. I got the members from public real estate records. If you have a house in this certain boundary, you’re in the club.

One of the most popular articles ever published by Worth was called “How to Buy a Ranch.” What do you say to those readers?

That’s fascinating. It reinforces my findings. There’s nothing wrong with buying a ranch. But be attuned to the local issues. It’s about how you engage with folks who have been there for several generations and how you might engage with local environmental groups.

It’s also about larger political issues relative to climate change. A lot of areas in the West are being ravaged by climate change. Connect your local slice of paradise with environmental harm writ large and with rural poverty.

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